Children (Illustrative), Moti Milrod
An after-school center for at risk children. (Illustrative) Photo by Moti Milrod
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All on board except Turkey Zvi Bar'el, Page 2

The Education Ministry's after-school centers for children at risk are on the verge of collapse: For every child admitted, eight or nine are turned away, according to senior ministry officials.

The 550 centers around the country provide children with emotional support and assistance with schoolwork.

The children turned away have passed an initial screening; many other applicants do not even get to this point.

Two years ago, of the students who passed the screening, five or six were denied admission for every one accepted.

The center directors and local officials say they face a dilemma in deciding which at-risk children to choose. The decision is made "with hands shaking in fear that maybe someone else is at greater risk," one director said.

The director of the Israel Association for Immigrant Children, Eli Zarkhin, said the services have had long waiting lists in recent years.

"There is no other solution for these children," Zarkhin added, "and if they are not admitted, it generally means they hang around on the streets."

A senior Education Ministry official agreed.

"The public should know that the response for elementary school-aged children at risk is negligible. We are creating a social catastrophe," he said.

The ministry issued an official statement pointing out that from the beginning of the year, the unit including the after-school centers has received an additional budget of NIS 8 million, and a request for another NIS 20 million is currently under discussion with the Finance Ministry.

"Since Gideon Sa'ar took office [as education minister], the budget for the after-school centers has increased by more than NIS 1 million, which reflects the importance the ministry places in the matter," it said.

The children attending the after-school centers come from families who cannot give their children regular meals or an appropriate setting to develop. The centers open at the end of the school day and close around 6:30 or 7 P.M. Each center serves about 10 to 15 children, who receive lunch as well as help with their homework, therapy and educational programming.

Most of the budget comes from the Education Ministry. The Social Affairs Ministry and local authorities provides some more money. One sources said the centers provide "very basic assistance designed to prevent these children from dropping out of school. The after-school centers are a substitute for the children's families, which in most instances are not functional."

According to Education Ministry statistics, in the last 10 years, the number of children attending the after-school centers has remained almost unchanged - it was 5,220 in 2000, and now is 5,625. However, more than 50,000 children are thought to need the centers' support.

Two years ago, the ministry determined that an additional 29 centers were required, based on the number of children considered at risk of dropping out of school at the time. While some people at the ministry disputed that estimate, no one challenged the need for a substantial increase in the number of after-school centers.

Within the past two years the ministry's budget for the centers has increased from about NIS 35 million to NIS 37.5 million. It costs about NIS 200,000 a year to run a single facility.

One high-ranking Education Ministry official said the dilemma over who to admit includes whether two children from the same family should be given the chance to attend a center, and if not, whether to choose the older child or the younger one, and whether to choose the child of a drug addict or a child who has no food at home.

Most of the centers serve children up to 7th grade. According to the director of one center, "when the children get to junior high school, with all the difficulties of a new setting and adolescence, we stop supporting them. Most won't receive help at school. They are left to their fates."

Senior ministry sources said the ministry's priority for the past 10 years has been improving students' academic achievement, especially on matriculation exams.

"The heads of the ministry have known the scope of the problem for many years," said one senior official, "but they have a different agenda."

Another high-placed official said education ministers love to show off achievements.

"The after-school centers' work is not one of them, and clearly they cannot produce immediate results," said the official.