Cityfront: School's out?

The superintendent of Shuafat's Jerusalem School is clashing with the Parents' Association over a proposed relocation to the other side of the checkpoint.

It's 7:30 a.m. and another day in the life of the hundreds of children who make the journey to school in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat. Locals walk by foot while others compete with the rush hour traffic in their parents' cars or the green and white minibuses that serve many of Jerusalem's Arab communities. But if plans come to pass to relocate the Jerusalem School, one of the most prestigious in the area, then its 440 students could face a harder ride to class each day. Last month, parents of children at the school, also known as the American School, learned that it is considering relocating from its current site on busy Derech Shuafat, which runs parallel east to Route 60 between French Hill and Pisgat Ze'ev, a few kilometers away to Dahiyat al-Barid. Although the alternative site, slated for St Anthony's Coptic College, is a short distance from the current site, it is located on the other side of a checkpoint. The proposed changes are set to take place from the start of the next school term in September, and parents are concerned that their children, who come from as far as Abu Ghosh, will have to cross the checkpoint twice each day to travel to school and back. "None of us wants our children to have to pass the soldiers each day and be subject to their mood or to security alerts when checkpoints close and no one can go in or out," says Hani Alami, a member of the Jerusalem School Parents Association. Alami says that two months ago children were stuck at the Rosary Sisters Girls School in A-Ram, which lies past the same checkpoint, until late into the evening when the checkpoint was closed unexpectedly. Shabli Nazeeh, a biomedical engineer whose two daughters travel from Beit Safafa, on the opposite side of the city, isn't happy about the changes either. "It will be much more difficult for children to come to school and they will have to see soldiers every day carrying weapons." But the frustration of parents stems, not just from the move, but from an overall lack of communication between school officials and parents, including a boycott of the Parents Association by the school. "The Parent's Association aspires for dialogue and to engage with the school officials in taking decisions for the benefit of the children," says Carol Kasbari, who moved to Shuafat from Nazareth to work for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). "Excluding parents from the decision-making concerning their children is a violation of the regulations of the Ministry of Education," wrote the Parents Association in a circular. Despite their complaints, parents are determined to keep their children at the Jerusalem School, whose curriculum is largely in English and in a more secular environment relative to other schools. Most of the students at the private school come from middle-class, educated Arab families, as well as some children of foreign workers at NGOs or diplomatic missions, some of whom feel they have no other choice if they want their children to receive a good education. "There is nowhere else to go because it is the only school all in English. But it's not just the language; it's the quality of the education too. You can't just move students to other schools once they have started," says Alami. "First, because there is a shortage of places [in east Jerusalem schools] and also because the teaching program is in English." "It's important for me that they can speak English, it's important for us globally," says one mother from the Parents Association who is worried that it will be difficult for her daughter to transfer to an Arabic-speaking school because her reading and writing skills are weak. "English is everywhere - on the Internet, on television. They have to read and to understand, not just be able to say a few words. I want her to be reading Harry Potter," she says. School superintendent Ross Byars takes pride in what he calls an "excellent" teaching program, which counts Ivy League graduates among its alumni. The checkpoint is a "non-issue," Byars says, because it is temporary and will be made obsolete when the West Bank security barrier in A-Ram is completed. "It's time to move. The majority of parents are happy," says Byars. "Some people will be inconvenienced because they will have to drive through more traffic. That's their beef, not the checkpoint." Byars notes that the school is still in negotiations regarding the move to the Coptic College, which is five times the size of the existing site. Currently the Jerusalem School is spread across four converted houses. The college is purpose-built and includes a gymnasium and larger playground. He does, however, agree with disgruntled parents' concern of the increase in class size, which will grow from 12 to 14 students per class to between 18 and 20. In any case, the clock is ticking for parents to decide where their loyalties lie, as they face the prospect of their children being dropped from the school register in the September term if they don't stump up fees by this Wednesday. Tuition ranges from NIS 6,510 for kindergarten to NIS 12,390 for high-school pupils, plus a registration fee of up to NIS 2,940. "Why should I have to pay full tuition fees without knowing what will be happening in the future?" asks Kasbari. The Education Ministry, which partially funds the school, told In Jerusalem it was unaware of a proposed relocation.