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Jerusalem kids go back to school under the threat of COVID

CM 02/09/2021

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No more pencils, no more books?
Mayor Moshe Lion and Aviv Keinan, CEO of Manhi (city Education Administration), guardedly expect the school year to kick off safely, as all precautions and necessary steps have been taken. 
Serological testing, which Lion considers “the largest coronavirus infection incubator,” has stopped. As of Tuesday, there were – across all streams – 128 teachers testing positive, with 1,250 in quarantine. The Health Ministry has instructed the rest of the teachers to be ready to work according to “Green Tag” rules. It encourages principals to require the tag from teachers and report any teacher without one who refuses to be tested for coronavirus. 

“Jerusalem’s children deserve a festive school year opening and we will provide it, despite the coronavirus,” Keinan assured In Jerusalem. 
As planned, Keinan will complete his tenure by the end of October and begin a new non-Jerusalem municipality job. Five years ago, he came to accomplish one major mission: to bring the city’s education system into the 21st century with the best use of technology, through major changes in traditional teaching methods. 
The 280,000 Jerusalemite preschool to 12th-grade students in all three streams – public secular and religious, public haredi and public Arab – make it the country’s largest Education Ministry district in the country (general public stream: 67,000 students; 105,000 in the Arab sector; 108,000 in the haredi sector).
What kind of school awaits them? What are the targets and tasks challenging the educational staff, the children and their parents? Is Jerusalem spearheading a technological revolution? 
According to Keinan, who is fully backed by Mayor Lion: “The changes in our education system reflect changes that have occurred in our world in the past decade or so,” says Keinan. “Until 10 or 15 years ago, the education system met the world’s needs. The education I received at school was sufficient to equip me with the appropriate tools to study further and develop a profession. We had a basis to continue on at universities. 
“Today things are totally different. While in the past, companies would select those who obtained high grades at the university, today they take in anyone and simply instruct them to work in teams with people they never met before, expecting them to provide a product within a day or a week. It’s another world.”
Lion noted he will encourage vaccination, with an emphasis on the Arab and haredi sectors, affirming, “My vision is to make Jerusalem the most attractive city in the country for its education system. I believe technology is the way to achieve it; that’s why I brought the best experts to the city and I fully back them. Jerusalem is waging a revolution in education.”

 Keshet high school students take the mathematics Bagrut in Tel Aviv (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Keshet high school students take the mathematics Bagrut in Tel Aviv (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

WHAT DOES the system have to endow students with to prepare them for this new world?
“First, you have to know how to work in a team. You have to be creative, you have to realize what your strengths are and excel at them. Think about what we were 100 years ago. You were part of a large ongoing process, while today, all these jobs are done by machines – we are not in Charlie Chaplin’s movies anymore [in which he was famously swallowed by a factory machine]. So today, in order to succeed, you have to find out what you are best at, work in a team and be creative, innovative. Our system so far had no answer for that purpose. We had to change it and adapt it. That is the revolution we are talking about.”
Keinan says that the first step was to realize that the method whereby all graduates had to know the same level of language, math and so on has become irrelevant. 
“That was what the society needed 10 years ago, when an Israeli could make a living by knowing how to assemble the parts to build a smartphone. That was enough. But today, you are expected to leverage a smartphone’s capabilities in innovative ways, and it goes for many spheres of life. We don’t need more employees to plan the transportation for students in our system. We need someone who will find an innovative and creative way to run this system.”
Keinan clarifies that he is not criticizing what had been done by his predecessors, but is adamant that updates need to be made so that graduates from the city’s education system are well-equipped for what is awaiting them out there. 
“To achieve that goal, we change the way children learn – not what they learn, but how they learn it. Imagine a student interested in philosophy. One way is to put a lecturer in front of the classroom, and tell him to give a lecture on Kant’s method. That was fine until not long ago. But today, we enable students to take a text, to read it together, debate it, look for further information on the Internet, come back with their own conclusions and their own understanding, and then from there to do something in the real world with all the knowledge they have acquired. In theory, they have learned the same material, but they have also learned to work together in teams – there is no longer such a thing as a student working on their own. They have learned to create things together that are a tangible result of their investigations and so on. This is what is happening these days in Jerusalem.”
This revolution requires adapted professionals to run it, and Keinan says he identified a “great thirst” for these changes among the education staff. 
“Teachers were already aware that something wasn’t appropriate anymore, that while standing in front of the class giving a lecture, students could easily check [what they were saying] online. So everyone understood that we needed a radical shift.” 
Keinan stresses that the entire process was conducted deliberately and carefully. Starting with the teachers who volunteered for the new guidelines, it began with 30 schools for the first year, jumped to 100 schools by the second year and so on. Now it has reached most of the institutions under Keinan’s administration. 
THERE ARE also substantial changes in the Arab sector, in addition to the revolution mentioned above. Lara Elmubariki, director of Manhi’s Arab sector, cites the growing numbers of parents and children moving to the Israeli program, taking the Israeli matriculation (Bagrut) instead of the Palestinian one (Tawjiyeh). (There were 5,000 such students in 2016-2017, compared to 13,000 this year.)
“We never imposed it on anyone,” explains Elmubariki, “but rather proposed it in parallel to the existing programs. We were very careful, because we knew that there were factions who would oppose it, seeing it as a means to impose ‘Israelization’ or ‘normalization.’”
Asked how, despite these obstacles, figures reflect a significant increase in Arab-sector schools moving to the Israeli program, Elmubariki says it was mostly for practical reasons.
“Parents did what was in their own best interest. A student who graduates the Palestinian program and wishes to go to an Israeli academic institution will have to take a Hebrew course and psychometric test. These cost a lot of money. Growing numbers of families left the private schools operating in Jerusalem – like the Christian schools reputed for their high level – for the same reasons: they cost a lot of money, and require graduates to take Hebrew lessons and additional tests to matriculate to an Israeli institution. The change was possible because they became aware of the significant improvement in the level of our public schooling in the Arab sector. We now offer top conditions in new schools that have become the best education institutions available. That was not the case years ago.” 
Elmubariki adds that she also sees improvement in the schools and programs for special-needs children. 
“We offer today the same possibilities as in the Israeli stream, including integration of students with disabilities into regular classes, as well as special schools for those who cannot integrate. A growing number of parents are willing to send their disabled children to these schools; previously they were sort of ashamed and kept many of them at home.”
Another issue that has improved according to Elmubariki is the attitude toward young women who get married before completing their studies. 
“There are still many young women who get married and leave school before they complete their studies. Now we are providing solutions. First, they can return to school after their wedding, even if they get pregnant. We have reached understandings with the educational staff and principals to enable them to come back, under the mandatory education law, which specifies study up to the 12th grade. We also provide vocational education programs that give them a basic working capacity, enabling them to remain part of the education system even after marriage.”
In the haredi public system, one major problem has remained the lack of classrooms. In this stream, under Manhi’s supervision, students get the standard curriculum in their programs, in addition to intensive religious text studies. Shmuel Greenberg, director of the haredi stream at Manhi, says that due to a massive city construction project for the last three years, close to 350 new classrooms were added this year. 
Considering that the haredi birthrate in Jerusalem requires close to new two classrooms per week, the pace of classroom construction is not fast enough, admits Greenberg, but at least something is being done. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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