An elementary school in Abu Tor in East Jerusalem. The balconies have been converted into classrooms
An elementary school in Abu Tor in East Jerusalem. The balconies have been converted into classrooms. Photo by Emil Salman
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The Ahmad Samah State elementary school in Abu Tor in East Jerusalem is located in an old three-story residential building whose bedrooms and balconies have been turned into classrooms. Recess starts at 10:30 A.M., and the pupils in their blue uniforms go outside. The yard - a few dozen square meters - would be spacious for a private home, but 500 children at recess can barely stand upright in it, let alone play or run.

Not far from there, in Silwan, 130 first through third grade Arab children crowd into four packed classrooms. A few years ago, the school - also part of the state system - had one of its buildings confiscated. It is currently undergoing intensive reconstruction to turn it into a mikveh - a Jewish ritual bath - as part of the tourist center serving the City of David and operated by the NGO Elad. Education is always political, and the state of education in East Jerusalem is a classic example.

Years of intentional neglect of East Jerusalem schools, which serve the Arab population, by the Education Ministry and the city are the result of a great deal of authority combined with very little responsibility. It is doubtful whether the 58,000 schoolchildren who last year visited the City of David as part of the "Ascent to Jerusalem" program instituted by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar even saw the elementary school in Silwan, just a few hundred meters away, whose backyard is filled with garbage and construction waste.

Dropout problem

This week, the NGO Ir Amim, founded to pursue an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed-upon political future, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel published a report about educational problems in East Jerusalem. It appears that it is hard to get a straight answer even to very basic questions, such as how many school-aged children (6-18 ) live and study in East Jerusalem. According to one version submitted to the report's authors, there are 86,018 children learning in all educational settings - official, unofficial both recognized, and private. According to the city's spokespeople in response to queries by Haaretz, only 81,000 children attended school last year. This is not just a difference of opinion: All such data directly affect the construction of new classrooms, school budgets and the entire network of educational personnel.

According to data from the end of 2011, based on city numbers appearing in the report, the dropout phenomenon starts as early as first grade (about 2 percent of the 7,700 six-year-olds ) and steadily rises as the years progress, especially at the secondary school level: 5 percent drop out of eight grade, 10 percent from ninth grade, 17 percent from tenth grade, 30 percent from eleventh grade, and 40 percent from twelfth grade. The average dropout rate of children in grades 7-12 in East Jerusalem thus comes to 17.3 percent per year. By comparison, the national average is 1.7 percent in the Jewish sector and 2.8 percent in the Arab sector.

"The city does almost nothing in order to bring dropouts back to school," says Hatham Hoyas from the Jerusalem Union of Arab Parents Associations. According to him, kids - even elementary schoolchildren - drop out and go to work in West Jerusalem. "You can find them in many restaurants, working in the kitchen," he says. "When the economic situation is as bad as it is, a kid who manages to bring in a couple of thousand of shekels a month is tremendous help to the family." According to National Insurance Institute data, 78 percent of the population in East Jerusalem lives below the poverty line.

Despite the alarming number of dropouts in East Jerusalem, neither the city nor the Education Ministry is engaged in any kind of affirmative action. Last year, according to the report, West Jerusalem operated 16 Maleh alternative education centers designed to prevent pupils from dropping out, compared to only five such centers in the East part of the city. West Jerusalem had 13.5 positions for truancy officers, whereas East Jerusalem had three, of which only one and half were manned last year. In such a reality, it is almost surprising that only 40 percent of 17-year-olds in East Jerusalem stop going to school.

One thousand missing classrooms

"Many parents were very excited taking their children to school last week," says Faras Hales, chair of the Silwan Parents Association. "I, too, enjoy taking my kids to school, but what are you going to do with the fact that it's been over a week since anyone emptied the enormous trash container at the entrance to the school. So here's yet another issue we, the parents, have to worry about and deal with."

Parents try to fill the governmental vacuum in East Jerusalem in the ongoing battle for more classrooms and other basic infrastructures, such as libraries, which don't exist in Silwan schools and many other educational institutions in East Jerusalem.

