The Be'er Sheva municipality recently approved a plan to eliminate junior high schools and move to a two-tier system: elementary school for first through eighth grades, and high school starting in ninth. Nor is Be'er Sheva alone: Some 35 local authorities have asked the Education Ministry's permission to abolish junior high schools over the last two years.
However, the ministry has refused, and ministry officials said this refusal will remain in force at least until the end of the next school year. Yet at the same time, senior ministry officials have been involved in local efforts to abolish junior highs, and Education Minister Yuli Tamir has not ruled the idea out.
The two teachers unions are also split, with one supporting the idea and the other opposed.
"Junior highs must be abolished," declared Be'er Sheva Deputy Mayor Rubik Danilovich. "The damage they do to students far outweighs their advantages."
Danilovich argued that junior highs expose students to "smoking, provocative dress, piercing and sexual relations" before they are mature enough to handle it. He also noted that the Dovrat Committee on educational reform recommended eliminating junior high schools, and that fifth-graders consistently do better on nationwide standardized tests than do eighth-graders.
Eliezer Winograd, an elementary school principal who chairs Be'er Sheva's council of principals, concurred. "It's important that students remain for an extra two years in the 'hothouse' of the elementary school, because that enables greater supervision and personal contact with the teachers," he said.
Other localities offer similar arguments for abolishing junior high, though not all agree on how the school system should be structured: Bat Yam and Herzliya, for instance, want elementary school to end after seventh grade and have the students start high school in eighth.
But the picture is more complex than junior high opponents acknowledge. An internal Education Ministry report obtained by Haaretz found that the issue of two-tier versus three-tier systems has never been studied, either in Israel or abroad, so there is no conclusive evidence in favor of either. And since there is no proven pedagogical advantage in abolishing junior high, the current system should be kept, it argued.
Moreover, a study of school violence by Professor Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University found that elementary schools are not exactly "hothouses": A higher percentage of students reported suffering violence in elementary school than in either junior high or high school. For instance, 26.4 percent of elementary school students said they had suffered severe physical violence, compared to 17.3 percent of junior high students and 11.4 percent of high school students. This trend also held for sexual harassment.
As for the differing performances on nationwide tests, the Education Ministry noted that this could be explained by the more difficult material required of eighth-graders. The ministry also denied that the Dovrat Committee recommended abolishing junior highs.
Junior highs also have their supporters among educators.
"The claims about violence in junior highs are populism, and transferring seventh and eighth grades to the elementary schools would solve nothing," argued one Be'er Sheva principal. "The idea that abolishing junior highs would solve our education problems is mere voodoo."
Another claimed that the real reason for the opposition to junior highs is that elementary schools are more socially homogeneous, and some parents prefer this.
A senior Education Ministry official concurred: "This is a war between supporters of integration and parents," he said.
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