Educating the public

JEA head Danny Bar-Giora outlines his vision.

danny bar-giora311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
danny bar-giora311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The first thing one might notice upon visiting the education department at Kikar Safra this week is the surprising feeling of calm. Unlike former years on the eve of the opening of the school year, the administrative sector of the department is almost silent. The two secretaries are not busy talking simultaneously on two phones while answering the inquiries of parents or overwhelmed employees. The conference room is empty, as are the corridors, and the whole atmosphere suggests that everything is under control.
Less than five minutes of waiting and Danny Bar-Giora, who became head of the Jerusalem Education Administration in April, steps out of his office to invite me in for the interview. A tall man in his early 50s with blue eyes and silver hair, Bar-Giora is wearing a white shirt and beige trousers – and a ready smile on his face.
No stranger to the municipal education department, up until three years ago he was the principal of the Charles E. Smith High School of the Arts and was then invited to serve as deputy director of the Education Ministry in charge of implementing the New Horizons program.
As part of the the Education Ministry, the Jerusalem district has the highest number of students in the country. It is also the most complex. With its mixture of religious, secular and Orthodox Jews; official and unofficial semi-private high schools; and local students, besides those who attend from the surrounding villages, it is indeed a complex and varied education system. What’s more, education constitutes Mayor Nir Barkat’s most important commitment to his constituency and all the residents. As a result, Barkat also holds the education portfolio, a fact that Bar-Giora, who is very close to the mayor, considers a blessing.
In a way, some of Bar-Giora’s work has already been done. The registration areas – a highly contentious issue that did not permit junior high students to attend any school outside their area of residence – have practically been done away with, following a plan promoted by Barkat.
And the computer revolution – also initiated by the mayor – has already reached a high level, with more than 1,000 laptops distributed to teachers, in addition to a substantial increase in the number of computers in the city’s classrooms.
However, that doesn’t mean that all the problems or failures are behind us. A report recently submitted to Bar-Giora and the local education committee on the security situation in the city’s schools is rather alarming. There are still many schools and kindergartens without security bars on the windows; dangerous types of windows; a lack of bomb shelters; and unpaved or slippery access to many schools and so on. Not to mention violence among students and a shockingly low number of students who graduate high school, an issue that prevents this city from becoming more attractive to well-to-do young families, no matter what is being done in other areas of improvement.
The matriculation rate in Jerusalem is 61 percent, only slightly higher than the national average of 59 percent.
The municipality and its directors have, of course, promised that every security deficiency would be taken care of before the start of the school year, but the new head of the opposition on the city council, former deputy mayor and member of the education committee Pepe Alalu, and the president of the parents’ association, Eti Binyamin, as well as many parents, doubt that it can be implemented by September 1.
Less than two weeks before school opens, In Jerusalem met with Bar-Giora for a candid discussion about education in Jerusalem, semi-private schools (hint: he is against them), why egalitarian public education is still the best way to achieve the best results and, of course, his own vision.
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Would you say that public education is back on the right track? Special semi-private schools working outside of of the official national plan have caused a lot of 10 IN damage to the public school system, hurt the students and, more importantly, they have hurt the ability of the public system to provide an egalitarian education system. This is, in my eyes, more an issue of the values we want to protect and share than the fate of the public school, which is, of course, very important in itself.
But if you say to the parents, ‘Stop running to the special schools,’ shouldn’t you first be able to provide them with the best educational solution?
There might be some cases where the state will say, ‘Okay, you can open this particular school because right now, this is beyond our scope and plans, but it sounds interesting enough, so we will give you the permits required and help you to establish such a school. Also because we really want to see how such a model works.’ But my feeling is that in most cases, the need and purpose for opening ‘special schools’ simply comes out of an ideology that has a name: racism.
You know, ‘Let’s study only with children who are of such and such a height and have such and such hair color and so on.’ We all know what it means.
[At press time, Bar Giora had not yet answered IJ’s question regarding his opposition to semi-private schools in light of the fact that he was principal of one for 10 years.]
What is the mayor’s position on this?
Two things: to best address the public’s needs and to enhance competition among schools. What we have in mind is an amelioration of the public school system so we will no longer need those ‘special schools’ that groups of parents have created because we couldn’t meet their expectations or needs. We want the public system to become so attractive that it will pull the rug from under them.