Two years ago, says Hales, the parents association asked every family to donate one book in order to establish a library in the neighborhood's school. Science labs are a little harder to improvise. But the main problem is the acute shortage of classrooms. "Even if there was room for a library or bomb shelter, it would be better to open another classroom," says Hales.

Compared to other neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Silwan's situation is considered good. There are eight official state schools in the neighborhood attended by some 4,600 children, and two unofficial but recognized schools serving some 480. In total, 5,080 children are part of the municipal educational system out of some 12,000 school-aged kids, i.e., 42 percent. Another 480 or so children attend private schools in Silwan, costing parents thousands of shekels in tuition. The rest, 6,400 pupils, are forced to travel an hour-and-a-half in each direction to other schools in East Jerusalem. Unlike their Jewish counterparts, Palestinian children do not enjoy reduced-cost public transportation passes, and organized school buses are provided only to pupils in special education programs. Silwan opened its first municipal high school only a year ago.

"When my son started seventh grade, we were told there was no room in the Silwan middle schools," a neighborhood parent told the report's authors, "so we had to register him in a school in Shoafat (a refugee camp at the outskirts of Jerusalem ). The boy travels an hour and a half each way to school at a cost of 40 NIS a day. "In the afternoon, he comes home exhausted."

According to the State Comptroller's 2009 report, East Jerusalem is missing some 1,000 classrooms. Since then, the shortage has only grown. According to city hall's answer to the report's writers, East Jerusalem's classroom shortage now stands at 1,100. For more than a decade, between 2001 and 2012, a total of 314 classrooms were constructed in East Jerusalem, 10 percent only last year. Even if all the classrooms currently in various stages of planning and construction are completed, East Jerusalem will still be 750 classrooms short. And as if that weren't enough, some 720 classrooms - about half of the total number in the eastern part of the city - are sub-standard. The average number of students per class is 32, compared to 25 in the western part of the city. The Ir Amim report accuses political figures, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, of preferring to promote projects for the city's Jewish residents in areas that could serve as education institutions for Palestinians.

In February 2011, the High Court of Justice ruled in favor of a petition submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel against the Jerusalem Municipality and the Education Ministry, which demanded that every child from East Jerusalem be allowed to register to an official school in his or her residential area or receive funding for tuition in an unofficial but recognized school s/he is forced to attend. "The damage to equality in education in East Jerusalem is not limited to just a few individuals," the decision reads. "It encompasses a significant portion of an entire population segment, which is denied the ability to realize a basic right ensured by law and by the constitutional values of the Israeli legal system."

Students on strike

Last Wednesday, more than 3,000 students from Issawiya went on strike to protest the lack of classrooms and the fact that 150 of their friends can't find a school to attend. "City hall keeps saying that it's planning to build new classrooms, it promises that there'll be a solution next year, but this has been going on for six years already," says Muhammad Abu Humus from the local parents association. "On the Jewish side, they find room for every pupil while the promises they make us are a lie. In the meantime, kids start working or get involved with drugs. We won't accept that our kids don't have the right to a future."

The Jerusalem Municipality responded that the report on education in East Jerusalem "ignores the large and significant steps the city has taken in the eastern part of the city in order to close the gaps created in the last 40 years, as is evident by the construction of hundreds of new classrooms, investments in infrastructures, schools, the quality of education and more, at a cost of NIS 650 million. The actions of the city are steadily gaining more citizen cooperation and involvement." As for the dropout data, the city says that claims about its abandonment of education in East Jerusalem "are simply not true of the current administration" and that the city "is, for the first time in decades, confronting the dropout problem in East Jerusalem." The municipality further states that, based on the data it has, "the dropout percentage in twelfth grades is less than 40, and the total number of pupils noted by the report is incorrect, because most are registered in the Palestinian educational system." As for allocating buildings, the city says, "City planning is based on the zoning program defining the character of spaces throughout the city." The Education Ministry refused to answer questions about its responsibility for education in East Jerusalem.