In the rocket zone, school is the last bastion of normalcy

Students from Sderot area advise their counterparts in Ashkelon: Take 'Color Red' alerts seriously, but keep living your lives.

The schools in the Gaza periphery are holding their own in the face of the unending rain of explosions from the sky. Teachers teach and students study, yet subtle and not so subtle changes shape each day. The most prominent feature on school grounds is not the basketball court or the soccer field, it is the fortified shelter. Many schools have received red-roofed secure rooms that formerly served the residents of Gush Katif. Smaller concrete shelters dot the campuses near where students get dropped off and wherever a reinforced room is not within close running distance. On bad days, movement narrows to quick walks between shelters. "We go from shelter to shelter," Sha'ar Hanegev School geography teacher and World ORT innovation coordinator Zohar Nir Levi told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday as she pointed to the shelters. "Last week, when the Kassams were falling all the time, I was taking a bunch of students from the bus to the school and a Color Red warning alert went off. We were too far away, so we just threw ourselves down in the field and hoped for the best. I was thinking about how to choose which of the nine kids to throw myself on top of if a rocket fell." That is the reality into which schools like Sha'ar Hanegev, Shikma and others in Sderot, and now perhaps in Ashkelon, can be plunged with barely a moment's notice. Sha'ar Hanegev, on the campus of Sapir Academic College (which lost a student to a Kassam last week) and Shikma at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai have been in the path of the Kassams since the beginning. Despite the threat, they have managed to carve out a semblance of normalcy through sheer determination. Sha'ar Hanegev stopped using its laboratories for much of the year because they were not protected. Classroom windows that face Gaza have to remain closed at all times. And it is constructing a new, fortified building to replace the too small shelters that now serve as classrooms. The teachers come prepared to teach; concerned parents sometimes keep kids home. "Last week, we had a 70 percent truancy rate. Parents were afraid to send their kids by bus because of the Kassams," Nir Levi told the Post. "Some kids come from out of Kassam range, into range here at school. Now, though, we are at 100% attendance again." Sha'ar Hanegev High School principal Aharon Rothstein took a philosophical approach. "Every decade for the last 60 years, the war moves from front to front around Israel. It is our turn now. The only difference is that now instead of being considered a hero standing on the front lines, maybe you are a sucker instead," Rothstein said in his office, the only unfortified place in use at the school. "It is good that in Jerusalem they don't understand what we are going through. Why should they? They were the front 10 years ago. But they should identify with us. We are at war and they should understand that. Those in Tel Aviv should understand that this is their border we are on here," he declared. Anat Trivaks, who runs the middle school and is also an World ORT innovation coordinator, demurred. "There has actually been a lot of solidarity from other schools around the country. They've come here, invited us to go there," she said. Rothstein also had harsh words for the government. "There is a sense here that the leadership doesn't see us. Not the regular guy in Tel Aviv - he feels insecure because we are insecure. No prior government ever said there was no solution. We are not generals here and that is good, but to say there is no solution?!" Politics aside, Rothstein drew a parallel between plowing a field back and forth until the very last furrow and the role of the school. "We are that last furrow. We provide normalcy. Parents can't go to work if the kids are not in school. We try to live normal life as much as possible," he said. To try to achieve that normalcy, the school has a strong network of psychological professionals who come to talk to the kids. They also talk about stress relief methods in class. "We do exercises where I will ask: how do you deal with stressful situations? Water, food, calling mom, Internet. It helps other kids find new ways to relieve stress. Every kid has permission, no matter what is happening, to call their parents or to get calls from their parents after every Color Red alert," Nir Levi said. At the nearby Shikma School, there's a relaxation corner where kids can go and hang out. The students have also painted their concrete mini-shelters. One girl even made her final art project inside one of them, said Ofra Halperin, deputy principal and ORT technology coordinator. Despite all the stress, the area's test scores have held steady, and even improved since last year, an Education Ministry spokeswoman said. The students do get extra time to take the tests, and if a Kassam hits they take that into account, but the schools have not slipped below country-wide norms. Students at the Shikma School, veterans of Kassam attacks both at home and at school, had succinct advice for their newly initiated counterparts in Ashkelon. Itai Volkovich and Yael Livni agreed, "They shouldn't just take the Kassams for granted, they should be careful, but they shouldn't let them disrupt their lives." The two 11th-grade boys turned from their computer lesson to assure the Post that they had no intention of running away, and neither did their parents. "All of our lives are here," Volkovich said. Ninth-grader Lior exhibited more anxiety but was also more resigned than panicked. "It's not so nice," she said with vast understatement. "I worry about whether it'll hit someone I know or damage someone's house." She advised the kids of Ashkelon, "Don't mock it, and don't say it won't fall on me. Don't expose yourself during a Color Red warning. Continue doing everything you normally do, but with more caution." Both Halperin and Rothstein were able to look past the troubles to imagine a better school in the future. They have great plans for their schools and Kassam rockets won't stand in their way forever. Nir Levi said Sha'ar Hanegev had been a leading school before the Kassams forced it to abandon some rooms and turn computer labs into classrooms. Rothstein is determined to recapture that status. "We want to become the best education system in the country," Rothstein declared. "It's easier to deal with the current situation when you have hope for the future."