TWILIGHT ZONE – The Israeli Education System

Thank you to those of you who have voiced your concerns over why I haven’t blogged in about a week – it’s nice to know that someone is reading my rantings 🙂 We have been in a surreal experience since Friday, September 5th and I have hesitated in posting about it because I was hoping for a speedy and happy resolution. Unfortunately (almost 2 weeks later) the nightmare has not been resolved. We are being bureaucratically obscured from moving our son to a different school. And being the stubborn person I am, he hasn’t been in any school during those 2 weeks.

Warning! This is going to be a long one!

Rather than rant from memory, I’ll let you read the letter we wrote to the principal. I have removed the names and locations because I’ve been told by many parents on the various Israeli chat lists I subscribe to that this Twilight Zone experience could happen anywhere in Israel. Keep in mind that it is not because of the attack on our son that we are trying to move him to a different school, as students hurt other students everywhere in the world. It is the school’s negligent handling of the situation and their lack of communication with us – we have lost confidence, trust and faith in their ability to provide Yisrael with a safe and good quality education.

08-Sept-2008
Principal

We are writing to inform you that we are withdrawing our son from your school because our expectations have not been met. To be specific it is for the following reasons:

  1. Lack of Effective Communication on the part of School Staff.
    We spoke with your administrative staff every day last week – in person and on the phone – about problems our son was having with a bully in class and his frustration over not understanding what is being taught. We requested a meeting with the guidance counselor and his teacher before school started and several times last week. To my knowledge the school made no effort to make this happen. In addition to hearing my son’s side of the story, I wanted his teacher’s side of the story but this isn’t possible because we do not share a common language and no one else seems to be willing to assist us in a timely manner.

    We decided to let him stay home Thursday morning when he said he didn’t feel well because we understood that his emotional needs were not being met. Keeping him home finally elicited a response from the school, his teacher phoned Thursday afternoon asking why he didn’t come to school and she got aggravated with me because I couldn’t understand what she was saying. The kind English speaking secretary took the phone and interpreted for us. The gist of the conversation was that he “must come to school in order for us to resolve these problems”… to which I responded “how can they be resolved if he can’t communicate with you to tell you what is happening?” She assured me this would be dealt with on Friday as she would sit with him and a translator and get to the bottom of what’s going on. It didn’t happen – no adult attempted to help him on Friday.

    A few hours later the school’s Aliyah coordinator finally called us for the first time (she had left a message Wednesday night when we weren’t home instructing us to call her Thursday night which wasn’t soon enough for us to deal with the problem. We specifically left her a cell phone number to call us on so she could reach us anywhere, but she chose to call our home number instead and leave a message. We were told by other parents that she does this on purpose to avoid doing her job). She was also agitated with me for not sending my son to school and demanded that I send him on Friday. I told her she better follow through on the meeting she was supposed to arrange between his teacher, guidance counselor, her and us. It didn’t happen – no meeting was scheduled by the close of school on Friday.

  2. Lack of Physical Safety, Supervision and Emotional Support.
    Our son was hit and punched by a boy in his class every day throughout the first week of school except for the first day. On Wednesday he was terribly upset feeling that he had no friends in his class willing to help him.

    On Thursday, the school’s Aliyah coordinator told us that our son needs to tell an English speaking boy when the bully hits him so the other kid can tell the teacher. Obviously she has no experience with these matters, just picture it…
    Avi hits Yitzy.
    Yitzy tells Aaron to tell the teacher.
    Aaron tells the teacher.
    Avi gets sent to the office and punished.
    The next day not only does Yitzy get hit again, but Aaron is now being hit by Avi.

    Olim children are not the responsibility of the other children in the class. If the teacher or school doesn’t want to be bothered with the extra effort involved with our family then we don’t belong there.

    On Friday morning during recess in the classroom – the recess they assured us is always supervised by at least one or two adults – this boy attacked and choked him! Our son admitted that he had knocked over a tower of blocks that the boy had built because the other boys kept telling him to do it; they told him that recess was ending and the blocks would have to be put away anyway – he did it because he wanted their acceptance. We talked about why what he did was wrong and he acknowledged that he should have used better judgment. But honestly either decision would have resulted in a negative outcome for him – if he didn’t do it the other boys would have teased and taunted him. He now knows that what he did was wrong, but that doesn’t justify being seriously injured in school.

