At This East Jerusalem School, Non-stop Play Is an Educational Tool

Pioneering principal and educators found a way to make up for a missed kindergarten education — and empowered parents and girls along the way

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Principal Shirin Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim with students at the Alghazali School, Umm Lisun, East Jerusalem, May 22, 2019.
Principal Shirin Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim with students at the Alghazali School, Umm Lisun, East Jerusalem, May 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

First grade in East Jerusalem’s Alghazali School is reminiscent of a kindergarten: A small group of children is sculpting letters from plasticine; others are drawing words in the sand. Three kids sitting around a table are copying sentences onto a dry-erase board. One girl broke off from her peers, choosing to spend her time reading on a bench.

Almost like kindergarten, but with a strong emphasis on reading and writing. This is no coincidence. An internal investigation in the school some two years ago concluded that about a quarter of the first grade class never attended kindergarten, and among most of those who did, attendance was inconsistent. There is a shortage of kindergartens in East Jerusalem, and in the Umm Lisun neighborhood, where the school is located, there is not a single municipal kindergarten.

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“Parents interested in enrolling children in municipal kindergartens can do so in neighboring schools,” the Jerusalem Municipality told Haaretz. But the kindergartens in nearby neighborhoods are not very accessible and do not always have room.

Beyond the lack of schools, most of the children's mothers are housewives, and find it more convenient to keep the children at home than drive them to distant kindergartens. It is also cheaper – an important factor in single-income families.

The mothers who work are mostly cleaners and about half of the fathers are employed as drivers. Thirteen percent of them do not work at all – a number three times higher than the unemployment rate. The parents, of whom only about four percent graduated from high school, have difficulty helping the children with homework, especially in English and Hebrew.

Alghazali School, East Jerusalem, May 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The school’s principal for the past decade, Shirin Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim, says that until the survey “we didn’t understand why, despite all our efforts, some children couldn't advance in the first years of school.”

“A child who didn't go to kindergarten arrives at first grade a little different,” she says. There are gaps in knowledge and certain skills, but mainly in adjusting to the educational framework and the ability to form social ties.

This is why, in the Alghazali School's first grade class, teachers walk among the children, guiding and praising, but at no stage do they stand in front of the class to write on the board. Nor do they ask the children to sit quietly or mind when the children talk to each other and wander around freely. The children seem to be enjoying themselves and anyone who is not can go out to the hallway, scribble on a sheet of paper several meters long hanging on the wall, play with Legos or go outside to the sandbox.

Ibrahim was one of 30 principals selected every year to the Mifras program, funded by leading philanthropic endowments together with the Education Ministry. The two-year program provides principals with tools and a financial grant for their schools, enabling them to enact significant change. The emphasis is on profound processes adapted to the particular school and developed with the entire teaching staff.

No rush

Outside the school’s well-kept building is a complicated and difficult reality. The separation barrier has severed the neighborhood – with some of it falling within Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction and the other side beyond the fence, in the Palestinian territories. Children on the Palestinian side are forced to pass a checkpoint every day to get to school. All of East Jerusalem, and especially the education system, has suffered from ongoing neglect for years. The head of Jerusalem’s department of education, Aviv Keinan, is aware of this, saying “it’s a testimony to the weakness and non-existence of the education system."

Students and teachers at the Alghazali School, East Jerusalem, May 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The dropout rate is high and even those who finish their studies are left with poor Hebrew and a slim chance of acquiring higher education. In recent years, increasing sums of municipal funds are pouring into the system in the form of buildings, informal education and afternoon Hebrew courses for students in higher grades. A separate government decision, made last year, calls for a five-year plan to invest about two billion shekels in East Jerusalem, hundreds of millions of which are earmarked for the education system to raise enrollment and improve infrastructure.

Today about half of East Jerusalem's 100 thousand students go to recognized unofficial schools and to private schools run by Christian and Islamic NGOs and other establishments. The rest, about 50 thousand, are enrolled in the official Israeli education system. Most of them study the Palestinian curriculum and take Palestinian matriculation exams. Only six thousand students study the Israeli curriculum.

