Each Year, Fewer Immigrants Complete 12th Grade

A. immigrated from Russia in June 2005, after eight years of efforts on his mother's part to bring him here (he is not Jewish according to halakha). Upon his arrival, A. enrolled in tenth grade at Mekif High School in Rishon Letzion. The school has no ulpan (intensive Hebrew language program), so A. was referred to an evening ulpan for adults, run by the city. After two months, he dropped out the ulpan, embittered. "I have no one to speak to there," he complained. "Everyone is over 70."

Despite his scholastic achievements in Russia, A. was put in a class with the weakest students. But even among weak students, A. had no chance of keeping up. At the end of the first trimester, his mother was summoned to the school, where she was required to sign a document agreeing to have her son repeat tenth grade if his marks did not improve. A.'s family cannot afford a private tutor for him. His Hebrew barely improved, and at the end of the school year, he was not promoted to eleventh grade. Ashamed of having to repeat the year, A. has decided not to go back to school in September.

A. is not an isolated case. Rather, he is part of the dismal statistics on the growing number of immigrant teens who drop out of high school or do not sitting for matriculation exams. In the first decade after the big wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, the percentage of immigrants who matriculated was higher than that in the general population. But since 2003, the figures have reversed. According to data collated by the Education Ministry, in 2004, over 54 percent of teens in the general population matriculated, while the figure among immigrants was just 48.5 percent. In 2005, the percentage of immigrant teens passing the matriculation exams fell to 44.5 percent.

Figures provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that 46 percent of the young people who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the past five years will not complete 12 years of education. One in four immigrant teens is not in a formal education framework, and one of the remaining three that are in school does not attend classes regularly. These facts have very serious implications, particularly in light of the fact that the main motivation for immigrating from the Commonwealth of Independent States was and remains the parents' "concern for their children's future."

Based on all the above data, children and teens are the big failure of immigration absorption. In contrast with other absorption problems that solve themselves over time, the problem of teen absorption has only worsened. "The situation is very serious," said Knesset Member Zeev Elkin (Kadima), a member of the Knesset Education Committee and chair of the Subcommittee for the Absorption of Immigrant Children in the Education System. "The drastic decline in 2004 is not the result of a sudden change that year, but rather a situation that has been building up and began to manifest itself [then]."

Elkin, who has been following this process with concern, cited a few structural problems that have led to the deterioration of the situation. One of them, he said, is actually the sharp drop in immigration. "The state did not prepare for this new situation, in which there are far fewer immigrant children," he explained, "and they were simply removed from the agenda due to their low numbers."

"Thus, for example," Elkin continued, "every immigrant child is eligible for one or two hours of Hebrew instruction per week. In the past, when a school had, say, 20 immigrant students, they were entitled to a total of some 30 hours of ulpan. Now, when there are only two or three eligible students, there is no ulpan and no professional Hebrew teacher. Most schools simply choose a teacher with a free slot in his schedule and assign him to teach the children Hebrew. This is the beginning of the child's alienation process. He does not understand what is happening around him and does not integrate socially - something that was an important component of the absorption of youth in the 1990s."

The gradual isolation of immigrant children in the education system, and its consequences, are well known to Eli Zarkhin, director of the Association for Immigrant Children. He, too, cites the failure to teach them Hebrew as one of the main causes. Immigrant youth, he noted, are often sent for basic training to an Israel Defense Forces base that includes an ulpan. Some of the students who studied at this base immigrated to Israel 10 years ago, but they still did not have a good command of Hebrew, he noted.

"Problems within the community are also a contributing factor," said Zarkhin, explaining that immigrant youth go through an identity crisis and suffer discrimination, particularly from their teachers.

Zarkhin said that his association's hotline has received many complaints about ethnic slurs. Recently, the association even received a letter sent to the mother of an immigrant student by a teacher in Givatayim, in which the teacher told the mother to take her son back to Russia "to eat bread with onions."