Friday, July 10, 2009 -- Abigail is a young mother of two boys, expecting her third child. Abigail and her husband, Gil, are secular and don't want their children to have a religious education. When Nir Barkat promised he would bring a change to the city, they felt he was addressing people like them. But last week their local preschool, Beit Hayeled in Rehavia, was turned from a secular to a traditional, semi-religious one and, despite the changing of the guard at city hall, they were left feeling that their needs as secular young parents had again been sacrificed. To make matters worse, the change was decided upon without consulting the parents.
Abigail and Gil, like many Jerusalemites, are victims of changing demographics in the city. As a result of declining enrollment of secular children, the municipality's education department is closing down or changing the character of its educational institutions in order to keep them open.
While the municipality said that in Abigail and Gil's case the children had been allowed to enroll in a preschool outside of their catchment area, this leaves them having to travel up to half an hour every day, a solution the parents say is far from satisfactory.
The issue of declining enrollment in state secular education and, for that matter, in the state religious stream, is not new to Jerusalem and its residents. The situation is one of the most troubling consequences of the demographic changes experienced by the city.
Every year, the municipality finds itself facing the same ritual: a state kindergarten, preschool or an elementary school gets fewer and fewer pupils. Not far from there, in a haredi neighborhood, children study under awful conditions - quite often in warehouses or rented small apartments, without courtyards or any facilities. Facing the decline in enrollment of secular pupils, the education department has no choice but to hand the half-empty kindergarten or school over to a haredi institution.
Quite often, the closing of a secular educational institution is, in fact, the first sign that a neighborhood is becoming more religious and eventually haredi. That's the way it happened in Ramot, in Ma'alot Dafna, and now it is happening in Rehavia and Baka and Kiryat Hayovel.
"The trend has existed here for more than a decade, I would say 13 or 14 years," says Dr. Maya Chochen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. "It started in the kindergartens, then moved on to preschools and elementary schools, and today we can see it even in some high schools."
Chochen says that in each case it is not easy to forecast which institution will be the next to meet the same fate, "but it is the municipality and its education department's duty to try to find solutions as soon as possible and not wait until the situation is irreversible. In any case, the key here is to have an open dialogue and cooperation between the education department and the parents. The days when the administration alone decided what was good for the parents and the kids are over," she says.
City councillor Rahel Azaria, who is in charge of early childhood education at Kikar Safra, sees things differently. "I heard about what happened to the Beit Hayeled preschool, and the reaction of the parents there surprised the people in charge at the education department. Nobody expected such strong opposition to the decision to hand over one out of the two classes at Beit Hayeled to the Meitarim association, which proposes a pluralistic education that focuses on Jewish values," she says.
"What can we do when young families leave the city and move to the center of the country or even to Mevaseret or other nearby locations?" says B., a Concord MA Preschool teacher who asked not to be identified.
"What can we do when we have only five children enrolled or even sometimes fewer? Even if the municipality could afford it financially, it is not so good for the kids themselves. The standard required by the Education Ministry is 30 pupils in a class. I guess that with 20 or even 18 kids, we could still make it work, but how can you do a decent job with five or seven children in a class? We all understand it is impossible."
Yifat Mohar is a dyed-in-the-wool secular mother of three boys. She, however, feels that the solution found by the municipality for Beit Hayeled is an acceptable one. "At least it hasn't become a religious preschool," says Mohar, "it is a new pluralistic approach, which preserves the mainstream of regular state secular education and I think that, considering the situation, it is acceptable. In similar cases in the past, we saw that complexes were turned into secular and religious kindergartens side by side. Believe me, it doesn't work. Wherever it was done in the past, the result was a lot of tension, even violence sometimes. With these two kinds of population, it just doesn't work together. But the problem is the way it was done: You don't announce such a change to the parents two days before the end of the school year, when registration is closed everywhere. That is totally unacceptable," she says.
The Beit Hayeled case is far from being the only one. So what is the municipality and, more specifically, the education department doing to solve the problem?
Azaria says that since the last elections everyone, on the professional and the political level, realizes that new approaches are urgently needed for the city's education system.
"We are working hard to find solutions," the Yerushalmim councillor says. "We have formed a team of educators, municipal educational professionals and experts from the Hebrew University to work out new and even bold solutions. We meet once a month and have hired an organizational consultant. We bring ideas, proposals, we test them, while we also work on the financial aspect of some of these proposals. The members of the team, including me, are not afraid of checking out even the most far- fetched ideas."
Yet still, even when good and successful solutions have been found, the general outcome is that there still isn't a real program to turn the capital's education system into one general, well-prepared and organized program.
"It's too early," complains Azaria. "After all, we remember the level of indifference the former administration had toward these issues. We've only been here a few months, and already I can feel a different atmosphere. True, the feeling is that people, residents, are still watching us and testing us. That's okay with me; I can understand them. But it doesn't mean we're not working hard to improve the situation," she says.
"There are so many ways that things can be improved," says Chochen, "but the first step is to associate the residents, the parents in the education issue, and to work closely with them - that's a must. Wherever it has been done that way, it worked out."
