Separate but Not Equal: Most Of: Israel's Arab Children Attend Poorly-Performing Segregated Public Schools. What Can Be Done and What Does It Mean for Israel's Future?

Article excerpt

This is the second installment of Moment's series on Israel's 1.7 million Arab citizens. The first, which ran in our September/October 2009 issue, traced the evolution of one family's identity from Arab to Palestinian-Israeli. Here Moment explores the separate but unequal education of Israel's Arab children, who comprise 26 percent of the country's elementary and high school students. New York Times contributor Dina Kraft reports from Israel.

It's morning in Jaljulia, a small, sleepy Arab village in central Israel. A bumpy main street is lined with small grocery shops, clothing and hardware stores and the occasional coffee house. Sparse hills are covered with squat, multi-story concrete houses. There are no sidewalks. Beneath bobbing backpacks, students walk in the middle of the roads on their way to school. The older children head to a limestone building, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It the Jaljulia Education and Science High School, which serves the village and neighboring Kfar Bara. Its principal is Khalid Arar, a tall, wiry 38-year-old former national karate champion with a Ph.D. in education from Tel Aviv University. He strides into the teachers' lounge as the school day begins with a bell playing the Disney tune, It's a Small World.

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Schools around the world are microcosms of their societies, and this Jaljulia school is no different. Arar's world is full of problems. His car was torched and part of the school set on fire by students angry over his crackdown on test cheating. His 460-student school suffers from low achievement, high drop-out rates and violence. There is no gym or money for extracurricular activities for his charges. "So they are in the streets after class is let out," Arar says, looking out a window, his gaze hardening. "And that is where the violence starts."

Although fairly new, the building was constructed without air conditioning: Funds were later raised within the village for window units. Teaching materials and equipment are limited: Only seven of 25 computers function. Arar manages to outfit science labs with donations from universities where he has connections. Space is at a premium: In one Hebrew grammar class for 12th graders, 41 students, some without desks, are squeezed into a room. A young teacher in a white headscarf is deconstructing l'gdol, the Hebrew verb for "grow." The kids are rowdy, and the teacher is forced to raise her voice to be heard.

Outside the building, a 15-year-old girl, wearing jeans and a snug headscarf, delicately balances a notebook on her knees. Saja Shrem tells me she and her friends, sitting beside her on the steps, should be in algebra class. But on Wednesdays the English class needs the room, and algebra is canceled. "We are disappointed," she says bluntly. "We have class, but really we're sitting outside and not learning." Nearly everywhere you look--not just on the steps of Jaljulia's high school--Israel's public education system is in trouble. Poor teaching, overcrowding and discipline problems, set against the backdrop of the ever-widening gap between the country's wealthy and poor, mean that Israeli students--both Jewish and Arab--are now scoring near the bottom on international tests. But the situation is the most dire for Israel's half-million Arab children and teenagers, who mainly live in self-contained towns and villages in the north and central Israel and the Negev, or in mixed urban centers such as Haifa and Yaffo.

Some wealthy and middle-class Arab parents, in particular those from the small, more educated Christian minority, send their children to private or well-funded parochial schools. But many Arab students, such as Shrem, attend public schools, which in Israel are segregated. Ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox and secular Jews each have their own public schools, as do Arabs.

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Officially, Arab students can attend Israel's Jewish public schools but only one percent does. …