"A mortal blow" - the phrase was widely used yesterday by principals of institutions for at-risk youth to described the Education Ministry's elimination of thousands of classroom hours from their schedules. The decision reduced these institutions' educational activities by as much as 50%. The cuts affect 28 institutions with a combined enrollment of 700 troubled teens - substance abusers, victims of neglect or sexual abuse or teens who were removed from their dysfunctional homes by court order. Also affected were thousands of high-school dropouts now studying in the ministry's Hila high-school equivalency program.
Some of the institutions, including two for teens with substance-abuse issues, are protesting by conducting vigils instead of classes. Others are open, but the school year nevertheless began under a cloud of confusion.
The problems began 18 months ago, when 1,500 teachers who worked in the Hila program through contractors demanded to be hired directly by the Education Ministry, as is the case for most teachers in Israeli schools. The ministry rejected their demand but has said it would improve the social benefits they receive.
The Atid network, which won the tender to operate the Hila program, is contractually obligated to pay its teachers salaries during vacation periods and to provide other benefits. Now it seems that in order to comply with salary and benefit obligations, funds are being diverted from student programs. An estimated NIS 6 million from the institutions' combined budgets has been redirected from classroom hours to vacation pay for teachers.
The institutions have also been asked to increase class sizes, from three to six or more.
"Thirty hours of monthly instruction were cut from our curriculum," says the head of the Malkishua Drug Rehabilitation Center, Oriah Gan. The center, the largest facility in the country for teens with drug and alcohol abuse problems. To protest the cuts Gan did not open the center for the new school year. Gan said the number of teaching positions at the center was cut, adding, "I won't condone such harm" to the facility.
"This is a mortal blow to the children," Gan said. "The facility will continue to operate - after all, we have top instructors and staff members, and so the institution will survive and continue to take care of troubled children. Yet these children are entitled to study, as part of their remedial schedule of activities."
Retorno - the International Jewish Center for Prevention and Treatment of Addictions, located outside Beit Shemesh, also decided not to open for the new school year.
A third facility for at-risk youth reported that funding for 440 monthly hours has been cut.
Education Ministry officials said the cuts were made in order to provide Hila teachers with paid vacations. "We've moved to a new work model which involves alterations in [study] hours, and larger class sizes," an official said. "We've tried to prioritize. We are focusing on core curriculum study, and reducing special enrichment activities."
The director of a facility for at-risk young women said they learned of the cuts just 10 days ago, adding, "We opened simply to encourage the young women to believe that we are returning to the routine - we don't have a long summer vacation. Vocational teachers have been dismissed. We remain open only because of the high quality of our instructors. The way the school day is now structured [after the cuts] does not suit our students' needs. This is a disgrace ... The Education Ministry is acting as though we are invisible," the director said.
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