Three schools are visible from the office door of the Parents’ Council of East Jerusalem. The schools are small, a few rooms each, and rented out on odd floors of multipurpose buildings. Hatem Khweis, a member of the Parents’ Council, points out that none of the schools has a playground for their students. Nor, for that matter, air-conditioning or a library.
These schools, and many others like them, are part of East Jerusalem’s attempt to fill a void of some 2,200 needed classrooms that weighs heavily on the city’s education system. Because of this shortage, the average class size in East Jerusalem is 32 to West Jerusalem’s 24, and the dropout rate lingers at 13 percent. More than a third of East Jerusalem students don’t finish 12th grade.
This year, in an effort to combat the high dropout rate, the administrations of four schools in East Jerusalem have started offering courses in the Israeli curriculum, or Bagrut, rather than the Palestinian Tawjihi curriculum used since the Oslo Accords. The Jerusalem municipality, which manages the school system in both East and West Jerusalem, incentivizes schools to use the Bagrut—they offer additional funding of $550 per student taking the Israeli exams and make available critical dropout prevention programs exclusively to schools using the Bagrut curriculum.
“It’s the way the system as a whole works,” says Oshrat Maimon, a lawyer with the Israeli NGO Ir Amim. “[The municipality] doesn’t impose the Bagrut, but in order to get some of the programs you should learn Bagrut.”
“They will tell you that people choose it—they don’t really impose it, they do it by incentives,” Maimon continues.
The curriculum change has parents in East Jerusalem up in arms. They say that the classroom materials used in the Bagrut courses negate or omit Palestinian culture, history, and identity, teaching a relationship to the land that invalidates Palestinian claims to territory. Maps in the textbooks don’t show the Separation Wall or any division between Israel and the Palestinian Territories; they refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and label Palestinian cities in the West Bank with Hebrew names.
Materials used in the classes are now causing students to leave for political reasons.
Khweis says that this push for the Bagrut is not the first time that the Jerusalem Municipality has tried to change East Jerusalem’s classroom materials. Three years ago, he says, the municipality hired a contractor to wipe books used in all public and private schools in East Jerusalem of Palestinian flags and references to important figures in Palestinian history—including Palestinian National Authority founder Yasser Arafat. Schools were told that their funding and operating licenses would not be renewed if they refused the altered materials.
“It’s a big plan to Israelize East Jerusalem,” Khweis says. “The education is part of that.”
Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the Municipality, says she doesn’t understand East Jerusalemites’ objections to the Bagrut. “It doesn’t make sense,” she says. “The same Bagrut that’s good enough for the Arabs up north [in Israel] should be good enough for the Arabs in East Jerusalem.”
Making the switch to the Bagrut curriculum, however, was the only way that schools in East Jerusalem could get access to alternate programming for at-risk students from the Education Ministry’s Department of Welfare and Educational Services. According to a 2013 report (PDF) on the Jerusalem Education system from Ir Amim and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), only five of the 96 classes for at-risk students offered in Jerusalem this school year were located in schools in East Jerusalem. Almost none of the schools in East Jerusalem could qualify for the courses because one of the qualification criteria was that the school prepares students for the Bagrut matriculation exams.
“It’s discrimination by fact,” says Maimon. “We don’t care how you call it, but you have to have programs also for the ones who don’t learn Bagrut.”
Where the classes for at-risk students are offered, they’ve proven remarkably effective. Statistics from the Israeli Ministry of Education show that the courses accommodated almost 24,000 students throughout Israel in the 2011-2012 school year. As noted in the report from Ir Amim and ACRI, these “alternative educational frameworks, which are almost completely absent in East Jerusalem… absorb 35 percent of Jewish students and 27 percent of Arab students who drop out in grades 7-12 nationwide.”
Although lowering the dropout rate in East Jerusalem was part of the motivation for schools to switch to the Israeli curriculum, Khweis says that the materials used in the classes are now causing students to leave for political reasons. He says parents weren’t told of the Israeli affiliation of the courses when administrators at the schools asked them to sign their children up for the classes, and that many of them pulled their students from the courses after seeing the textbooks.
“They weren’t clear with the parents,” says Khweis. “They told them that this is a new system in the education; they didn’t say anything about the Israelis.”
“So after that…all the students left the classroom,” he continues.
In some cases, the new Bagrut classes lost half or more of their students after the year started—one class at the Abdullah Bin Hussein girls’ school in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood shrank from 45 students to 20, and Khweis says that classes elsewhere dropped to only five or ten remaining students. Furthermore, he says, students often had to switch schools or drop out in order to leave the courses once they had signed up.
Abu Ra’id, a parent who lives in the Mount of Olives neighborhood east of Jerusalem’s Old City, said his three-year-old son was expelled from his preschool program after Abu Ra’id insisted that his son not learn the Bagrut curriculum. He says that the only option available now is a private school nearby, which charges 5,000 shekels per year in tuition, about the same as the average income in East Jerusalem.
“I don’t know what to do with my boy,” says Abu Ra’id.
Even if the Ministry of Education’s dropout prevention programs were expanded or redesigned to accommodate students studying for the Palestinian Tawjihi exams, the Jerusalem Municipality would need to allocate five times as much money as it currently does to address the dropout rate in East Jerusalem. While the Municipality raised its budget for dropout prevention in East Jerusalem from 400,000 to 3 million shekels (about $840,000) this year, Maimon notes that this will only cover a pilot program targeting six high schools. By the Municipality’s own analysis, she says, addressing the problem as a whole would require a budget of 15 million shekels.
“If you have one percent dropouts in West Jerusalem and 13 percent in East Jerusalem, you should have more programs in East Jerusalem,” says Maimon. “And for now, we don’t have any…they are not doing enough.”
“It’s not in the law, it’s about human rights,” she says.