After several years of declining numbers, this past school year saw the student dropout rate jump by almost 40 percent - from 29,000 to 40,000 in a single year - according to a recently released Education Ministry internal memorandum.
Three-quarters of student dropouts came from three population groups: new immigrants, the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.
The figures, compiled by the ministry in conjunction with the Central Bureau of Statistics, show that some 24,000 of the 40,000 students who dropped out were between 9th and 12th grade. Some 8,000 were in 7th or 8th grade (up from 5,000 the year before ), and almost 8,000 were in 6th grade or lower (up from 4,500 the year before ). Sixty-five percent of dropouts were Jewish, while most of the rest were Arab - the latter group representing a far larger proportion of dropouts than its share of the population.
Ministry officials said the spike could stem from tougher guidelines for school administrators on reporting students leaving their institutions, as well as budget difficulties which don't allow teachers and administrators "to reach every student."
"Kids just disappear from school. The dropout process is long - in theory there is a lot of time to offer alternative solutions to each student," said one official, noting that administrators simply lacked the resources to keep up with growing dropout rates.
Despite a number of discussions in recent years on the phenomenon, an official said, "We still don't know where thousands of students have gone, and whether they're in school at all. Every year more talks and meetings are held on the subject, but very little changes."
Another ministry source said the fundamental problem is that "the heads of the Education Ministry always say that dealing with the dropout rate is one of their major goals, but no real efforts are made on the ground. There are different programs, but they're done in a piecemeal fashion. We need to strike at the root of the problem."
The disconcerting figures come amid reports of growing "waiting lists" for after-school programs run by the ministry for at-risk youth. Officials said that for every child accepted to one of 550 such centers nationwide, eight or nine are turned away. Two years ago, they said, that rate stood at five or six students turned away for each student accepted.
"Addressing the needs of weaker socioeconomic groups doesn't exactly top the ministry agenda. It would rather talk about eligibility rates for matriculation exams," an official said.
On Tuesday, it emerged that the rate of students eligible for the exams has risen 1.7 percent from the previous school year.Schools today or jails tomorrow?
Yesterday a conference on lowering dropout rates was held at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. Yair Ronen of the university's School of Social Work said the Education Ministry "isn't dealing with the thousands of youths who have no structure in their lives and are exposed to street violence, crime and drugs. The ministry must pass additional budgeting for these individuals so that they continue studying in school."
"Thousands of immigrants' children are defined as 'isolated,' but the truth is that the system has disengaged from them," Eli Zarchin, head of the Israeli Association for Immigrant Children, added. "It hasn't found answers for their particular emotional and educational needs. The right to education is being denied to the population most in need. The state must decide whether it wants to fund schools today, or jails tomorrow."
The Education Ministry said in response, "Various programs are being operated to try to reduce the dropout rate, some of them well-known and others more discreet... The programs deal with bolstering activities in conjunction with local welfare authorities to address personal problems identified among dropouts."
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