Choosing the right school for one’s children is a daunting choice, and especially so for a first child going into first grade. There is a combination of matching the school to the type of religious lifestyle we aspire to at home, the social environment that the school creates and of course the quality of education, both in terms of Jewish and general studies. All this under the assumption that each child has different strengths and weaknesses, that we want to match best to the focus of the school we choose.
It is very hard to separate emotions from the facts and indeed it is very important to shut out the Shabbat table chatter, which is often based on prejudice and instinct, and not a careful consideration of what is best for our kids and family. Finally, should we consider our choice of school within a wider societal context? Do I have an ideological stance around elitist schools or schools that can cater for a range of kids (intelligence, economic level, different backgrounds, religious/secular etc.)?
I am proud to say that all of our five children have attended the local primary school (Uziel in Beit Shemesh). Our school is what you might call a “regular” religious school (ממלכתי דתי). This means that it has a wide range of kids coming from very varied backgrounds. Ashkenazi and Sephardi; Olim and those whose families have been in Beit Shemesh for many decades and religious levels that go from frum to the traditional and even secular. Of course it also means that girls and boys are together in class from first to the end of sixth grade.
Whilst the school is very welcoming to everyone from the neighborhood (and indeed graduates end up going to high schools ranging from the local secular high school to all of the full range of local and out of town yeshiva high schools) the school takes great care to have a religious atmosphere and of course adheres to Halacha.
Now since most of you probably don’t live in Beit Shemesh it might be worth making some general comments about Uziel-like schools around the country. Hopefully it will help to dispel some of the pre-conceived differences between mixed and single gender primary schools.
There are two key differences demographically between the separate and mixed schools. The obvious one being that school is a mixed-gender environment, and the other being that the average socio-economic level tends to be lower. Many people associate these two factors as contributing negatively to the school environment, both academically and also socially.
The research in both these areas is important to read and understand (hence a couple of links for more details below with research performed by Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah) but the headline is that in terms of academic study and the general atmosphere (level of violence and other negative sentiments) there is little to separate the mixed and separate schools, even though the socio-economic levels are different. Indeed in many of the categories the mixed schools are shown to perform better.
For me the key benefit of the Uziel type of education lies in the ability for my kids to learn to be with kids from many different backgrounds going through those formative years naturally forming an understanding about life in a microcosm. This means a healthy understanding of being with children of the opposite sex, children both wealthier and poorer than they (financially or otherwise) and of course seeing and living the amazing tapestry that is Israeli society (in Uziel there are kids who are Anglo, all types of the Sefardi/Mizrachi, Ethiopian and Russian). They study and play together and the school makes sure to give prominence to the culture and customs of ALL the children.
As Anglo parents we have learnt a tremendous amount from the experience of our kids going through Uziel and I am completely sure that my kids have also gained tremendously, in a way that will help them all the way through their lives.
For more general information about religious education in Israel I recommend visiting the website for Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah.
Make the right decision for your kids, but do so on the basis of the best information available. Good luck!!