Do you have children? How was there day at school today?
With schools in east Jerusalem overcrowded, Palestinian children are staying away
By LAURIE COPANS -
JERUSALEM (AP) - At overcrowded schools in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, children sit three to a desk, bathrooms are converted into makeshift classrooms and the dropout rate is rampant.
This situation stands in sharp contrast to the holy city's better-equipped Jewish schools, which enjoy smaller class sizes and a great deal more government investment. Meanwhile, plans to build new classrooms in Arab sections have been put on hold.
The result: tens of thousands of students studying in appalling conditions, and many others staying home altogether.
Arab residents of east say the situation in the schools reflects wider discrimination they face in every aspect of life. They point to piles of uncollected garbage and an absence of state medical clinics in their neighborhoods.
«The children are the victim of the government's policy,» said Abdel Karim Lafi, chairman of the parents' union for east Jerusalem schools. «They are living like sardines.
Hadeel Bashir went to school for a few days this year, but now stays home baby-sitting her toddler sister in the dusty yard of the family home outside Jerusalem's Old City.
The lanky 12-year-old girl, who wants to be a teacher when she grows up, stopped going after her family decided the 1½-mile (2.4-kilometer) taxi ride to her junior high school was too expensive.
«There is no bus to take her to school,» said Hadeel's mother, Hiyam. «We will not let our girls walk alone ... We just want the city to build schools that are closer.
Hadeel is among hundreds of Arab children who stay home from school, discouraged by overcrowding and long travel distances, Lafi said. Many of the children are girls, as Arab parents are often reluctant to let their daughters walk on city streets.
The problem in east Jerusalem schools is representative of a greater crisis in Israel's system stemming from budget cuts of millions of dollars in recent years. With so much of the budget going to defense, competition is tough among ministries for the money left over.
Israeli high school teachers struck for 50 days this fall demanding higher pay.
The Arabs suffer from a lack of political clout. Israel captured east Jerusalem _ home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites _ in the 1967 Mideast War. Jerusalem's Arabs hold Israeli residency rights, and can vote in municipal elections, but not in national elections because few have taken Israeli citizenship.
On a recent day at the Shuafat boys' elementary school _ an old stone house whose bedrooms had been converted into classrooms _ children sat shoulder-to-shoulder, three to a desk, with no aisles. In other schools, bathrooms and tool sheds have been converted into classrooms.
An east Jerusalem elementary school classroom averages 36 students, compared with 24 in Jewish neighborhoods, according to Ir Amim, an advocacy group that works for coexistence in the city.
The dropout rate in Arab high schools has soared to 10 percent, according to Ir Amim. Dropping out is nearly nonexistent in Jewish schools, the city says.
City officials acknowledge the problem, reporting a shortage of almost of 1,400 classrooms in the eastern sector.
Suhayla Abu Ghosh, deputy manager of the government authority that oversees Jerusalem's public schools, said plans to build 400 classrooms over the next five years are delayed by the bureaucracy necessary to expropriate land in crowded east Jerusalem, and construction won't begin for at least two years.
The Arab birthrate is high and «Today, even if every child wants to go to public schools, there is not enough room for them,» said Abu Ghosh. «Since 1967 the pace of building has been slow in relation to the rise in the number of pupils.
Arab residents charge that Israel's neglect of their schools is part of a wider government policy that seeks to ensure Jewish hegemony in Jerusalem. The fate of the city is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians claim the eastern sector as their capital. The city's 240,000 Arabs live in east Jerusalem, while about 500,000 Jews live throughout the city.
In the wake of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking in recent weeks, some Israeli officials have suggested Israel might be willing to cede sovereignty of some areas of Jerusalem as part of a future peace deal. Vice Premier Haim Ramon has said that Israel could save a lot of money if it didn't have to pay for the school system in eastern areas it hands over to the Palestinians.
«These 200,000 people cost us millions of shekels (dollars) every year,» Ramon told Army Radio in an interview. «Just this year we have to invest dozens of millions of shekels to build classrooms in east Jerusalem.
But Arab officials say any withdrawal is probably years away, and that meanwhile school conditions are getting worse.
Overcrowding has forced some schools to teach in two shifts, shortening classes from 45 minutes to 35 minutes, said Fares Hales, chairman of the parents' committee in Silwan.
Teachers and parents say the crowding makes it hard for children to see the blackboard and to focus, and increases restlessness and violence.
«There is no sport in the schools ... so where does their natural energy come out?» said Lafi, the head of the east Jerusalem parents' association. «This is why crime increases in the schools.
Bowing to pressure from Israel's Supreme Court, the city and state have committed to plans to build schools, but have been slow to implement them, according to a report by a coalition of rights' groups and Arab parents.
Although most families in east Jerusalem live in poverty, many parents have chosen to pay hundreds of dollars in annual tuition at private schools, the report found.
At the Bashir home in Silwan, Hadeel sat on a worn couch near her mother, while her 2-year-old sister Tamara, jumped back and forth between them.
«I miss school,» Hadeel said, crossing her arms and looking at the floor. «I loved writing Arabic script.