school - Nir Keidar - August 31 2010
Students at the Ner Etzion religious school in Petah Tikva on Sunday. Photo by Nir Keidar
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About one-third of immigrant youths report having at least one sign of serious trouble at school.

The signs - missing school three days a month or more, failing at least three classes, or a feeling of alienation from school - often later result in the student dropping out, according to a new study by the Israeli branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

About one-third of immigrant students also reported having been humiliated or insulted due to their ethnic background by other students at least once - and 13 percent reported a teacher was behind the insult. Fourteen percent said they had found themselves alone at recess because the other students did not want to be with them.

The study, conducted in 2008 in cooperation with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, covers interviews with 680 students age 12 to 17 who immigrated to Israel between 1991 and 2006. Some 300,000 minors immigrated to Israel during this period, and in 2008, immigrants accounted for almost 10 percent of all students age 12-17.

While most previous studies on immigrant youth have focused on children from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, the current study also included immigrants from South America (mainly Argentina ), France and English-speaking countries, based on their weight in the total immigrant student population.

The study found that about one-fifth of immigrant students have not mastered Hebrew. For immigrants from Western countries, the number is 35 percent.

Moreover, 40 percent of the newest immigrants said they do not attend school yet because their Hebrew is not good enough. However, this problem usually improves with time: 84 percent of those who have been here more than five years have mastered Hebrew, compared to only 34 percent of those who have been here two to five years, and most immigrants do enter school within two years of their arrival.

A quarter of the students said they are having trouble in at least three classes, and 16 percent said they have failed at least three classes. But among Russian speakers, only 19 percent reported trouble in three or more classes, compared to one-third of Ethiopian immigrants and 40 percent of French and Spanish speakers. Students said the hardest classes were literature, Bible and math, and 40 percent said they would like extra help.

Contrary to popular wisdom, however, the study also found that students born in Ethiopia did better than students of Ethiopian origin who were born in Israel.

Spanish and Russian speakers reported the lowest rate of risk factors (skipping school, failing classes or feelings of alienation ), at 30 percent, while Ethiopians had the highest, at 47 percent.

More than 80 percent of students said their teachers treated them fairly, but one-third felt their teachers were indifferent to their academic and social integration, and therefore had no one at school to turn to. Ethiopian immigrants reported the most problems in this regard.

But there was no significant difference among the different groups with regard to the proportion that reported having been humiliated or insulted by their peers due to their background: It was about one-third for all of them.

The survey also casts doubts on how successful the school system is at integrating immigrants: 40 percent of the immigrant students said that at least one-third of the students in their class come from the same ethnic background as they do. Though the media have focused on this issue primarily in regard to Ethiopians, it is even more prevalent among Russian-speaking immigrants: Fully 49 percent of Russian speakers reported that at least one-third of their class is Russian-speaking, while only 33 percent of Ethiopian immigrants reported a similar percentage of Ethiopians in their class.

Moreover, 17 percent of Ethiopian immigrants, 54 percent of Israeli-born children of Ethiopian immigrants and 49 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union said the vast majority of their friends are from the same ethnic background as themselves.

The study also compiled a "risk index" comprised of all the risk factors about which the students were questioned, including academic risk factors, social ones (such as treatment by fellow students ) and behavioral ones such as violent behavior, criminal activity and alcohol consumption. It found that 28 percent of students had none of these risk factors and 26 percent only one. But 32 percent had two or three of these risk factors, and fully 14 percent - almost one out of every six - displayed four or more.