School has been in session for more than two months, but the term still hasn’t begun for Tohar Berkovitch. Diagnosed with autism and suffering from emotional problems, the 9-year-old is eligible for visits by teachers in the Shlavim program that helps children who can’t attend school.
“At first I’d phone to ask what was happening,” said his mother, Perah Berkovitch. “Later I realized I had no reason to phone because there aren’t teachers. Once in a while I’d get a long-awaited call to be told ‘we’ve found someone,’ and then she wouldn’t turn up. We’re left with no solution.”
But the group Koach La Ovdim, known in English as the Democratic Workers’ Organization, says 30 teachers are sitting at home waiting for work, and dozens more are working part-time who would be happy to do some extra hours.
H., a teacher at Shlavim for the past three years, has been tutoring just one child this school year for four hours a week. Last year she worked almost full-time at 37 hours a week.
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“They tell me there aren’t any pupils, that it’s a process, that some employees haven’t found placement yet. It’s absurd,” she said. “It’s not logical for there to be teachers complaining about a lack of hours while parents are seeking more hours for their kids.”
Berkovitch, the mother with the autistic son, isn’t alone. Sharona Namer, who heads a group of parents struggling to find tutors, tells of more than 100 parents who have contacted her with complaints about not receiving any hours or too few hours, and about a lack of coordination with the Education Ministry.
The entity running Shlavim is the public service company Kadima Mada. It says the number of children needing home tutoring is much lower than what Namer describes. She points out difficulties in finding the right solution for a particular home, and communication difficulties between some tutors and the parents.
There are also logistical issues such as finding a tutor who lives near the student, and finding a tutor with the appropriate expertise.
Parents complain of a huge shortage in home tutoring hours, such as a ceiling of five hours per week for elementary school students, seven hours for secondary school students and 12 for students preparing for matriculation exams. This year, many children aren’t even receiving even this limited number of hours.
“They say there are no teachers and they have to recruit more,” said another parent, Zehavit Yoshia. “What keeps my child going and developing is his studies. Without teachers, he’s isolated. The only hope [the children] have is the lessons and being treated well.”
Yoshia’s son can’t breathe on his own; he uses a respirator. Kadima Mada offered to assign him a tutor but only for afternoons, that's when her boy has his daily therapy.
“These are the hours when he gets paramedical treatment, when he’s under the influence of medication that often makes him sleepy,” she said.
Berkovitch has a similar problem. “They found us a teacher who can only work mornings,” she said. “These are the hours when, if my child is feeling well, I try to send him to school for some social contact.”
Nela Davidov, who has two children needing Kadima Mada’s help, said she doesn’t receive all the services she’s entitled to.
“They say they don’t have the appropriate staff. Last year they sent a high school teacher for my boy of kindergarten age. So even when they find a teacher, they’re not always appropriate,” Davidov said.
“Where’s the Education Ministry? The company is getting money and the school is getting money. But we don’t get any services. Why should Kadima Mada make any effort for us?”
Kadima Mada has a staff of some 600 teachers and medical personnel. The staff helps thousands of children incapable of attending school daily; children who haven’t attended school for 21 days are entitled to its services, according to the Education Ministry.
The company won the bidding process for the contract in June 2014. For years teachers have complained about their employment terms, while parents have complained that their children don’t receive the hours and treatment for which they’re eligible.
Still, the ministry has sought to extend the contract with Kadima Mada through the end of next year, maintaining that any changes would hurt the teaching process. The sum paid to the company has risen to 59 million shekels ($15.9 million) from 31.7 million shekels in 2015, but the teachers’ employment terms have not improved.
Kadima Mada said it can’t approve terms for permanent employment because the number of students enrolled in its services changes from month to month. Some children get well and go back to school, while newly eligible children are enrolled. Teachers reject this explanation.
D., another teacher at the program, tutors four children. Last year he had seven.
“We wrote letters to the ministry over the summer to point out the problematic situation .... We get stuck with very few assignment hours. We’ve asked to meet about it but we’ve been totally ignored.”
Kadima Mada said in response: “The basis for employment in the Shlavim program is a provisional basis, according to the terms of the tender. We are committed to supplying special and regular services according to Education Ministry instructions. As for the cases detailed in this article, we cannot comment for reasons of privacy but wish to emphasize that these details are not accurate.”
The Education Ministry said: “The ministry plans to expand instruction hours for children homebound due to illness from one to two weekly hours.
“The teachers for this program are employed by Kadima Mada, and their terms of employment are set by the employer. There are a few isolated cases of children for whom a lesson plan must be prepared, work that is currently in progress. Home tutoring services will begin immediately once a plan has been devised.”