Back to school?
08/25/2011 18:27 By MELANIE LIDMAN
A number of elementary schools in east Jerusalem are in such poor condition that they may pose safety hazards for pupils returning to class for the new semester
Photo by: Melanie Lidman: West Silwan elementary school
It’s two weeks before school starts in east Jerusalem, and the municipality schools in the neighborhood of Silwan are in a deplorable state. At the El Ein neighborhood branch of West Silwan Elementary, a leaky pipe is dripping into a large pile of garbage, creating a moldy, sodden mess covered with flies that covers a quarter of one of the schoolyards. Rocks and rubble cover the yard of West Silwan Elementary, a two-story building for 700 pupils, and the area is surrounded with exposed steel rods from half-finished cement construction jutting out into passageways.
The stairs leading to the school are crumbling, and rusty fences barely protect the children from falling rocks from the steep drop-offs in the valley neighborhood. Exposed electricity wires dangle near the entrance.
It’s only at the third school, the New Wadi Kaduma Elementary School, that we finally come across someone who is getting ready for the school year. Radi, who normally works at a local supermarket, has been hired on a temporary basis to clean all eight of Silwan’s municipal schools in three days. He had a coworker, but he went home to take a nap during Ramadan.
Though school begins a week later in Arab schools due to Ramadan, it would be impossible for the city to adequately clean and renovate the eight municipal elementary schools in Silwan, says Faris Khales, the head of the Silwan parents’ committee.
“We’re just a few days before the beginning of the year, and no one is doing anything.”
The Jerusalem Municipality announced on Monday that the city will build an additional 42 classrooms in east Jerusalem in the coming school year, despite an estimated lack of approximately 1,000 classrooms. Last year, the municipality built 39 classrooms in east Jerusalem.
The number does little to satisfy the need, since Silwan alone needs an additional 50 classrooms, says Khales. In order to deal with the severe lack of classrooms, more than 40,000 east Jerusalem pupils are forced to enroll in semi-private schools that the municipality characterizes as “unofficial but recognized.”
Tuition is around NIS 15,000 a year, and the schools have more of a reputation as a for-profit business than an educational institution, he comments.
Earlier this year, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel won a case in the High Court of Justice over the severe shortage of classrooms in east Jerusalem. According to the ruling, the municipality has five years to ensure that every pupil who wants to enroll in a municipality school in east Jerusalem can do so. After five years, the municipality will have to pay the tuition at the semi-private schools of any pupil that is denied a place in a municipality school.
In response, a spokesman for the municipality said that the city was investing NIS 300 million for the design of an additional 299 classrooms in the eastern part of the city in the coming years. He added that the city had also renovated more than 40 classrooms in the past year, the majority of which were in the Shuafat Refugee camp. The municipality refused to respond to specific questions raised by The Jerusalem Post.
The Jerusalem Education Association, known by the Hebrew acronym Manhi, estimated that east Jerusalem schools needed a budget of approximately NIS 20 million for the 2010-2011 school year. The Jerusalem municipality agreed to increase the east Jerusalem schools budget by NIS 1 million over the previous year but allocated only NIS 9.6 million, less than half of the estimated need.
Meir Margalit, the fiery Meretz city councillor who now holds the east Jerusalem portfolio, slammed the appalling conditions of east Jerusalem schools and the low quality of education, and says he is pressuring the Education Ministry and the municipality to allocate a proper budget for east Jerusalem. For Margalit, the gaps in east Jerusalem are a result of racism.
“[These problems] are not being solved because there’s no motivation to solve them,” he says. “An educated population will not agree to live in situation of occupation. An educated population knows how to stand up for their rights, and an educated population is hard to control. That’s why the State of Israel prefers that these populations should be under-educated,” he says.
“Jews would never agree to send their children to this kind of school,” he adds.
Margalit says that if he is not successful in securing the additional funding from the city and the Education Ministry, he will turn to alternative means, including asking some of the wealthy Arab Gulf states to fund the schools in east Jerusalem.
The New Wadi Kaduma Elementary School is an example of a partial solution: prefabricated caravans, faced with stone to give them a more permanent feel, which the municipality placed in the Wadi Kaduma neighborhood seven years ago. While the five classrooms are in much better condition than the other schools, Khales points out that if the municipality had built a real building instead of caravans, the school could have been two or three stories and significantly increased the number of available classrooms in the neighborhood.
Khales, a father of five who has headed the parents’ committee since 2001, is so frustrated with the lack of movement for improving school conditions and the lack of classrooms that he’s willing to start small. Before the school year, he wants the city to take a simple step of putting warning signs around the elementary schools, telling drivers to slow down for children, or to add crosswalks and speed bumps outside the schools. Two years ago, a pupil at Wadi Kaduma was killed when a car came barreling down the road and struck him as he was leaving school.
Khales says in the 10 years that he has headed the parents’ committee, many of the parent volunteers have quit out of frustration and hopelessness. Khales says he refuses to give up hope to improve the situation for his five children.
“A child who sits at home is a victim,” he says.
According to ACRI and Ir Amim, an NGO that promotes Jewish-Arab equality in the capital, more than 5,000 school-age children in east Jerusalem are not enrolled at any learning institution.
Children who don’t go to school are much more likely to be involved in dangerous activities or follow terrorist leaders presenting them with propaganda, he explains.
“Education is peace, education is the future of the two nations,” says Khales. “We need educated people who meet in university, and they’re the ones who are going to make peace and make the future.”