Voices from Jerusalem: Back to What School?

By Ziva Galili

September 1 was 'Back to School" day for a million and a half children and teenagers all over Israel. Schools opened in Jerusalem, too, but in East Jerusalem tens of thousands of students do not have the choice of attending a State school. A report by the State Comptroller reveals a shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the current school year. Unless action is taken by the Ministry of Education and the Jerusalem Municipality, East Jerusalem will be short 1,500 classrooms by 2011, denying some 40,000 Palestinian students (60,000 by 2011) access to State-funded schools, where free education K-12 is mandated by Israel's Law of Compulsory Education.

How did we get here? First there were years of neglect that left East Jerusalem far behind Jewish neighborhoods all over the city. By 2001, things were bad enough for the High Court of Justice to intervene. Under court order, the Ministry and the Municipality committed then, and again in 2007, to budget, plan and build 645 classrooms--far less than is needed, but a significant improvement if implemented. Then began the foot dragging: the Ministry budgeted a fraction of what was committed and the Municipality was slow to plan, ratify and implement construction. Between 2001 and 2009, only 257 classrooms were completed. Assuming work will continue at the current pace, only 261 additional classrooms will be ready by 2013.

These are the hard numbers, but what do they mean for children and parents in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem? To find out, I listened to parents, members of Parents Councils, and employees of two organizations that are trying to keep the authorities to their obligations under the law.

Fares Kales is a member of the Silwan Parents' Council. The seven existing State schools in Silwan, he tells me, serve only half of the students in this village-turned-neighborhood that abuts the walls of the Old City. Last year, about 6,500 of Silwan's children attended kindergartens and schools away from their neighborhood, some in State-funded schools, others in schools run by the United Nations, the Moslem Waqf, and a variety of private institutions. With the cost of transportation left up to parents, Fares says, "many parents are so desperate--they can't afford the transportation, and they don't want their kindergarten children to be travelling long distances--that they beg for their child to be the 51st student in a terribly overcrowded classroom."

The Parents' Council in Silwan is relatively strong and resourceful--they have called in the media and appealed to the courts--but it has seen the situation getting worse every year. Today, only one of the three new schools ordered built is actually ready: a middle school for boys. A high school for girls will probably be ready for next school year, while one for boys still awaits adequate funding.

For lower grades, the Municipality has come up with a troubling solution: placing schools in private homes, where as many as 35 kids may be squeezed into a kitchen still holding the sink and drying board! School yards are often dangerous places, as in the school that sits at the bottom of a steep hill covered with large boulders and with no wall to protect kids from rolling rocks. All the Municipality would do is place a flimsy net around the school.

Bad as conditions are, Karim (abu Samer) Sh'hadeh, a Coca Cola driver from Shuafat Refugee Camp, would be glad to place his 3 school-age children in a State school. As of today, only the youngest, Seerin, is registered. The Municipality was ordered by the High Court to admit all first graders and Seerin is one of the lucky ones for whom space was found in the 2nd grade as well. Abu Samer and his wife have tried for the past four years to enroll Soujoud (now entering 6th grade) and Samer (entering 8th grade) in State schools. Every year they go through the frustrating process again: they try to register the children in State schools in Shuafat and, when told there is no space for them, travel to the Municipal Building in downtown Jerusalem, fill out the "Registration and Transfer Form," wait for an answer that never comes (although the law specifies a response within 3 weeks), again come to the Municipality only to hear that there is no space for their children anywhere in the system. Unless something changes, they expect the same to happen with their two other kids: 2 year old Sama and 3-year old Samir.

Abu Samer is frustrated: "The eldest, Samer, will have no school to go to after the 9th grade, because it's the last grade in the UN school he is forced to attend. What will he do? There is no work, and he needs to study to advance in life. It's his right as a Jerusalem resident. It's so bad. The people in the Municipality, they don't help parents, they don't do their job."

Omqulthum Hawas, also of Shuafat Refugee Camp, has similar worries. She is a psychologist and staff nurse in an Israeli HMO and her husband is a teacher. Their five children, she says, are all good students, but for 3 years running she has been told that there is no space for them in the State schools in Jerusalem. Instead, two of her kids each changes two buses to reach a far away school--the 16-year old in Sur Baher, the 12-year old in Abu Dis. Her 3rd grader attends a private school in Jerusalem at the prohibitive cost of 2000 NIS. But cost is not the only problem; the private school ends with 6th grade. In all the schools her five children attend, Omqulthum says, the overcrowded classes are poorly ventilated. "It smells bad!" And then she adds, "It's not only us. Thousands of children and mothers suffer from the same problems."

To force a change and to help Palestinian parents cope with the frustrating effort of enrolling their children in State schools two Israeli organizations launched this year a joint campaign of public education, advocacy, and legal support. Ahmad Sub Laban of Ir Amim spreads the message through a Hot Line and appearances in schools: If your child is turned down by a given school (the first point of recourse for registration, usually during April and May), you must place the case before the Municipality (which begins taking applications in June), and you should insist on filling out the "Registration and Transfer Form"--your only proof that you tried to enroll your child. Attorney Nisreen Alian of the Association for Civic Rights in Israel handles the legal and procedural aspects of the process. This year she was successful in forcing the Municipality to provide all parents with registration forms, and she hopes the Municipality will respond to the lists of students who were refused admission she has sent them. She is also preparing to appeal to the Court on behalf of those not admitted within two weeks of the start of the school year. The two organizations hope not only to help the parents who take advantage of the Hot Line, but to force the Ministry and the Municipality to end the long standing neglect and allocate the resources that would allow the children of East Jerusalem what is rightfully theirs--the chance to free education in State funded schools.