Six years and three education ministers ago, my daughter entered first grade, before we moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Education strategies may have evolved since then, but I could not detect much change. In a meeting with my son's first-grade teacher last week, she advised me to write him a note on a special board at the entrance to the school. My daughter's first-grade teacher had suggested the same thing.
The classrooms in my son's new school smelled of fresh paint. The floor tiles had been replaced, and the entrance boasted a new commemoration wall for the school's graduates who had fallen in the line of duty.
As I knelt to write my note to my son, I wondered whether I had made the right choice by enrolling him there. Is this the right place for him to spend the next six years of his life? It wasn't too late; the neighborhood's other school, where I had decided not to send him, was still accepting. But how was I to explain the sudden change to my son?
In fact, I had three options. Most parents in the affluent neighborhood where I live choose the area's leading elementary school, which prides itself over an impressive list of famous graduates. The graduating 12-year-olds usually continue on to the well-renowned local high school, whose matriculants also include some impressive names.
But the school where I decided to enroll my son, situated across from the other elementary school, was smaller and more cozy.
Like all other Jerusalemite parents, I had a third option - a unique elementary school farther away that seeks to integrate religious and secular students. The school, whose creed appealed to me, gives considerable weight to Jewish studies.
However, that school is in such high demand that procrastinating parents like myself have little chance of enrolling their children there. The religious-Jewish school does enjoy an excellent reputation, but its popularity stems mainly from the regular school system's poor name.
The more renowned school, which I decided against, is considered achievement-oriented. To me, that spelled excessive homework and competition. To be honest, I didn't particularly take to the huge, gray concrete building and the gigantic sports yard.
My son's school is more traditional, with a cozy and inviting entrance. Tall trees shade its yard, which barely holds the entire student population. I chose it on budgetary grounds, too. More well-to-do parents can afford making substantial monthly supplementary payments to the school - an expense I cannot afford, nor do I want to make.
The funds are put toward acquiring new technology and implementing new schooling methods that do not contribute to knowledge or education in the true sense of the word. My son's school must make do with regular payments from parents. I will pay for extracurricular activities, if I can afford them.
I decided to send my son to the smaller school after attending meetings with neighborhood parents, some of whom had sent their kids to the bigger establishment. The parents told of violence during lunch breaks, a sense of alienation, and unnecessary emphasis on homework that did not contribute to students' education.
In those meetings, where parents expressed their earnest concerns, I sensed that the school embodied all of our education system's ailments and maladies. It boasted past glory, but its primary educational goal was hollow.
I ultimately chose a school my son could love. What's love got to do with education? A lot. And I don't mean the new-age sense of the word, but a much more simple sort of love.
Teachers with warm and genuine smiles. A vice principal who knows all the pupils by name, and a principal who hires caring teachers who do their best with meager means and a varied student body.
At my son's school, pupils with Down Syndrome attend regular classes. There's no violence in the classroom.
In the note to my son, posted on the board by the entrance, I wished him a fabulous school year. As I drew him a ridiculous large smiley, I wondered whether I was painting a unrealistically rosy picture to convince him, and me, that I had made the right choice.
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