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Israeli Kids Head Back to School

With more than 2 million children starting the new school year Friday morning. The Israeli Arab and Druze school year will start in a few weeks, but in the meantime an uptick has been registered in the number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem studying for Israel's final exams. Meanwhile, some 163,000 students will be starting first grade, while some 123,500 will begin their 12th and final year in the state education system. About 180,000 teachers and education staff members will work in the education system this year.

The ultra-Orthodox schools and institutions started the 2017-18 school year earlier this week, while the Arab, Bedouin and Circassian schools will begin the year next Tuesday. The Druze schools will start last, on September 11.

East Jerusalem: Tawhiji vs bagrut

The number of Arab residents of East Jerusalem studying the Israeli curriculum for their matriculation exams (called the "bagrut") has been rising steadily, and the numbers have grown this year too as the school year officially opened on Friday. Arab schools will start after the three-day Id al-Adha holiday ends. This year, some 5,800 students in East Jerusalem will study the Israeli matriculation program, a 14 percent increase compared to last year, said the Jerusalem municipality. But this is still less than 6 percent of the total number of students in East Jerusalem, though many study for the Israeli exams in private frameworks in the afternoon after school lets out. The rest study for the Tawhiji exams used in Jordan and most of the Palestinian territories.

Even though the vast majority of East Jerusalem students continue to study for the Tawhiji, the demand for taking the Israeli tests has been steadily rising in recent years. The main reason seems to be the construction of the separation barrier, which makes it harder for those living in Jerusalem to study in universities in the West Bank. In addition, the Israeli government and Jerusalem city hall have been encouraging the shift to the Israeli curriculum in recent years by offering additional budgets to schools that open new classes for the Bagrut.

Some parents associations from East Jerusalem have protested the pressure on schools from Israel to use the Israeli curriculum, claiming it is an attempt to erase the Palestinian identity of the students. A report released recently by the left-wing NGO Ir Amim said that behind the supposedly positive intention are hiding powerful political motives, which see the present situation as a a violation of Israeli sovereignty. Ir Amim proposes instead to allow those with a Tawhiji certificate to be accepted to Israeli institutions of higher learning. Last year, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem began recognizing Tawhiji scores for some departments. The report also states the problems n the East Jerusalem schools are only getting worse: The dropout rate in East Jerusalem schools is 33 percent in the official state schools, and some 16,000 students are not under Education Ministry oversight.

School year

Meanwhile, Israel’s largest school parents organization is threatening to withhold parents’ fees to schools unless the Education Ministry cancels at least part of them this year. The Forum of Parents’ Committees is demanding the gradual cancellation of all parents’ fees and last week urged parents to withhold payments to schools on the eve of the 2017-2018 school-year opening. Forum head Zeev Goldblatt told Haaretz on Thursday that dozens of parents’ committees confirmed they would withhold payments. A high school student’s parents’ fees will total 5,238 shekels ($1,459) this year. The government has been refusing its undertaking to cancel this wacky tax for 25 years,” the forum said.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take part in a ceremony opening the school year in the elementary school at the Harish Local Council. President Reuven Rivlin will visit the elementary school Nofei Sela in Ma’aleh Adumim. The Education Ministry will decide by how much to shorten the annual vacation during the school year. The ministry is considering cutting 7-10 days from the 42 vacation days. The schools and kindergartens will operate during these days much like subsidized summer camps during the summer holidays, at an estimated cost of 400-450 million shekels. The Teachers Union supports the plan, since the teachers won’t work during the additional 7-10 days, so their vacation will not be shortened.

Although talks between the education and finance ministries on financing the program are still in process, Bennett said earlier this week that he intends to start slashing the holidays already on Hanukkah. Problems with operating after-school programs in the central region may disrupt the school year’s opening. Program operators in the central region said they would have difficulty providing the required services with the restricted budget stipulated by a new law passed last month. Some of the local governments in the area said they would subsidize the price difference in kindergartens. The Tel Aviv municipality agreed to cover the price difference for the afternoon programs in both kindergartens and schools, to ensure they open without a hitch.

Some 600 employees of the Shlavim program, who work with some 5,000 sick students at home, have declared a strike and will not begin working this week, in protest against their employment conditions. The program is operated by the contracting company Kadima Mada and financed by the Education Ministry. The employees – some 450 teachers and 150 communication therapists and paramedical caretakers – accuse the contracting company of foot dragging in the negotiations over equalizing their conditions with those of teachers directly employed by the ministry.

Last week a few parents of children in the Shlavim program stormed out of a meeting with Bennett and members of the Education Committee, protesting that the minister didn’t intervene to solve the crisis. “Instead of advancing in the negotiations, Kadima falsely claimed that both sides had agreed to arbitration,” one of the Teachers’ Union members said yesterday. “We don’t rule out arbitration, but we’ll accept only a mediator who is chosen and funded by both sides,” he said.

Kadima said the teachers refused to revoke the strike threat as a condition to begin arbitration between the parties, and in response the company suspended the talks. “It’s not clear why the Teachers’ Union insists on holding the strike threat over the heads of the children, families and teachers, even when it clearly cannot achieve any progress,” the company said in a statement. “We’ll be happy to reach understandings and agreements as soon as they lift the threat.” The Education Ministry said it provides education services for sick students at home, according to their various needs. “The services are provided by a concessionaire, whom we expect to provide the services as required, as stipulated in the contract, to both the students and their parents,” the ministry’s statement said.

Yarden Zur

Photo David Bachar