Dozens of Ethiopian Kids Miss First Day of School in Petah Tikva

Education Min. official: Schools are competing with each other over who will have fewer Ethiopian students.

Dozens of children of Ethiopian origin in Petah Tikva did not begin studies Tuesday as schools appeared to take pains to accept as few such students as possible. Education officials, however, said the latest problems were merely bureaucratic, after the deal Monday night to take all the students in.

Parents and children - many with school backpacks - crowded a narrow corridor on the fifth floor of the municipality's education department, some waiting 12 hours to hear where their children would be enrolled. Many children arrived in schools throughout the city but were not placed in classes. Instead, they were sent to the library or the teachers' lounge where they waited two or three hours until they were told to return to the municipality.

"I don't believe anybody anymore - not the Education Ministry, not the city and not the school. Nobody wants us," said Nena Balai, whose son was supposed to start first grade.

In the small offices of the municipality's education department, city officials and the schools seemed to be bargaining over the placement of the children of Ethiopian origin. "Some principals said they would not accept the children until they saw how many were in another school," said one person close to the situation.

Many parents had stories about children being sent home from school. On Monday night, Balai said that "they called from the city and said we should go to Morasha [a state religious school]. We got there at 8 A.M., but we did not go into the classroom. The boy sat in the teachers' lounge and was given a piece of paper to draw on. At 11 A.M. they told us to go back to the municipality. The school said it could not accept us."

According to David Maharat, the head of the Education Ministry's advisory body on integrating Ethiopian schoolchildren, "this is one humiliation too many. Schools are competing with each other over who will have fewer students of Ethiopian origin."

The Education Ministry, the municipality, the state religious schools and the private schools all had various explanations for what had happened. The Education Ministry said about 16 "new" students remained to be enrolled.

Tuesday afternoon, Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani said at the Petah Tikva municipality that children had been mistakenly sent to the wrong school, or that student data was unclear. The city said students had gone to schools to which they were not enrolled. The families said there were language difficulties.

Many of the children who did not begin school Tuesday were turned away by state religious schools. These have been at the forefront in recent weeks in the fight against the three private religious schools that had refused to fully comply with Education Ministry directives on enrollment. The head of the parents' committee of the state religious schools, Nir Orbach, said that "we agreed to accept 40 students [out of 100]. We will not accept more."

Spokesmen for the three private religious schools said they had accepted all 30 students sent to them, but that the names and ages of the children did not always match those on their lists.