Nature School in Tel Aviv
The Nature School in Tel Aviv. Photo by Nir Kafri
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Kindergartners looking to get a spot in an exclusive Tel Aviv public elementary school have known for years they better put away the crayons and start showing some real life skills.

And despite Education Ministry efforts to crack down on the School for Nature, Environment and Society's selection process, the school will continue to select new students based on positive leadership skills and the ability to delay gratification, among other attributes, according to a list submitted to the Education Ministry which Haaretz obtained.

The assessment will be done through observations of the candidates at the school, as part of an experimental program with the ministry's reluctant blessing.

In 2002, the Education Ministry adopted the Weinstein report, which forbade selective admissions to public schools in order "to prevent social divisions and segregation, to maintain pupils' equality of opportunity and thereby to nurture and develop solidarity and social belonging in society as a whole."

However, the Nature School ignored the report and the Education Ministry has not enforced the conclusions.

Over the years, the school continued to carry out its assessment procedure, a combination of group workshops and an individual evaluation by an external organization, the Karni Institute, which examined "mental acuity, cognitive ability and readiness for first grade."

A change occurred at the beginning of the current school year, when the Education Ministry informed the school's principal, Dafna Baram, that her request to continue to implement those assessment procedures had been refused.

Therefore, the school submitted a new document requesting the cancellation of the institute's assessments and the continuation of the group workshops. This document, too, did not persuade the committee members.

However, pressure on the ministry from the school's management, the Tel Aviv municipality and senior people at the ministry itself worked, and the ministry decided to allow the workshops, which include various observations.

The Education Ministry decided that the next school year will be an experimental year, in which the group workshops will be allowed, in order to learn from the experiment.

The workshops will consist of individual tasks, tasks with a partner and group tasks, simulating "process learning as it occurs in the school."

In recent weeks the Education Ministry has sent comments to the school concerning the list of qualifications for acceptance, noting that these criteria do not necessarily have anything to do with love of nature.

However, "It is doubtful the criteria will change," admitted a ministry source on Monday, "because of the short notice before the start of the school year."

According to Prof. Chaim Adler of the Hebrew University, an Israel Prize for Education laureate, "They enlist the best pupils and most of them come from the established [social] classes and ultimately they are calling for the perpetuation of the existing gaps in society. How can a political leader continue to use the worn-out concept, which barely has a leg to stand on, of equal opportunity in education when the beginning of the road is not egalitarian? It would not be so deplorable if it were a private institution under discussion but this is cheating the public since it is about everyone's public money."

Adler says the criteria ensure that only the best students will be accepted. "Don't middling students deserve to study nature," he asked.

Adler added the school's new procedures won't change anything, since they can still be selective.

"Selectivity in the transition from kindergarten to first grade belongs to the list of the most immoral things that are done to children," he said. "A child who comes and doesn't pass the test experiences a failure, from which he concludes he is not good enough. After having such an experience at the age of 6, people wonder why he doesn't pass the PISA tests," administered by the Program for International Student Assessment.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Schlesinger, the professional director of the Karni Institute, who is now employed privately by the Nature School, "The new assessment is absolutely not ideal but it is the best that can be done in the context of the constraints."

She says the old acceptance procedure that included a conversation between the child and a psychologist gave added value to the workshops.

"Observation is far less structured and looks more at how the child will behave when the teacher turns her back, in independent work or at the zoo," she said. "Karni assessed creative thinking, emotional maturity, persistence and concentration - things that are very important in a specialized school and now this will not be available."

Schlesinger said the selection process would weed out children who would not fit in at the Nature School.

"It has to be understood that this framework is not suitable for every child and it is an injustice to take a child to a place that doesn't suit him," she said. "We are trying to maximize observation skills now, with a strong orientation toward nature but there is no doubt it won't be the way it was."

The Nature School was founded in the 1980s at the initiative of the head of he education administration at the Tel Aviv municipality, Shimshon Shoshani, who until recently was director general of the Education Ministry.

Tuition fees at the public school amount to thousands of shekels per year.

The Education Ministry responded that the school "has been conducting an orderly process vis-a-vis the committee for specialized schools for two years now, with the aim of approving acceptance procedures conforming to the criteria set by the Education Ministry. The process is continuing and the committee has not yet completed its examination."

The Tel Aviv Municipality has informed Haaretz: "The criteria whereby students will be accepted to the school have not yet been formulated. To that end, a committee has been formed, headed by the principal of the school and consisting of teachers, representatives of the public and an academic consultant. The committee will determine the kinds of observations conducted at the school. The committee's recommendations will be submitted to the Education Ministry for authorization to carry out the observations. After they are approved, the school will carry out the necessary assessments. After the results of the assessments are obtained, the education administration will convene an acceptance committee for the school, with the participation of a representative of the Education Ministry, a legal adviser and a representative of the public."