One of the examples Chochen gives is the Yad Hamoreh school. The municipality and the parents association worked together to preserve the secular character of the school. "The result is a complete success, and the school has become a very appreciated one," says Chochen. "That's an example of good and fruitful cooperation."
"I believe there are no mysteries in these issues," says Eti Binyamin, head of the parents' association. "In order to keep young families here, we have to offer them the best things available, and we all know what they are: a long school day, lots of after-school programs, more support classes - all this means, of course, more money; nothing works without additional funding. If this municipality manages to offer such package deals to the parents, I believe they will stay here and the decline in enrollment will be stemmed. And one more thing: We should stop sending our principals, even kindergarten teachers, to try to raise funds for their institutions - that is not their job. They should be busy educating and teaching, nothing else. How do we achieve this? Very simple: Once this municipality decides that education is its top priority, including funds, things will improve very quickly."
Is it really so simple? Do residents leave the city for lack of adequate educational institutions? "I don't think so," says Chochen. "In all our research, we have found that people leave the city and move to other cities for various reasons - education is not the first reason on their list."
Chochen believes that the improvement of the educational system in Jerusalem is one of Barkat's main aims, and she thinks that so far steps are being taken in the right direction. But she admits that some innovation, creativity and boldness in the solutions submitted are the best ways to improve the situation.
In any case, both Chochen and Azaria point out that serious preparation and well-prepared processes are the keys to establishing some cooperation with the parents. "There's a real need to foresee the processes. I understand that sometimes they wait to see if more parents will join even late, but when it is clear that the tendency is a drop in registration, those in charge should never wait too long. It is better to be ready as early as possible and to prepare the parents for what is apparently going to happen and, above all, to seek solutions with them, otherwise it won't work," says Chochen.
"We do listen to the parents," remarks Azaria. "Take for example the decision to launch the 11-month pilot project [where municipal kindergartens and preschools will go on vacation a month later than usual]. How do you think it came about? Out of consideration for the parents. This is a project that was conceived by the head of the early childhood department in the education department, Dvora Giv'ati. When I heard about it, I thought it was an excellent idea and gave it my full support as holder of the portfolio. The result is that we are already starting. We add one month to the kindergartens - it helps the mothers, the parents, it's good for us, good for the kids. And we even managed to solve the financial aspect. We started with 12 kindergartens, secular and state religious, and next year it will cover all the institutions. So it's not true to say we're not doing anything. Perhaps it's not enough after so many years of neglect, but we are promoting things."
Azaria says that her efforts are part of an understanding that the focus should also be on young families and not only youth and students. During his election campaign, and even before, Barkat put a lot of focus on his plans to reach out to the young generation, more specifically the students he wanted to keep here after they graduate.
"Students are important," says Azaria cautiously, "but, hey, young families with little children are no less important. In fact, I believe that the 11-month project is a big step forward. Okay, we've done a lot of important things for the students,but now it's time to take care of the young families' interests, too. I think the understanding that the young generation includes young families and small children has reached the decision-makers at Kikar Safra."
Azaria is convinced that the controversial decision at Beit Hayeled is an isolated mistake and does not represent the new line of the municipality. According to sources inside the education department, the need to work in full collaboration with the parents is "beginning to be internalized by the employees [at all levels], though we can still see that old habits die hard."
Regarding a vast and comprehensive plan to deal with the situation, it depends on whom you ask. According to Azaria, there is such a process. Though she refused to give too much detail, she did say that a long day at kindergarten and first grade in elementary schools, for example, was one the first options considered. In addition to that, she mentioned various attempts to use vacant institutions for other community needs "instead of handing them over, until we see some change."
Another idea is to work with parents in the various neighborhoods to establish kindergartens, preschools and elementary schools within the neighborhoods, based on the new master plan for the city "to enable kids to walk to school, and get rid of this insane transportation system weighing on the parents' shoulders."
For most of the parents, according to Binyamin, things are still unclear and the "good news hasn't spread."
And there is more. According to sources inside the education department, things have to be done on tiptoe for fear that the haredi education department might ask for the same improvements and compensations. "The main idea is to bring the improvements and the compensations to the secular or state religious side for a change," explains a high- ranking official at the Jerusalem Education Authority, "otherwise we're not improving anything. But we have to be careful and discreet. Take for example the 11-month project. We didn't go public with it until after it started for fear that we would have to cancel it on that ground."
According to Azaria and officials at the JEA, what happened to Abigail and Gil was a last remnant of the bad old days, something that won't happen again. Perhaps, but for the moment, the system is stepping into its critical period. All agree that within less than six months the real test will come. Next February, registration for kindergartens and elementary schools opens. The question is whether by then Barkat will have succeeded in convincing the non-haredi residents that he is making real and profound changes and not only promises.
"We know that a lot of people are watching us," concludes Azaria. "If we succeed in convincing them, then we're going in the right direction. We will see a beginning of change in the tendency of enrollment. If that happens, the rest will come about as well."
Nir Barkat holds the education portfolio itself. A spokesman for the mayor responded to calls by In Jerusalem by saying that Azaria spoke for the mayor on matters of education.