School Matters / Desperate Times and Desperate Statements

Although the Education Ministry has preached the mainstreaming of special-education students for years, it still hasn't found the budget to hire new staff. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv's Kehila Democratic School is celebrating winning its battle for a license.

By Or KashtiGovernment clerks tend to demonstrate loyalty to their workplaces. Education Ministry employees are no exception to the rule - they rarely air their dirty laundry in public. After all, no one wants to risk being reprimanded. This said, the truth behind the whitewashed reality is sometimes disclosed in a public committee forum. Education Ministry chief psychologist Hava Friedman recently told the public committee on education that she was critical of the way special-needs students were being handled by the system.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir established the public committee, headed by retired High Court justice Dalia Dorner, last September. Among other objectives, the committee is charged with examining "the way in which the Education Ministry budget is allocated in every case pertaining to special-needs students" and "to draft a plan which defines priorities in this arena." The committee comprises heads of parents groups and senior education and finance ministry officials.

Friedman addressed the committee about three weeks ago. Her statements were clear and to the point: The Education Ministry has for years failed to cope with the complex demands of children with special needs - particularly those who want to be mainstreamed in regular classrooms. Friedman has time and again emphasized the horrendous gap between the prevailing professional approach and the official state policy.

"The list [of allocated funds] did not dovetail with legislation. The gaps are insane. The children mainstreamed in the regular system lack all the things that are supposed to be there for their sake," says Friedman.

Around 14,000 educational psychologists work for the Education Ministry's Shefi department of psychological services. They serve 250 local councils. The psychologists are employed by the local councils but are accountable to the Education Ministry. In addition to a long list of authorities, the psychologists are responsible for identifying children with special needs, making decisions regarding their placement in regular schools and determining the degree of special assistance they ought to receive.

When asked whether mainstreamed kindergartners received the support they required, she responded frankly: "The bottom line is that in the current situation, a child with special needs who is mainstreamed in a regular kindergarten class will receive a very limited education." She added that since an amendment to the Special Education Law was passed five years ago, stipulating that every mainstreamed child was entitled to psychological care, only 10 new counseling positions had been opened. But the problems begin at a far earlier stage of the mainstreaming process.

Friedman says, "There is no satisfactory screening and evaluation system in the regular education system. And if the Education Ministry director-general's memo addresses the legitimate and necessary demand that a major effort be made to work with these children within the regular system, one of the concerns is that this is a case of 'empty slogans.'"

Friedman also confirms a fact well-known to every parent who has suffered the deliberations of the mainstreaming committee: Not only does the institution classify the student according to its ability to assist him - the interdisciplinary staff often tailors its support according to options available at the school rather than the child's needs.

Friedman cites the system's limited ability to identify learning disabilities in preschool aged children and maintains that "any delay in treatment represents severe damage that is sometimes irreversible." Friedman stresses that "even if they choose to take it to the level of fiscal considerations, it's just turning a blind eye, because early identification and treatment also saves money."

"That's the stupidity of this system," says public committee chair Dahlia Dorner. Committee member Yossi Malka, director of AKIM - the National Association for the Mentally Disabled, responds in jest: "The Finance Ministry representative on the committee [Deputy Budget Supervisor Raviv Sobol] knew you would say that. So he didn't come today - or any other day." Sobol attended only a few of the meetings. The Finance Ministry responded: "A representative of the budget department was present [at the committee meetings], whether it was the deputy supervisor or a coordinator of the field of education under his auspices."

'The ministry is a fossil'

Last week, Tamir published a new list of regulations schools need to meet to gain "semi-official institution" status. The list was published ahead of the implementation of the Nahari Law, which obliges local authorities to finance semi-official educational institutions. In the process of drawing up the list, the Education Ministry attempted to define - perhaps for the first time - what makes these schools so unique. However, they were unable to come up with a clear idea. Tamir said it was possible to draw a general outline of ultra-Orthodox education, but secular education presented a greater challenge because, "the characteristics are far more flexible and subject to change."

It is no wonder the ministry had a hard time defining secular, unconventional schools.

The Education Ministry's policy regarding the democratic education system, a majority of whose institutions operate under the "semi-official institution" status, is unclear. Therefore, the ministry and local democratic education initiatives, such as the Kehila Democratic School in Tel Aviv, sometimes clash.

The school opened in 2005. Both of its requests for an education license were rejected. The ministry initially cited formal reasons for its rejection of the school's requests. But even after school officials, led by former principal Yael Biber-Aviad, made all the required amendments, the ministry continued to refuse to grant the school a license. This time, the central reason cited for the ministry's refusal was that the school failed to meet the demands of a "core curriculum," which defines the obligatory content and extent of curriculum in a few basic subjects.

A few months ago, school officials once again beseeched the Education Ministry's Appeals Committee. The decision of the committee, led by former justice Dan Arbel, was unequivocal. "The Education Ministry is entitled to make licensure conditional upon the issue of 'core curriculum,'" the committee report stated, "as long as those conditions do not deliver a real blow to the basic concept that is the foundation of the democratic education system."

The decision made a few weeks ago means that the "core curriculum" must first and foremost express a principle rather than a formal system of Hebrew, English, or mathematics lessons. The democratic system achieved a victory. Its license and recognition (backed by fiscal support) are pending. Kehila's central claim was that it teaches "core curriculum," though it does not employ rules common to officially recognized schools. The school has a number of "learning centers," which pupils may choose to visit during the school day, in addition to regular frontal classes. Activity in each learning center is supervised by one of the teachers. The school emphasizes each pupil's individual choice: There is a "language center" devoted to reading and writing, and adjacent English, science, art, and sport centers. A group of students plays instruments in the basement "music center," and the relatively small schoolyard is also considered a "learning center."

Principal Yaakov Galpaz says, "The children manage their time and are responsible for their actions in the yard."

"This is the first time that the Appeals Committee took a clear stand on defining the 'core curriculum' and decided that a child need not sit in a frontal classroom," Biber-Aviad commented. "The decision opens the way for broad pedagogic options. The Education Ministry is a fossil that fears losing control, but redemption came from the legal side which is shaking up the system."

The Education Ministry responds that opposition to the establishment of Kehila was based on the fact that "there is already a supra-regional democratic school in existence to provide for the children." The ministry added that it is taking action to implement the appeals committee decision.