Squabble Could Leave Troubled Youth in the Cold

While the school year opened yesterday almost without hitches, the Education Ministry's HILA program for dropouts and youth at risk was not renewed, due to a dispute between the ministry and Association of Community Centers, which operates the program.

HILA, which provides supplementary education for disengaged youth and youth at risk, is implemented in municipalities nationwide for some 5,500 youths aged 14-18.

The dispute followed the ministry's decision to give another company the franchise to operate the program. The ministry said yesterday that the program's disruption negatively affects only 1,000-1,500 youths.

The HILA program was developed by the Education Ministry's Youth at Risk Advancement Section mainly to supplement the education of school dropouts and disengaged youth. It aspires to reintegrate dropouts into formal education frameworks or supplement their formal education; enable them to develop personally, scholastically and vocationally and impart educational and social values.

The program consists of several courses, suitable to each pupil's standard, from supplementing formal eighth-grade education to matriculation.

The program also consists of social activities, such as preparation for military service and courses to prevent drug and alcohol abuse and sports. The lessons are given three to four times a week in community centers or schools, usually in the afternoon. The program's annual budget is estimated at NIS 70 million.

"The teachers used to call in the morning to wake me up and insist that I come to class. That doesn't happen in any school," says Moshe, one of the HILA's recent graduates. Today he is serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Moshe, who lives in a large city in the north, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. After opting out of several other frameworks, he joined the HILA program. Due to the small study groups and personal treatment, Moshe completed 12 years' studies and even took one matriculation exam. He is now planning to take the remaining ones.

In recent years the Association of Community Centers has been operating the project for the Education Ministry. But two years ago the ministry issued a new tender, which was won by Atid, a network of schools and colleges for science and technology. Since 2003, the network has been providing the ministry with teachers' study days and workshops.

The Community Centers Association and Atid have filed several court petitions in recent months over the HILA franchise.

The ministry most recent decision was to let Atid operate the project from October 1, until which the Community Centers' Association would continue to run it.

"The court debate has been going on for weeks and no final decision has been reached. The pupils are already paying the price," a ministry official said.

The program was resumed yesterday in prisons and closed boarding schools for some 400 pupils.

A Community Centers Association official said the ministry's purchasing committee had not renewed the contract with the association for the next month. He said the association has filed another petition in the Jerusalem District Court seeking to reverse the ministry's decision.

The Education Ministry commented: "The purchasing committee met yesterday, as the issue has been debated in court for the past months, under the supervision of the state prosecutor and the ministry's legal adviser. The ministry wanted to operate the entire program yesterday but since the Community Centers' proposal did not meet the committee's requirements, it was impossible to do so. Those responsible for the program in the Education Ministry spoke to the Community Centers Association director general, who agreed to submit a revised proposal in the next few days."

The ministry's statement also said it was "preparing to have the Atid network, which won the tender, operate the program even without the Community Centers Association."

A Brookdale Institute study found that HILA students came from families suffering from acute social and economic distress and 22 percent came from single-parent families. A relatively large percentage of the students' parents had only an elementary education or less, and a significant proportion had parents who never attended school at all.