C'tee: Keep Poland Trips Accessible to Poorer Students

Concerned that high school trips to Poland are becoming the vestige of the well-off, an Education Ministry-appointed committee recommended shortening the trips and increasing scholarships in order to reduce the cost to students.

Ministry officials said yesterday that Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who received the committee's report some three weeks ago, would probably approve the recommendations. Haaretz has gained access to the report.

Israel has been sending high-schoolers to Poland to learn about the Holocaust since 1988. Over the last few years, the number of participants increased significantly: from 16,000 students in 2002 to 27,000 last year. But the trend reversed this year. Education Ministry data shows that only 4,657 students traveled to Poland between February and April this year, compared to 8,853 in the same period in 2007.

The ministry notes that a full comparison is not proper, since the secondary school teachers' strike affected trip preparations for the trip this year. However, the drop may also stem from the sharp increase in the trip's cost - up NIS 1,500 per student, bringing the total cost to NIS 7,000. As an interim solution, the Education Ministry increased subsidies by 500 shekels per student as of May.

Committee members warn that the rising cost will decrease the number of students from the periphery who participate. As it is, the trip draws a disproportionate number of students from better-off areas. "Strong" schools send 70-80 percent of their 11th graders, while "weak" schools send only 10-15 percent, one committee member said. Over the last year, the Yedid nonprofit organization has been campaigning to reduce the cost of the trip.

The committee, headed by former Education Ministry accountant general Moti Meroz, was asked to consider the trip's educational aspect as well.

One of the report's first recommendations was shortening the trip to five to seven days, in place of the current eight. This would save as much as NIS 1,500 per student. The days cut from the trip could be used as preparation time at a Holocaust teaching center in Israel.

However, "the cut cannot come at the expense of achieving most of the goals of the trip, and visiting key sites: Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau," the committee stated.

The committee called for improving the pre-trip preparation process. "School principals who appeared before us noted that the control and supervision of these processes is flawed and barely exists," it stated.

"Many schools depart without sufficient preparation," said the director general of Lohamei Ha'geta'ot House, Simcha Stein, the committee member responsible for the pedagogical evaluation. "It's no secret that preparation is not the best. The Education Ministry has to build a serious oversight system to verify that the schools are indeed meeting the requirements."

Another recommendation is that preparations "include all students in the grade, even those who don't intend to go on the trip" - contrary to the current situation.

The Education Ministry, through its scholarship fund, currently provides less than NIS 1 million a year in financial aid to around 1,000 students. Even though it views the project as important, this sum has not increased in recent years. The committee recommended increasing this amount to NIS 5 million and dividing it up based on socioeconomics.

"Without considerable subsidies for the population that needs it, participation will be limited to only the better off," said one committee member.

The committee also criticized the way scholarships currently are handled. "[The system] is misguided and heavily bureaucratic, and results in most of the scholarships being granted to students long after the end of the trip," it said.

The committee also recommended continuing to allow schools to contact different travel agencies approved by the Ministry of Education, in order to negotiate for the lowest price, as opposed to going with a ministry-appointed supplier.

The Education Ministry said in response, "Discussions are underway regarding the youth delegations to Poland, and as yet no decisions have been made."