With Curfews and Closures, the Schools Suffer

This coming Sunday, 1,085,000 students are supposed to attend 2,098 elementary and secondary schools in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the opening of the school year.

This coming Sunday, 1,085,000 students are supposed to attend 2,098 elementary and secondary schools in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the opening of the school year. About 48,000 teachers will be waiting for them at 8 A.M. This will happen where there is no curfew, and where military blockades and checkpoints won't prevent or delay the arrival of the students and the teachers.

Will there be a curfew in Jenin, preventing many of the 35,000 students in the area from starting on Sunday? Will the continuation of the Israel Defense Forces assassination policy in the Gaza Strip interfere with the first day of school of about 210,000 students?

These are the immediate concerns of the Palestinian Education Ministry, which during the past three years has seen the orderly functioning of the education system and the prevention of dropouts as its most important task, despite the huge logistical, economic and psychological difficulties.

The outbreak of the bloody conflict, the curfew and the closure, the economic deterioration and the military attacks, have all forced the ministry to postpone the implementation of the Five-Year Plan for education in the Palestinian Authority, which was completed in 2000, and to postpone the measures for improvement and development.

Now maintaining the educational framework (in which education is mandatory only from the ages of 6-16) has become a kind of struggle.

Last year the Palestinian Education Ministry was forced to change the original placement of almost one-third of the 35,000 teachers in the public school system (the rest work in 272 UNRWA schools and 256 private schools). These teachers were sent to schools not according to their area of expertise and the needs of the schools, but according to their access to the school. Since October 2000, hundreds of stationary and mobile military blockades and checkpoints all over the West Bank have prevented passage between cities, villages and districts. Teachers who live 10 kilometers away from their school couldn't promise to arrive on time, if at all.

That is why teachers of Arabic teach physical education and math teachers teach Arabic, just so there's a teacher in the classroom. This year the ministry will have to reallocate 4,000 teachers, with changes in the location of the checkpoints. Hundreds of teachers have rented apartments in the city where they teach, so that they won't be forced to waste hours at the checkpoints every day.

The deputy Palestinian education minister, Jihad Zakarneh, says that about half of the 200 education ministry employees in Ramallah, who live outside the city, remain in the city during the week. About 40 of them even sleep at the ministry. Since the establishment of the PA in 1994, the Palestinian Education Ministry has been working to reduce the number of school dropouts. From 1995-1996, about 2.5 percent of the students dropped out of school, Since then, the number of dropouts has slowly declined and in 2002 the rate was 1.17 percent of all students (higher in the later school years).

The ministry raised donations

These statistics belie the image among the Palestinians of widespread dropping out, mainly because of financial problems. Zakarneh says that families that can't afford the annual fee of NIS 50 per student prefer to stop sending their children to school, rather than admit poverty. Therefore, the ministry has instructed principals not to collect the fee from very poor families. The ministry even exceeded its obligations and began collecting donations from wealthy families in order to buy schoolbags and basic supplies for needy students.

Last year 77 new schools opened, despite the difficulties: 42 in new buildings and the rest in rented buildings. Each year 40,000 new students enter the system, which requires the addition of at least 40 schools annually. Matriculation exams, which usually are stretched over a period of 17 days, continued for 42 days all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: Curfews and closures prevented the students from getting to the test on time. In places where the exams were held days or weeks late, new questionnaires were written. This Monday was the second exam period: They were held only in the Gaza Strip and postponed in the West Bank, because of curfews and closures. Now the ministry has to compose new questionnaires for all the exams, to administer them in the West Bank.

The Education Ministry is the first to admit that while they are maintaining the framework, the quality is suffering. All the teacher training programs have been frozen because of access problems.

Tens of thousand of teachers and students come to school exhausted after a night of shelling and exchanges of fire, or after long and humiliating detainment at a checkpoint. According to the Education Ministry, 390 students were killed by Israel Defense Force fire during the past three years, and about another 3,000 were injured. That also affects concentration. Every student suffers from traumas and fears, because every student has experienced months of curfew, and exposure to firing from tanks and helicopters. Tens of thousand of students have seen with their own eyes how people were killed and wounded, and houses destroyed.

The Palestinian Education Ministry has established a psychological consultation center, with about 600 psychological consultants and therapists scattered among the various schools. This week there was a training workshop for consultants, but those who were supposed to come from Jenin and Nablus were absent;they were unable to pass the checkpoints.

Zakarneh says that 44 percent of literature students failed the matriculation exams, as did 20 percent of those studying sciences. This number, he says, is only 2 percent higher than the results for 2000, before the intifada. Four to five percent finished with honors.

The names of those receiving honors are published in congratulatory notices in the press, but what is not said openly in the media is said in incidental conversations on the street. Parents, teachers and Education Ministry employees are convinced that the matriculation grades of all the students are systematically raised, with the low grades upped more than the high grades. One teacher said that because of his connections with the exam checkers, he knew that his daughter had received an average of 94, but on the official form her final grade was 95.

Parents have the impression that in areas that have suffered more from IDF actions, the examiners are more generous. Zakaraneh denies the claims of deliberate slanting of the grades upwards. Many of those who pass, he says, have grades lower than the minimum necessary for university acceptance: an average of 65 out of 100. Zakaraneh didn't know the percentage of those receiving low grades, and the Palestinian Education Ministry couldn't supply, at the request of Haaretz, an analysis of the distribution of the matriculation grades (according to regions as well). The grades are on the Internet as raw material, but the final analysis, if there is one, wasn't publicized.

A veteran teacher said that raising the grades was done before the intifada as well, and was meant to cover up for the basic weakness of the Palestinian school system. Part of this weakness is the result of cumulative neglect during the years of Israeli occupation, part an inheritance from the interruption of studies during the years of the first intifada, and part a result of neglect and a mistaken order of priorities on the part of the PA.

The monthly salary of a Palestinian teacher in the public school system ranges from $270 to $500 (and somewhat higher for more veteran teachers). With such a salary, most of the teachers are forced to find a second job. They work at gas stations, as drivers and as cooks. "When they have to concentrate on providing basic needs for their children, they can't concentrate on developing their children's spiritual needs, not to mention those of other children," he explains.