Dreams of the Past, Nightmares of the Present

The flourishing greenery of GanMeir park is close enough to touch, but the gate that leads to it is locked. The Dov Hos technical high school, which is located on the edge of the public park in Tel Aviv, does not allow easy access the the paths seen through the windows. The principal, Irit Talmud, has a clear vision when it comes to her difficult, young students, and loitering is not a part of it.

Founded in 1924 as an elementary school for the children of workers, in its earlier incarnation, Gan Meir's students included poet Haim Gouri and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Those were the glory days of the institution, days when the metal gate was always open. In interviews a few years ago, some of Rabin's old classmates related how the students would be out climbing the park's sycamore trees in the midst of the school day. The freedom to enjoy their studies, through a bond with nature, fit the educational philosophy of their legendary teacher, the writer Eliezer Shmueli. "While we were still up in the trees, the teacher would stand at the bottom and ask us questions," recalled a Rabin classmate in an article that appeared in Haaretz on the eve of the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Today's gray reality and daily routine of the Dov Hos high school - whose government budget was cut by 15 percent this year, and which is in danger of closure - is light-years away from the pastoral descriptions of that private elitist school of the 1920s. The students today spend half the week in school, and the other half working, but classes in logistics management, hair design and bookkeeping are hardly an echo of the Bible and literature classes of yesteryear.

The place bears no vestige of its illustrious past as a school for the privileged children of the workers' movement. There are no graduation-class photographs on the wall. The legacy of the pioneer immigrants of the "Third Aliyah" does not seem to belong here. After all, what connection is there between the mostly unmotivated, tired-eyed youth from south Tel Aviv, Kfar Shalem or the Hatikva neighborhood with those children of politicos and Knesset members, who had a future ahead of them? And what is there in common between a high school called "a third and fourth chance" and an institution that shaped the "salt of the earth"?

The Dov Hos high school was founded twenty years ago as one of five technical schools of the Dror network, a project of the Noar Ha'oved VeHalomed organization. It is under the direction of the Professional Training department of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. Its students are all considered youth at risk, all come from from low socio-economic backgrounds, some from Russian-speaking immigrant families. Some are referred to the school by Education Ministry inspectors, others follow their friends there after they have dropped out of the regular school system. In addition, at the beginning of every year, the teachers go looking for potential students on the streets of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods. For that reason, the school only fills up in October.

"The students were made to drop out [of the school system]," says Talmud about her students. "Someone made sure they would leave school. They were too problematic, with learning disabilities, and no one really tried to help them." In the past, the school taught only metalwork and carpentry, but the place has been transformed in recent years. Now it offers tracks that are viable for today's labor market, like information systems management, graphics and hair design. The school's graduates receive a trade certification and a diploma for completing twelve years of school. Several students take a few matriculation exams. For their three work days, they are sent to firms like the Bezeq communications company or the Electric Corporation, where they work for nominal wages plus benefits. Working in a regular work-place is a source of pride, says Talmud.

Despite the gap between the worlds of the two institutions, Dov Hos and its predecessor, there is also a thread common to both. It seems that something of the idealistic spirit of education in the 1920s has remained, and has become embedded in the present institution. The dedicated staff, most of whom have taught here for years, are united by an incurable optimism and faith in human nature. It can be said with confidence that they have chalked up successes: Students leave here as functioning citizens, holding jobs, doing army service - very different to how they were when they first arrived.

Among its outstanding achievements is the fact that last year the school ranked first in Hebrew subjects out of all the technical schools in the country. In the last five years, an increasing number of the students have completed the full 12 years of school, and many have studied for matriculation. Until then, they had to be content with a diploma issued after being in school for 10 years.

Nevertheless, in light of the budget cut-backs - as a result of which five out of Dov Hos' 25 teachers were dismissed this year, including the social worker, who is much needed in a school like this - "the school is gradually deteriorating from something living and breathing to something only half-alive," says Talmud in frustration. She has been the principal for 15 years, and observes that "we have many students whose parents are addicts, and don't have a normal home in which to do homework. Most have learning disabilities and emotional problems. If you see your father being violent toward your mother, perhaps you won't come to school tomorrow. These are kids who need emotional support."

The overcrowded high school received a large building this year, near City Hall. According to Talmud, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry (ITL) had promised to fund the necessary renovations, but did not keep its word, and consequently the school cannot move to its new premises. The ministry, says the principal, lays the responsibility for the budgetary problem on the shoulders of the Finance Ministry, and makes no attempt to deal with the issue. As a result, she says, the place is facing the threat of closure. Just before Yom Kippur, the school held a public demonstration, and personally attacked the ITL minister, Eli Yishai [Shas], but the protest was toned down a little because of the condition of [Shas leader] Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who was in hospital.

Yishai's office announced that "the minister has instructed the director-general of the ministry, Gabriel Maimon, to examine the issue of the Dov Hos school in depth. He intends to meet with the school committee to put forward the steps necessary to avoid harming the school's students."

According to Talmud, the allocation per student - this is the manner in which technical schools are funded - is the source of the trouble. Because of the diversity of problems, emotional and academic, with which the school has to grapple, the number of students in a class is very small, and sometimes they even study one-on-one, or in groups of three or four. "The budget doesn't cover these classes, and that is why the school is chronically in the red," she says. The ministry demands bigger classes, she continues, but these are not practical.

The school's lack of means is obvious. "We're like those poor people who keep cleaning what they've got," smiles Talmud. "We see in real life how a welfare state fails to function. There were years in which we could ask the municipal welfare department for bus tickets for the students, or a small budget for food for needy students. Today the welfare is bankrupt. I get donations for bus tickets from friends in Ramat Hasharon. And for dental treatment and food as well. But how much can you depend on donations? It's exhausting, and there is no end to it.

"If they were to come and tell me that the role of the school has ended, and that the students will be absorbed into other schools, it would be fairer," she says. "In the present situation, they're preventing us from existing at all. This is a very important framework for the students, and they're cutting it down." Apart from the teachers who were dismissed, the school has cut back on essential study time, and in particular on supplementary lessons for students with learning disabilities. "In a school in which the majority of the students are victims of the educational system, they should be paying us to do what we do, not reduce our budget."

"I live in Ramat Hasharon. My daughters go to high school there," Talmud relates. "I want to see anyone dare deprive the Allon high school students of even one hour of the many hours of enrichment classes they have! How can you reduce supplementary classes? How can you hurt students whose self-image and belief are almost zero? At least we give them some taste of success."