Growing Pains: Tel Aviv Schools Struggle to Cope With Baby Boom

Parents face off with municipality as it attempts to deal with population growth with massive school construction

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Parents and children from the Yefe Nof school in Jaffa, February 12, 2020
Parents and children from the Yefe Nof school in Jaffa, February 12, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The education department at Tel Aviv city hall has seen intense activity in the past few weeks: Various parents’ groups have been fighting the municipality’s decisions to change the registration zones for schools, close down some schools and demolish school buildings and rebuild them.

They’ve called strikes, sent petitions and used political pressure. The different protests have a single cause: a significant increase in the number of schoolchildren in the city, requiring the building of new schools, some of which are under rapid construction already.

Meanwhile, parents complain that the municipality is operating with a lack of transparency and without long-term planning. The city says that a budget shortfall due to the lack of a functioning government has prevented the timely construction of schools, and that is why things are proceeding with such haste now.

Some 33,000 pupils attend Tel Aviv elementary schools, and 21,000 are in the city’s middle schools and high schools. The trend used to be that residents would leave the city when their children reached high school, but now many more are staying put.

Parents and children in front of the Bloch school in Bitzaron, Tel Aviv, February 12, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The city has grown with tremendous speed,” says Shirli Rimon, head of the city’s education administration, who says the city foresaw the growth in numbers and is opening new schools, including a new school that will open this fall on the grounds of Seminar Hakibbutzim, and another school the following year next to Tichonet in north Tel Aviv.

However, a top municipality official familiar with the details says, “There was zero preparation for the increase in the number of students with no strategic planning.” He says the main growth is in the seventh and eighth grades.

“This growth could have been predicted when current seventh-graders were in first grade. The city has six years from the time this group started school to build secondary schools and prepare, but they didn’t address it.”

A former official in the municipality’s planning division says, however, that “the decisions of when and how to build school buildings are not up to the professionals here. We worked according to the population forecasts that took into account the expected growth in wake of construction, but the decisions were made on the political level. These forecasts are not guaranteed, sometimes there are surprises.”

One of the new schools slated to open this fall is in the Tzamarot neighborhood; students from the Bloch elementary school in the Bitzaron neighborhood are to be sent there. Parents are opposed, saying the school only exists on paper and that the city has yet to carry out an air pollution survey despite the location close to major traffic arteries. Local residents have also filed a petition seeking to halt the construction work before it begins, charging that the school will be built on the neighborhood’s lone stretch of greenery.

Residents of other Tel Aviv neighborhoods, such as Neve Shaanan and Hadar Yosef are also fighting the city’s plans to build schools in place of parks.

Students in the front of the Yefe Nof school in Jaffa, February 12, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Religious are a minority

While schools in the state system are grappling with the big increase in enrollment, several south Tel Aviv schools that are part of the state religious system are fighting for their lives, as class sizes dip below the minimum set by the Education Ministry.

In January, a decision was made to close the Yefe Nof school in Jaffa. The city plans to transport religious pupils from Jaffa to the Shorashim school in the Shapira neighborhood, which also has dwindling enrollment.

The uncertainty is even greater for families in the state religious schools system, in a city where they are in the minority. If a state religious school is closed down, the students could end up either in one of the unofficial ultra-Orthodox schools in the area, or the parents may prefer to send their children to the regular state public school if there is no state religious school within a reasonable distance.

Farewell to the preschool yard

Children playing in a park in north Tel Aviv, which the municipality intends to demolish in order to build a high rise, February 12, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

The preschool on Ha’Avoda Street currently has a large yard with a small building that holds two preschool classes and another historic building with seven classrooms. The large plot is in the middle of the city, near Sheinkin Street, on land in high demand. In December, parents were informed that this summer the city would replace the smaller structure with a four-story building that will hold 10 classrooms. During the work, the two classrooms will be closed and the other seven will have no yard, and the children will attend preschool in the midst of a construction site.

The new building is supposed to have large covered terraces that take the place of the large yard.

“We didn’t want to have to make these changes but we didn’t have a choice; the current building is falling apart,” says Rimon. “The ceiling is sagging, and there are leaks. Each time we do another renovation so the place will be safe but you can’t keep bringing children there.”

She says that with the new building they aimed to preserve the current atmosphere. “It’s impossible to preserve the size of the yard, but each floor will have huge terraces where amazing things can be done: It’s all out of wood, and there will be sandboxes and greenery.”

“When it’s a crowded area and there’s no other choice, then it’s possible to talk about terraces as a solution,” says Keshet Einhorn, whose daughter is now in kindergarten on Ha’avoda Street.

Parents and children in a park on HaAvoda street, central Tel Aviv, which will be demolished to make way for a new complex, February 12, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

“Here we do have a yard, all we ask is that it not be touched. Besides the pedagogical value of seeing earth and sky while playing, the common yard lets children from all the preschool classes meet and get to know other children.”

A similar situation is occurring at the preschool compound on Levi Yitzhak Street in central Tel Aviv. There are currently four preschool classes there in two buildings, surrounded by a very large yard with sand, “something that soon we’ll only hear about in fairy tales,” says Efrat Abramov, a parent at the school. The city plans to demolish one of the buildings and build a multistory building with seven classrooms instead of two. “I know we don’t live on a kibbutz, but the importance of the yard shouldn’t be trivialized,” says Abramov, who, like other parents across the city, bemoans the lack of transparency.

“If there are two preschool buildings, why not add one story to each one so that we could also keep the yard? The feeling is that there is no long-term thinking, … only patchwork solutions.”

Rimon insists that parents have been informed about the various moves at an early stage. “Perhaps we could have done things differently, but the decision making process was careful and responsible,” she says.

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