Equal Opportunity? Not in Our School

In Caesarea, several classes may simultaneously play soccer on the sprawling lawn - no one has to fight over the playing field. A long line of bicycles waits at the entrance to the school - some of them with pricey labels. The curriculum is chock-full of creative activity. Before entering a building that looks like it was architecturally inspired by the High Court in Jerusalem, one class begins the morning with folk-dancing, photography is taught in another class, and yet another uses the Power Point program to design Rosh Hashanah greetings in the computer room.

The atmosphere in classrooms is animated: Children sit in small groups, talk, and show each other what they are doing. After the holidays, the second floor will be opened, which houses another computer room, laboratories, and a radio station. The school broadcasts from its own station and there is also a well-equipped video department.

Despite all this, Principal Nurit Gertner maintains that some of the school's needs are not being met. "There is no gymnasium because the person who designed the school failed to take that into account. Art is taught in a trailer," Gertner says. The "trailer" is equipped with air-conditioning and a variety of art supplies. No more than 15 pupils use it at a time and the school can afford to divide even its art classes into smaller groups.

The trailer in which first grade pupils study history, in Jisr al-Zarqa, is part of a different world. There is no air-conditioning in the trailer or any of the other classrooms. Principal Jamil Amash begins to perspire only minutes after entering a classroom. Several weeks ago, someone broke in and destroyed fluorescent lights as well as curtains, causing damage worth NIS 40,000 that the school cannot afford to spend on repairs. The size of a class is limited to 26 pupils only because there is no room for an additional chair.

No lab or library

In a technology lesson, the teacher illustrates the inner workings of a traffic light by means of three pieces of colored paper pasted on a cardboard box. The pupils are surprisingly quiet and do not interfere with his presentation. There are no teaching aides or instructional materials, no television, and almost no rooms other than regular classrooms - no gymnasium, art room, library, or laboratory.

The computer room, which houses 20 aging computers, is locked most of the time. There is no dining room for pupils who attend a long school day, and there is also very little nourishment. The principal and the local council leader failed to collect even a few shekels from parents to provide a meal. Those who can bring sandwiches from home, and those who cannot simply do not eat.

A wall divides Jisr al-Zarqa from Caesarea. Caesarea residents built the wall to prevent theft. This is not the only wall between the communities: One is a Jewish community managed by a company owned by the Rothschild Foundation with a mean per capita income that is one of the highest in the country. The other is an Arab fishing village at the bottom of the income scale. Jisr al-Zarqa also appears near the top of the unemployment and school drop-out charts.

Both of these elementary schools are state-run public schools. Thus, the conditions in both schools should be identical. The current minister of education and generations of ministry clerks have declared schools to be an avenue of upward mobility, in which it should be possible for Jisr al-Zarqa pupils to achieve equality with children in Caesarea. Traveling the road between Jisr al-Zarqa and Caesarea makes such statements appear ridiculous and reveals how far they stray from reality.

Government allocations no longer determine the future of schools. Schools are shaped by funds acquired from other sources - local councils, parents, and external contributions. The school in Caesarea, for example, was built seven years ago with the help of contributions from the Mifal Hapayis national lottery, the Caesarea Foundation, and the Hof Hacarmel Local Council. The Jisr al-Zarqa Local Council lacks the funds required to amend security breaches in its school, built in 1967.

The Caesarea School is managed independently. That is, the principal is responsible for managing the budget and empowered to raise funds from external sources. There are enrichment programs provided by the Karev Foundation (with the financial participation of the parents' council) and a thought development program provided by the Branko-Weiss Institute. According to Principal Gertner, additional requests for parental backing are privy to a "highly positive response."

'My father earns more'

During recess, next to the colorful slides and playground equipment on the Caesarea lawn, one of the children stops to talk to Nitzan, the photographer. "How much do you get to take pictures?" he asks. When he hears the answer, he pronounces, "that's not a lot of money. My father has 400 million."

Badia Amash does not get any money from his father, although his father is the principal of his school. Because Badia was identified as a gifted child in national tests, he is entitled to leave school once a week to attend special classes in Kafr Kara. Everyone expects that, when he grows up, he will follow in the footsteps of his similarly gifted siblings to study pharmacology or even, perhaps, medicine. For now, he plays soccer in a make-shift section of the parking lot behind his school.