School assignments

For some kids in Beit Shemesh, the school year hasn't started yet.

In a recent Sunday morning, as their friends were settling into their seats to prepare for another week of school, a group of six-year-old girls and their parents were protesting outside the offices of the Mayor of Beit Shemesh. Consisting primarily of recent immigrants from America and England along with several veteran Israelis, the group has been holding out since the beginning of the school year, refusing to send their children to the schools to which the local education authorities have assigned them. The parents involved say that their personal and religious approaches favor the more intensive framework offered at the Ahavat Yisrael school in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood and claim their children would be alienated in the less structured environments offered in other local schools. These parents also say that they had been promised places in the Ahavat Yisrael school and were informed that they would not be allowed into classes only several weeks before the school year was to begin. The early morning protest, the second since the school year began, was soon dispersed by a polite police officer who informed the group that they were trespassing. The group calmly left the building but said that they were committed to returning until the authorities agreed to meet with them. For Joe and Sharon Hyams, parents of soon-to-be six-year-old Elisheva, who arrived in Beit Shemesh from London in April 2005, the effect on their daughter has been the most traumatic part of the episode. Over the summer, they introduced her to children with whom they believed she would be sharing a classroom, and now they are struggling to explain why she is supposed to attend a school where she doesn't know anyone. The parents, who have been forced to juggle their jobs while finding childcare for their daughter, say they are unable to understand why the authorities choose to play politics with six year olds. "Political issues are being played out in an arena that ultimately affects only the children," the Hyams accuse. On the first day of school there were thirteen parents, but by the time that In Jerusalem went to print, the group had shrunk down to four. The remainder of the parents, including the Hyams, have favored placing their children in other schools rather than subject them to the possibility of a prolonged absence at the outset of the school year. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has warned the parents that prolonging the holdout is violation of Israel's compulsory education law, which mandates that every child is required to be enrolled in a registered school environment. The parents could be subject to criminal prosecution on truancy charges. Parents complain that their case has been tossed back and forth between the local education authorities and the Education Ministry, each claiming that the other is responsible for the decision. In a letter from the Ministry of Education to the municipality of Beit Shemesh, which was made available to In Jerusalem, a senior ministry official requests that Beit Shemesh limit the number of students in each grade in the Ahavat Yisrael school to no more than 80 students. With the classes divided between boys and girls this would allow an allotment of no more than 40 girls into the first-grade class. Enrollment in the girls class currently stands at 38. The school is located in the Ramat Beit Shemesh area of the city and caters heavily to children of religious Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Parents in the group have charged that the local government is not interested in defending the interests of the English-speaking population. Simon Synett, who emigrated from England eight years ago and has assumed the non-official role of the leader of the group of parents orchestrating the protests, referred to the actions taken by the authorities as "reeking of socialist protectionism." Synett, who says he is still unsure as to how long he can continue the protest, believes the issue involves more than the school placements of thirteen girls. "It's very upsetting that we are dealing with an education system that's not very interested in education," he accuses. A spokesperson for Beit Shemesh defended the position of the city and denied that any population in the city was being treated with any level of preference or discrimination. According to spokesman Yehuda Gur Aryeh, while the school in question has a large group of immigrants from English-speaking countries, there are many children from other countries as well as children from established Israeli families and Ethiopian immigrants. Clemo Buznach, who directs the educational branch for the city of Beit Shemesh, empathized with the predicament of the parents and their daughters but urged the group to understand that a relatively small group should respect the position of the authorities. Pointing out that he had provided a list of four alternate schools for the parents to choose from, and had promised to provide subsidized transportation for the children who live outside the immediate area of any of those schools, Buznach said, "Any additions to the Ahavat Yisrael school would cause overcrowding and cannot be addressed at this time." Buznach, as well as Gur Aryeh, say that the city has already asked the Education Ministry for permission to split the school into two individual entities one for boys and the other for girls which would allow for the further expansion of the classes to include this group. Buznach says he has agreed to provide written commitment that the girls excluded this year would be guaranteed spots in the Ahavat Yisrael school for the 2006-2007 academic year. But not for this year. The controversy comes amidst Beit Shemesh's decision to implement the recommendations of the comprehensive Dovrat Commission in 60 percent of the city's schools. Among other issues, the Commission recommends that all parents be allowed to register their children for any school within a given municipal authority. Mayor Daniel Vaknin is currently featured on nationally broadcast radio ads lauding the commission and promising that in his city, classrooms never have more than 20 students. It has been reported that he is planning to expand the implementation to all of the public education institutions operating under the city's authority by next year. At present the Ahavat Yisrael school has not adopted the Dovrat Recommendations, but observers say that even if they had it would have little bearing on the case of the first-graders. Even parents who have capitulated say that they hope that the situation can be avoided in the future. Says Hyams, "When the dust settles and each girl has taken her rightful place in the classroom, I can only hope that our experience will play a part in allowing parents to enjoy the benefit of a child's first days in a new school without the types of trials and frustrations that we have been forced to confront."