A learning experience

'In Jerusalem' takes a look at how Nir Barkat's policies are being implemented in city's schools.

leyada school 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
leyada school 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Everything was ready to launch a promising new academic year: The hard work invested on education issues at Kikar Safra over the past 10 months was expected by all parties involved to allow for a particularly upbeat opening of the school year. It didn't happen, due to the strike launched by the municipal employees committee on September 1. The strike, whose grounds were not at all connected to the educational system, included even the special education stream. Besides disrupting the routine of the municipality and so many of the city's residents, one of its effects was the cancellation of any festive activities in the school system (apart from the involvement of President Shimon Peres, who showed up to help kids cross the streets), and the only smiles around were those on young pupils' faces, happy to gain a few extra days off. But the strike was soon brought to an end, and the first school year under Mayor Nir Barkat's baton began. In the mayor's circle, as well as in many local schools, this year is considered critical. Barkat is launching what many around him call a revolution in the education system. And since he has boldly decided to take on the education portfolio, its success - or failure - will have a tremendous impact on his leadership. The first step in Barkat's vision on education is to abolish the quotas for pupils from outside the city, as well as abolishing the catchment areas, thus allowing pupils to freely select the school of their choice. Barkat also has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve in terms of higher education - for example, his project to turn Jerusalem into an academic city, which would become an attractive location for students from around the country. But as far as the network of municipal schools is concerned, the mayor will not only have to convince the public that his plans will not create too much chaos in the system but also quell the apprehensions of neighborhood activists, who fear that the outcome of his plans might strike another blow to the weaker pupils in the city, who won't be able to compete with the strong pupils from wealthy backgrounds in the prestigious institutions. BARKAT BELIEVES that in education, preparing students to be part of a modern, successful generation - the kind this city desperately needs - oone must strive for excellence. With more than 230,000 pupils, Jerusalem's school system is the largest in the country. As such, it has the status of a district according to the Education Ministry. It is also the most complex - and most delicate - in the country. It includes four streams: state schools; state religious schools; the haredi independent sector (called official but unrecognized); and the Arab system (including both a public and a private system). The figures indicate a steady rise in the number of haredi and Arab pupils, though according to Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) researchers, there are some slight indications of a change. This year, for the second time in a row, the number of pupils registered in the secular public stream is not dropping as it did for the previous 12 years. The 230,000 pupils of the city are divided as follows: 91,000 in the haredi stream, not including an unknown number of pupils in the Yiddish haredi system (Eda Haredit and such); 100,000 in the public sector, which includes 29,245 in the secular public system, 26,510 in the religious public system, and 44,245 in the Arab public sector. There are also some 40,000 Arab pupils registered in Arab private schools. Jerusalem also has the highest number of private schools. According to the municipality's spokesman, all the public high schools in the city, both secular and religious, are "recognized but not official." These are schools that teach according to the Education Ministry's curriculum and programs but add a variety of programs and conditions. Although education is free in Israel, these schools demand additional and sometimes very high tuition fees. For example, pupils at the Academy for Music and Dance are required to pay as much as NIS 12,000 per year, and many other schools cost around NIS 6,000 a year per student. But the major factor that influences the school system in the city is not pedagogical or financial: It is the demographics of the city that determines the new limits of the different streams every year, often creating tensions among the various communities. One of the ugliest aspects of this ongoing battle, especially between the haredi and the public streams, is the war over school buildings. The handing over of emptying schools in the secular public stream to haredi institutions has given rise to numerous cases of tension and accusations, such as the haredization of the city. IT TOOK Barkat less than two months to begin to implement his comprehensive program, which is aimed largely at the state and state-religious streams. The first step was to put an end to the relative advantage that pupils who do not live in Jerusalem had over local pupils in being able to register at the best institutions. "It is incredible but true," Barkat explained at one of his pre-election rallies, "but in order to be sure that your children will be accepted at one of the best schools in Jerusalem, one has to leave the city. So in fact, those who add their part to the deterioration of the demographics [by adding to the numbers of those who leave the city each year] have a much bigger advantage than those who stay here. This is insane and has to stop." As strange as it may sound, that had been the reality until now. For decades, a system of quotas has prevailed in the city's junior high and high schools, according to which a fixed number of places were reserved for pupils from the areas outside Jerusalem. The idea behind this was that the education department could control the spread of pupils across all the schools to prevent a situation in which some schools would be preferred over others. But the result was that the upper-middle-class families were able to leave the city for the surrounding towns - like Mevaseret Zion and Modi'in - since it didn't jeopardize their children's chances of enrolling in the best schools in the city. "The strong families, which Jerusalem needs so badly, were in fact told, 'You can leave; it won't affect your children's educational needs.' And so they left behind them an impoverished city, and I mean to put an end to this situation," concluded Barkat at the rally. The quotas were indeed abolished this year. It was not easy for all the principals in the city to admit it, though no open rebellion has been registered. "There is no question about the good intentions and the commitment of this mayor," remarks a high-ranking employee in the school system, "but still, it created a very different frame of mind. In fact, this is the result of his outlook as a hi-tech businessman and liberal person." "It's not that I am against the mayor's plan," adds Ahinoam Sinai, a teacher at one of the high schools in the city and chairwoman of the parents' association of the Shlomo Elyashar Elementary School in Kiryat Hayovel. "It's just that I am not sure that it won't harm the friendly local junior high and high schools we have here, which are not all so prestigious. I have already witnessed the closure of a school - the ORT Nevi'im high school. It was heartbreaking. It happened not because it was such a bad school but because others were more attractive, and pupils who could afford it just quit. And it is also an issue of means. What