We are already almost there: Within less than two years, the number of dissatisfied parents has dropped to almost zero!
Yes, but it is also due to the fact that the registration areas have been canceled.
This is what I’m talking about. The system is delivering real answers, and look what has happened as a result. We haven’t witnessed any cases of schools emptying out as we were warned would happen. The changes are really very minimal. The system works, and the public feels that no one is trying to lie or to hide things.
Do you see any signs of growth in the number of students in public – religious and secular – schools?
 I still don’t have the final numbers, but yes. Besides the increase in the number of haredi and Arab students, we see that the number of dropouts in the public system – in religious and secular schools – is decreasing, and in a few neighborhoods there are even signs of growth. We are opening three new public schools this year, which is definitely a good sign. Two are in Har Homa and one in Katamonim.
Well, Har Homa is a rather new neighborhood, so it makes sense that you’d have to open a school there.
Yes, but the students of Har Homa came from another neighborhood, and we didn’t have to close a school somewhere else.
In fact, we are adding one school in an old neighborhood – Katamonim. That is something nobody expected just a couple of years ago.
You are opposed to separating education for regular students and those who are mentally and physically challenged.
Of course. In my eyes, children should be together as much as is logistically possible. I don’t see why children with disabilities should be studying separately. This is part of my vision.
There is talk of promoting excellence, but what do you propose to the average student who is not brilliant but also needs attention?
I would like to work with two locomotives – one that steams forward and the other that pushes from the back. We need to offer all the various means and facilities, including informal education, holistic programs – anything that will improve what we do offer.
Over the years, schools have become dangerous places for students. What are you planning to do about that?
First of all, there is no doubt that a child’s behavior is the responsibility of the parents. That being said, it is a terrible problem. It is, of course, a mirror of our society – there is violence on the roads, in the Knesset, everywhere. No doubt that this digital world – TV, Internet, cellphones – has an impact on youth. It stimulates their nervous system. They become addicted to the instant gratification of any need or desire. It increases their lack of calm and serenity, and from there they develop a lack of focus. It is a problem to which I plan to give full attention.
Also we do not provide our children with what they should have. We send them to theoretical schools, where they have to go through matriculation. Too many of them fail and they become frustrated, unstable and so on. On one hand, today we have more modern and precise tools to diagnose these disorders. It’s not like it was years ago, when such kids were thrown out of school and considered incapable of any achievement. But on the other hand, there is now too much sensory stimulation from a very young age.
What would you suggest? More collaboration with parents?
When I was the principal of the Arts School, I used to send parents to downtown Kikar Hahatulot late night to see for themselves what their kids were doing there. I wanted to frighten them a bit, to open their eyes. I really wanted them to freak out. Every parent should go at least once and see the reality down there. Parents are so afraid to do the simple thing: to take their kids home when it is too late, when they drink too much, but they just don’t dare do it.
So it is clear that working closely with parents is the right thing to do, besides setting limits. We have the support of the Education Ministry in this. But on the other hand, schools should have the best conditions and the best tools to work with – there is no question about that.
Like what?
There are a few things, such as wearing uniforms, standing up when a teacher comes into the classroom. These are the ministry’s rules, and I agree with them. But I think they should emanate from within the community, not as imposed rules from above. I believe that we shouldn’t be afraid to make demands on our children.
Are you satisfied with the level and the capabilities of the teachers?
We are in the midst of a large process. We gave out 1,000 laptops last year, and another 1,000 will be distributed this year in order to give teachers the best tools. There is no doubt that some teachers should leave the school system. But most of the teachers are good, and we work hard to introduce a young generation of teachers.
This year, a group of 34 former hi-tech people has gone through special training to become teachers. I believe that helping them raise their head is one of my duties.
But yes, I agree that there are some teachers and even principals who are tired, who entered the education system by mistake and should be encouraged to leave it. So we are going to invest a lot in the teachers to help them become the best.
What are you planning to do about the high number of dropouts?
Right now I am in the process of installing a specific person to help me on this issue. We are working on a comprehensive program and, of course, with the participation of the monitoring officers. Since the reorganization of the municipality’s department, we have within this education/welfare/community/ informal education wing all the budgets together under one roof. I believe this is the best opportunity to change things for the better. That’s why I’m here.