    Our son feels that the other boys in his class are not accepting him due to pressure from the class bully. He is also afraid to ask the teacher to allow him to go to the rest room because on the first day of school when another child asked he was denied the opportunity, and his perception was that the teacher was mean and yelled at the child.

  3. Negligence in Not Informing Us of Our Son’s Injury and Not Seeking Medical Treatment
    We are most upset with the school for not contacting us when our son was injured. He needed immediate medical attention and did not receive it. The doctor at Maccabi examined him and said that he has suffered a hematoma (i.e., a blood clot in the muscle mass on the side of his neck and face) that should have received medical care immediately and will take several weeks to heal. He has advised us to continue applying ice packs, giving him Tylenol and keeping an eye on it for changes in appearance and size. We were also advised to prevent him from getting that area hit again.

    The father of the boy who attacked our son called us Friday afternoon to apologize and put his son on the phone to do the same – he didn’t speak. Then the father explained that the class is rather cliquish and his son doesn’t want our son there because he’s a threat to his friendships. He suggested that we do our best to keep the two boys away from each other! This is not possible if they remain in the same class or in the same school since the boys will run into each other during recess on the playground regardless of what class they’re in.

    Through another parent (a teacher at your school) on Saturday night, we learned that our son’s teacher said she was not aware of his injuries and her perception was that for the 2 hours of class after the attack, he learned fine. We obviously have a big problem here if the teacher didn’t notice the big lump on his neck, or that he absolutely did not participate in class because it was hurting him to swallow – aside from his lack of understanding what she was talking about in the first place.

  4. No Buddy was provided.
    We were told in January that our son would be assigned a buddy to help him in school. This should have been arranged before the school year began and still hasn’t been. There are two boys in class that he sits with and they have informed him that once he acquires Hebrew skills they don’t want to help him – or be his friends (most likely pressure from the bully). He does not feel welcomed by the other children in the class and is uncomfortable in that environment. Additionally, we question the derech eretz of the children who would make him feel so insecure that he must do something wrong in order to win their acceptance. (This may be the acceptable norm in chutz la’aretz, but should not be in the Holy Land.)
  5. No Sheruit Leumi Girl was or is being provided.
    We were also told in January when we visited with your predecessor that our son would be provided with a Sheruit Leumi Girl to assist him with his homework during and after school hours. The Secretary informed us last week that there are no girls available to work with him and this should have been arranged with the guidance counselor (who didn’t return our calls) before school began.
  6. Lack of Adequate Transportation.
    We were told that a bus would pick our son up at our corner in the mornings and bring him back in the afternoons. We learned last week that the bus is only for children from certain neighborhoods, not ours.

    Michael forced his way, along with our son, onto the school bus Friday after school and was appalled at what he witnessed. Too many children crowded onto a standing-room-only bus so tight that our son almost didn’t make it off at his stop because he couldn’t get through the crowd. This is not adequate or safe transportation and our son is too young/naïve to travel on a city bus by himself.

    The lack of bus transportation to/from school is a problem. There are no children in our neighborhood attending your school that could walk with him and I have asthma. Walking there and back 4 times a day is physically very difficult for me. There are several boys in our neighborhood who attend the school that is closer to us that he could walk with – and it’s close enough for him to walk by himself if necessary as well.

Today we were told to come to School to meet with you, the teacher, guidance counselor, and school Aliyah coordinator, with the City’s Aliyah coordinator acting as our interpreter. Michael took the day off from ulpan because he believed that if you were going to be there this was to be an important meeting, and he was disappointed to find that you were not in attendance and had been replaced by the school psychologist. Our impression of the meeting:

Teacher: Seems strict and with our son in her class for only a few days she has already taken a dislike to him. We don’t want him in her class. She made excuses for all the concerns we raised (those outlined above). And she seemed angry that our son didn’t have a certain math book – we thought we had purchased every book on the list. Since we couldn’t read the booklist, we went to the book store and the woman assembled everything for us. We covered and labeled them and sent them to school between the first and second day as we had been instructed. We had no idea anything was missing and the teacher never communicated to us that anything was wrong – there has been no communication with us about his class behavior or lack of supplies until today. And we are at the school twice a day, but the teacher is never in the classroom when we are there.

Guidance Counselor: Seemed concerned but kept arguing with the City Aliyah coordinator and the psychologist – we never learned what that was all about but felt she was in disagreement with something we said.