will parents who cannot afford the high tuition of those prestigious schools do - remain with the second best? Is that the best way to reduce gaps between rich and poor?" The abolition of the quotas was seen as a real threat against the current system. "It eradicated any degree of control over the system, and there was a real fear that it would bring about the closure of some less successful schools in order to feed the most prestigious. But so far this hasn't happened - at least not on a significant scale," says the school official. According to the new rules, Jerusalem residents have priority in enrolling at the schools they and their parents choose. Those who have decided to live outside the city have no other choice but to wait for available places. One of the things that raised concern within the education department, at the municipality and at the Education Ministry, was the fear that less prestigious schools would become a kind of left-over for less capable and less wealthy pupils. "I do not share the mayor's vision, but I acknowledge that this is his agenda and the major reason behind his decision to run for mayor and that he was elected on those issues," remarks Ronny Harnick, principal of the Seligsberg School in East Talpiot. "I know the premise of this neoliberal capitalist system: If the strong become stronger, they will bring the weak with them, and it will ultimately be good for all. Well, I personally don't believe in this. I believe that it is the task of the authorities - the state and the municipality, for instance - to strengthen those who need it. In my school, 80 percent of our senior students have graduated with diplomas. And you know why? Because we have the strongest pupils together with the average and the weakest. Which doesn't mean that we shouldn't, as a society, give full support and encouragement to the best pupils. It's just that I don't buy this equation of either with the strong or with the weak." "The educational system we have here is excellent. I know the trend is to say that we have no education and no good pupils and so on. But it's just not true," says David Gal, principal of the prestigious Rehavia Gymnasia. "I believe in this city. That's why I am here and don't plan to leave until my dying day. I know they say that people leave here because they feel they don't have a good enough education for their children, but I don't think it's true. Perhaps it works as a slogan for some people, but in reality I don't think that is the situation. What is true is that we have a very complex system, a very special population - we have religious, haredim, Arabs - you won't find that in any other city in the country, and certainly not in such numbers. But what we need here are people who are capable of working with some fire in their eyes, not just to 'do a job.' "We need people who are ready to work with passion and a sense of mission. And, of course, it also means encouraging and supporting the needs of very capable pupils, not just the weakest. I believe that what the education system can give to the pupils is crucially important in terms of building our society: the values required for a meaningful army service, the values of Zionism - we don't have another country; to prepare our youth to do moral and virtuous army service. It all starts at school. I know this is the mayor's attitude too, and I appreciate that very much. And I appreciate the fact that he took on the education portfolio. That is much more important than a change in rules here or there or that we need extra funding. Of course, money is important, but the human element is even more important." ONE OF Barkat's plans to create a balance between the demand for prestigious schools and the neighborhood public schools is to establish branches in the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. "Barkat came up with this idea because he didn't want to be accused of neglecting the needs of the underprivileged. But after a short time, it became clear to him that this was not a viable solution," recalls the education department employee. "If something is successful, why shouldn't we duplicate it?" asked candidate Barkat during his campaign. For the moment, this possibility is still under consideration. But all agree that demographics will continue to be a major issue when it comes to scholastic achievement. "For the past six years there has been a steady rise in the state religious stream; whereas in the secular state stream, after 13 years of declining registration we are witnessing an increase in registration in the kindergartens," says Dr. Maya Choshen of the JIIS. "We see trends that indicate what we will see in a few years. If you have a drop in kindergarten enrollment in a given year, you will find it later in elementary school enrollment and even after in junior high, unless of course, we have a sudden wave of immigration in the city," continues Choshen. "I would take as a basis the compulsory year of kindergarten to evaluate the trends." She says that the coming registration period, January and February, will provide a realistic idea of how much Barkat's election has impacted negative migration. "We know that last year, following Barkat's election, there were quite a few parents who were on the verge of leaving but decided to wait and give it a try. It was too early to decide for good, but there was a kind of atmosphere that people felt they should wait and see. Now comes the real test: Are these people going to change course and stay? Will it become more and more shared by more parents? We'll see soon enough." Choshen is a member of the newly created council for education set up by Barkat upon assuming his position. "This is a serious venue," says Choshen. "Both Barkat and the high-ranking employees of the education department attend these meetings ready and well prepared. The atmosphere is polite, open to the public, the dates for the meetings are published on the municipal Web site, and lots of residents attend and participate. The protocols are quickly published, available to all, and the participants who register to talk receive a very respectful ear. On one occasion, Barkat told a father who obviously had some difficulties speaking in public, 'Take your time; we are here for you and not the contrary' - which is something nobody recalls having heard here," she says. Regarding the fear that beyond all the serious and respectful attitude of Barkat's administration there is still a desire to promote only private schools, Choshen recalls: "We all know what the mayor's position is on these issues. But on more than one occasion, he nevertheless felt the need to clarify that his intention is to give full support to public schools, which he considers a service to the residents. As such, he is committed that municipal funding will go there first." A spokesman for Barkat says, "I see vital importance in changing the way the educational system is being handled, from a monopolistic one to a shared administration. In the past, the municipality imposed limitations and quotas for registration through a narrow political attitude that imposed a glass ceiling on the schools that were most in demand. The quotas didn't take into consideration the needs of the pupils and gave advantages to pupils who do not live in Jerusalem. I believe that the municipality should listen to the residents and treat them as clients - and with efficiency, allowing them free choice of schools. Giving advantage to the local pupils is also a way to combat emigration from the city. Regarding additional plans, we are considering and consulting educational and professional elements in the Education Ministry, including surveys and research, in order to continue improving the city's educational system."