“For years no funds were invested in the system – a wasteland,” Keinan says, adding that budgets are not accompanied by a demand to move to the Israeli curriculum. “On the face of it, they could have invested only in the six thousand students who take matriculation exams. But that’s not the case,” he says. The schools that opt for the Israeli curriculum are awarded a larger budget, but it does not generate more interest. In Alghazali, they use the Palestinian curriculum

A day without backpacks

In Alghazali, there are 540 students in the school’s nine grades – first to ninth - as well as seven special education classes, whose students come from all over East Jerusalem. The students with special needs find their places in regular classes according to their abilities and take part in all the class’ social activities.

In elementary school, boys and girls study together, then the boys move to an adjacent school and the girls continue to ninth grade. All the girls in the middle school learn sign language, and in conversation, gesture in the new language, which joins the three languages studied at the school: Arabic, English and Hebrew.

Students and teachers at the Alghazali School, East Jerusalem, May 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The games in Alghazali never stop. Last year, they declared a “day without backpacks,” in which children from first to fourth grade bring only their morning snack to school and pass the day playing games based on the study material. To fulfil the mission, teachers needed to cooperate, and the learning materials needed to be blended with creativity and physical activity.

“We realized that thinking together encourages teachers’ creativity,” says Ibrahim. The school is now working on a collection of these games and activities.

This year they decided to expand the project to the upper grades as well. In grades five and six some of the exams were replaced with tasks focusing on preparing games based on the study material. Some of them are standard educational games, like bingo, but others are original. “Every time it becomes more and more creative – we upgrade,” says Ibrahim. Gradually they started bringing games to class that their parents and grandparents taught them, games that are no longer played today.

The teachers ran into another challenge in need of a creative solution: parents have difficulty helping children with homework, especially in Hebrew and English. Ibrahim found a creative way to get the parents involved. The children get assignments – to say a few sentences in English, or to point at things and name them in the foreign language. The parents’ task is to film them doing so with their mobile phones. “Everyone watches the clips,” says Ibrahim. “It gives them power.”

In the lower grades, it was decided to let mothers accompany their children for a whole day once every few weeks, a group of mothers at a time. That day, they add a class like music or physical education. “If the mother has no time to be available for a child in the afternoon, because she has other children to look after, here she can come and be only with him for a few hours,” Ibrahim says.

The middle school also started integrating games, though the initiative did raise questions. “At first I was against the games, I thought, what do I need this for?” says science teacher Suhad Abidat. Over time, she says, she realized that games are also trivia quizzes and science competitions – “that brings motivation into it."

It is easy to see why they would be in need of motivation – 30 percent of female middle school graduates do not move on to high school. Infrastructure is an important factor. In Umm Lisun, there is no girls' high school, and students have to travel the nearby Sur Baher. Here, too, the school understood it was in need of change, started organizing “women’s circles,” in which girls form the upper grades met women who could teach them about higher education and careers. It started with schoolteachers, although "it was not a given that they would talk about themselves,” says Ibrahim.

The advantage is that teachers are "a figure from their immediate environment and suddenly the girls see they can learn something from her,” she says. Later, the circle expanded to include other women from the neighborhood and from across East Jerusalem – from school principals to social activists.

Most important, Ibrahim says, are students who graduated from the schools and now study at Palestinian universities in Bethlehem and Birzeit, as well as in David Yellin College of Education, Hadassah College and the pre-academic courses of Hebrew University. They discussed the language barriers and the challenges of leaving home, and had the greatest impact on the girls, says Ibrahim.

Ibrahim and the teachers speak cautiously about the change they are trying to bring about for the girls. They emphasize that the changes come in tandem with and with respect for the local community “without negative forces,” as one teacher put it. Ibrahim says this is important to her because, as a resident of Abu Gosh, she came in as an outsider.

“My job is to open more worlds for the girls,” she says. “There’s a main road – to go out to the labor market at a young age and marry young. But it’s important to me that they know there are other ways."