School Psychologist: Seemed to be the only one at the table interested in helping us. It was our impression that she feels our son could use some emotional support with his klitah and assistance in learning how not to become disruptive if he is bored in class. But she doesn’t speak English.

School’s Aliyah coordinator: English speaker who didn’t speak a word of English at the table, and rudely ignored us directing all of her conversation to the other staff members. We thought she was supposed to be our advocate but she seems to have no intention of working with us.

We were disturbed by the arguing between the teacher and the other 3 women at the table. And by their promises that someone named “Sarah” would help our son – we never found out who this person is or whether or not she would be in agreement to fulfill all the commitments they were making of her.

When asked what will happen when this boy who injured our son comes back to school, we didn’t receive a straight answer from any of them. They decided it was time for the meeting to end.

With only 18 boys in the other school’s kitah bet class (and 24 in yours) we feel that our son stands a better chance of successfully making it through this school year. And because our son knows and plays with the other olim children who go there; we think it will be the best place for him right now.

We trust that your office staff will provide us with whatever forms are necessary to cancel our contract with your school before a debit is applied to our bank account.

Wishing you all the best in your new position,
Michael & Tehillah Hessler

Cc:
City Education Department
Community Aliyah Coordinator
Nefesh B’Nefesh

This letter elicited NO RESPONSE from the principal or anyone else on his staff. Michael confirmed with the office yesterday that they did receive and read the letter.

In the meantime, the City’s Aliyah Coordinator wanted us to “sleep on it” before making a final decision. Then she wasn’t able to go with us to the Education Ministry to file a request for transfer until Thursday, September 11th (hopefully a happy birthday for Michael’s daughter Diana, and superstitiously a bad day to expect a positive outcome). The woman who recorded our complaint informed us that the man who makes the decision is away for 2 weeks on army reserve duty. She would talk to him about it when he called in and I should come back on Sunday.

Sunday morning (September 14th) the City’s Aliyah Coordinator gave me a ride up to the Iriah (city hall) after I dropped Yisrael off for his first day of ulpan (at the girl’s high school – quite a hike from here). The woman at the Education Department informed us that she had spoken with her boss and he wanted to consult with his boss before a decision was made.

The City’s Aliyah Coordinator informed me on Monday that she had followed up with the man on reserve duty and confirmed that he does need to contact the head of the Education Ministry to get final approval.

Wednesday (September 17th) I received an e-mail from her indicating “so far, they are not convinced that transferring Yisrael is the answer. I talked to her for about 15 minutes explaining why it was worth it to try this option. She said she would call me back. Today is her day off and will not be in. I hope I’ll hear from her tomorrow.” This was enough to put me over the edge! We had made it crystal clear that there was no way we were sending him back to that environment, yet after almost 2 weeks of him being out of school it appeared that no one cared whether he was there or not.

Déjà vu! When we moved back to upstate NY (way north of the Catskills for those of you who think the Catskills are “upstate”!) from Los Angeles, Jessica suffered terribly from the head games played by her 8th grade former-best friend classmates. This served to multiply the stress she was forced to endure from a really mean tenured science teacher. Despite all attempts to resolve the problems through meetings with the teacher, guidance counselor, principal and the head of the board of education (who I was working with on a high profile community project), I eventually came away with the impression that school isn’t about what’s best for the children, it’s all about the teachers and administration. I was annoyed and just didn’t have the stomach to continue navigating the playground of political beasts! Solution: Pull her out of school and homeschool her. It turned out to be the best solution as we moved to West Virginia and then Tennessee (for work) where she achieved her GED and went on to community college.

So I posted to the City and Nefesh B’Nefesh chat lists trying to connect with Americans homeschooling in Israel. I received 31 responses: one questioned my sanity for considering homeschooling so soon after Aliyah, two wondered how he would learn Hebrew and socialize (not a problem since he’s attending ulpan separately from school), and to my surprise the rest were parents who were sympathetic and went on to tell me their horror stories and the creative ways they went about resolving the problems (from hiring lawyers, to homeschooling, writing letters to the mayor, and to just not sending their kids to any school until the Education Ministry contacted them months later to actively solve the problem). I followed the advice of the parent who suggested using politics and using her words we wrote and faxed the following letter to the Mayor:

Date: 17-Sept-2008
To: Mayor
cc: Education Ministry
From: Michael and Tehillah Hessler
RE: Violence in Our City

Shalom Mayor ______,

We are writing to request that the sign at the front of the city that says “City with No Violence” be removed immediately. In our two months of living here, our lives have been negatively affected by several violent children. (Where do these children learn their violent behavior?)

