Petah Tikva Schools in Chaos Over Struggle to Absorb Ethiopian Children

Municipality has failed to place all 160 children from Ner Etzion school, which was shut down last week; city says reassignment of pupils almost complete, but most of the children still at home after start of semester on Sunday.

The Petah Tikva municipality is struggling to place all of the 160 children who had been studying in the now-shuttered Ner Etzion school, with part of the problem lying in the unwillingness of local private religious schools to take more than a very limited number. Nearly all the Ner Etzion children are of Ethiopian origin.

So far, only 15 children have been placed in local private religious schools, with those schools unwilling to have more than two pupils of Ethiopian origin in any class. Some 20 children have been placed in state-religious schools, some 15 have been placed in state schools and in Moshav Nehalim, while some 50 children are going to be sent to schools in Rosh Ha'ayin.

Children of Ethiopian immigrants, Petah Tikva education dept  - Alon Ron - Sept 5 2011
Children of Ethiopian immigrants sitting outside the Petah Tikva education department, September 5, 2011. Alon Ron

Although the municipality said that the reassignment of pupils was almost complete, most of the children were still at home yesterday.

Asked why more children had not been placed in private schools, municipal sources said the city had focused on state schools because "private schools do not absorb these children as well," and "the principals make problems over the few that they do take."

The Ner Etzion school, which was meant to be closed gradually, was shut down last week at the demand of parents who wanted their children better integrated. When the Education Ministry made that decision on Friday, private school principals held an urgent meeting with Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon, at which, according to a municipal source, they demanded that "the burden of absorbing the children not be imposed on them."

A principal at the meeting said that all they had wanted was "to understand what was happening, because no one was updating us with all the chaos.

"The private schools do not have the infrastructure to absorb these children," he added, "because, for example, at the end of the school day there is no afternoon program, as there was at Ner Etzion."

The state-religious schools, meanwhile, are concerned that they are the ones on whom the "burden" will be imposed.

"In the end, our schools will turn into Ner Etzion 2," said an administrator in the state-religious system. "We're talking about four religious schools that have already absorbed 10 percent [pupils of Ethiopian origin] and in some schools it's 40 percent."

He said the sudden move by the Education Ministry would lead to the collapse of public education in the city, because not only do the private schools not cooperate, they pose unfair competition to the state schools.

"When 10 children in a class can't read or write, it pulls the rest of the kids down, and then the strong 'sabra' children move to the private system," the source said. "We support integration, until it starts to hurt our children."

Parents in the state-religious system are also resisting a mass absorption of Ner Etzion children. One of the heads of a state-religious parents' forum sent a text message to a municipal education official that read, "Until we see the full list of placements, no immigrant child is going to be allowed into school."

Daniel Uria, one of the parents representing the Ethiopian immigrant community, said he wasn't put off by the private schools' resistance, believing it wouldn't hold.

"Today, unlike in the past, we have the backing of the education minister," Uria said. "I want to see one school refuse to take us."

The main problem with reassignments involves the sixth-graders, who the municipality insisted be moved as a group so they do not need to reacclimatize to new friends this year, and again next year, when they enter high school.

As a result, the sixth grade boys' class will be absorbed by the Petah Tikva Yeshiva High School, headed by Rabbi Shai Piron, though it will take a few days to prepare a classroom for them. No solution has been found for the girls, after their parents refused the suggestion that a class be absorbed within the Yeshurun High School for girls.