The most recent problem involved our son being violently attacked by a child in his classroom. On September 5th our 7-year-old son suffered a hematoma on his neck from the violent child who tried to strangle him for knocking over some blocks that needed to be put away because recess had ended! This occurred after a full week of contact with the office and calls to the school’s Aliyah coordinator and guidance counselor about a boy in his class who was bullying him – they never made contact with us.

The City’s Aliyah Coordinator arranged a meeting between us, the principal, teacher, guidance counselor and school’s Aliyah coordinator. The principal sent the school psychologist in his stead (or maybe the office staff didn’t tell him about the meeting and problem). During the meeting, the school denied and excused their negligence in ensuring our son’s safety and neglected to solve the problem to our satisfaction. Instead they turned the situation around and suggested our son meet on a regular basis with the school psychologist (who doesn’t speak English)! We sent the attached letter to the Principal, he has not responded.

We want our son moved to the school closer to our home and the Education Ministry has indicated that they don’t feel it is a necessary move. He is not, under any circumstances, going back to the other school – we have no confidence, trust or faith in them. He was injured while entrusted to them and they were negligent and have been non-responsive. In addition to the principal ignoring us, the school’s Aliyah liaison has rudely ignored us; she has been of no help to us. We are prepared to file a lawsuit against them if they don’t release us from the tuition contract.

This morning we asked for some information on homeschooling from the local chat list and were flooded with e-mail from dissatisfied parents with horrific stories about what they have been through with their children in the City’s schools. This is not very encouraging information for new olim to receive and if we had known these things before signing a rental contract we probably wouldn’t have settled here.

We made Aliyah to your city on July 10th because we felt this was the perfect place for our family. The City’s Aliyah Coordinator has done a wonderful job (before, during and after our January pilot trip), and has been attempting to assist us with problems as they arise. We have made a lot of concessions during our Aliyah experience, but our son’s health and safety are non-negotiable.

In the meantime, Michael went to the offending school and gave them to option of releasing us from the tuition contract without involving lawyers and the media. The teacher happened to see him in the hall and came into the office to talk with him through an unidentified bi-lingual woman (he had asked to speak with the principal and thought this woman was, however, the principal is a Rabbi). They made him recount the entire ordeal again as they claimed they thought we were happy with the outcome of the meeting! He asked if they had read the letter. The English speaker acknowledged that they had – was there a comprehension problem? The teacher then changed her story from having sent Yisrael to wash his face after the attack (he said she didn’t), to her having offered him something to drink and eat (but she told us that after the attack he had sat and learned for 2 hours, so when would she have offered him food?)! Round and round we go…

Eventually they dismissed the security guard back to his post, realizing that Michael wasn’t as physically dangerous as he looked. He was successful in that they made a call to the Education Ministry and told him that he will receive a call from them on Thursday (that’s today) because the decision maker must speak to HIM (not me) about this before handing down the final verdict. And they agreed that IF the Education Ministry approves, they will cancel our tuition contract. However, he left the school without the name, position, or phone number of the woman who agreed to this! I hope she actually was in a position of authority and will keep her word – whoever she is.

Friday, Sept. 19th update: Michael did not receive a call from the Education Ministry on Thursday. When he inquired via e-mail last night, he was told that the man in charge will be back in the office on Sunday. It is now 2 weeks since Yisrael has been in school.

Advice: During our January pilot trip I was given, and failed to act on, advice from a wise woman in Ramot. Chana Greenburg told me to contact Lamdeni ( http://www.lamdeni.co.il) before making a decision on a school – or even which Jerusalem neighborhood to settle in. Since it cost money, and knowing how frugal Michael is, I neglected to do this and am dealing with the consequences. I have since spoken with Rabbi Ari Cutler and highly recommend his organization to anyone with school-aged children considering Aliyah. It will be worth every penny/shekel!

Please don’t allow this information to cause you to rethink making Aliyah! Personally, I blame the hundreds of thousands of religious Jews in chutz la’aretz who refuse to come here and contribute to the improvement of this Holy Land that God commanded us to inhabit. Please come soon!

Stay tuned for the next episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE!

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