Construction in progress at the Tali Geulim preschool in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg_

Construction in progress at the Tali Geulim preschool in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The first day of school arrived for Israel’s children Monday, and they were ready, backpacks packed and pencils sharpened, despite the school year starting five days earlier than normal.

Unfortunately, some had nowhere to go.

A number of cities were still struggling to get their preschools finished before the first bell rang, as the country rushed to expand capacity in the wake of a government decision to extend free schooling to 3- and 4-year-olds.

In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba, parents told of preschools that were still under construction and lacked bathrooms and supplies. Some parents say they were notified only in July that preschools wouldn’t be opening at all.

“A month and a half ago, I walked by the lot that is supposed to house my daughter’s gan and saw that there was nothing there, only sand,” said Anna Lifshits-Agmon, whose almost-4-year-old was in a private, Russian-speaking preschool in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hadar Yosef last year. “They told me not to worry, but it was clear that it wouldn’t be done in time.”

Late last week, Lifshits-Agmon was notified by the Tel Aviv Municipality that the preschool would be temporarily housed in the local community center.

“It’s very annoying,” she says. “You want to be optimistic, but it’s clear they didn’t get started in time.”

Like many parents of young children, when Lifshits-Agmon first heard about the free schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds as a result of the recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee on socioeconomic reform — convened following the social protests of summer 2011 against rising prices — she decided to opt for the free version and save some 800 shekels each month. (Public preschools cost NIS 800 for the base school day of 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the cost of a longer day, generally until 4 p.m., as well as other extra fees, ranges in price among cities.)

Lifshits-Agmon went through the usual preschool enrollment process, visiting a number of local public preschools in January and picking her top three choices by February. She only heard from the municipality in July, and was told her daughter would be placed in a new preschool because of the increase in demand. Now the preschool hasn’t been completed, and the 30-plus kids were gathering in a makeshift room at the local community center.

It’s a similar story in Jerusalem, where many preschoolers throughout the city were placed in new schools that weren’t ready for the first day of finger painting and storytime. Rachel Selby lives across the street from Tali Geulim, a public school in the Baka neighborhood where her nearly-4-year-old daughter was slated to attend a new preschool. When Selby was first informed of the new school and the relatively low enrollment, she was thrilled, particularly given the convenient location. But when a work crew only began ripping up an existing school playground late last week for the planned modular building — or caravan, as it is known in Israel — she started getting nervous.

“They dug it all up, and then decided not to go for the caravan at all,” she says. “Instead, they began converting a big unused art room on the ground floor, but it still looks like a bit of a building site.”

From her conveniently placed balcony overlooking the preschool, Selby noted the workers at the site throughout last weekend, an unusual occurrence. She also heard from the preschool teacher that she would have only 24 hours to decorate the room, and welcomed parent volunteers.

Still, says Selby, “I’m not worried if it’s a bit of a disaster for a few weeks.”

The multi-purpose building whose preschool classroom lacks certain amenities (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg)

The multi-purpose building in Jerusalem whose preschool classroom lacks certain amenities (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Not everyone is so sanguine. Shoshana Cohen, whose five-year-old son was slated to begin school at another brand-new preschool in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, wasn’t sure as of Sunday night whether there would be a school at all. Her son’s preschool is located in a new, multi-purpose public building whose use has been under intense negotiation by various community organizations for months. Yet while it has been under construction for nearly a year, the preschool space isn’t complete.

“The municipality is like, ‘We have no idea what you’re talking about, it’s going to be a gan and it’s going to be ready,’” said Cohen, who received an email late in the day Sunday asking for parent volunteers to help decorate the room. “I don’t know, we’ll see tomorrow morning. I would imagine there is a room, it’s just not really gan-ready.”

‘It seems like an easy thing to say, to offer free education, but it’s obviously an enormous amount of work. I would rather had someone say that it would happen next year, instead it’s now happening in a half-assed way.”

She also recently found out that the preschool won’t be offering the extended day program until after the high holidays, which puts an enormous amount of pressure on Cohen and her husband, who have two young children and both work full-time.

“I feel like [the reform] was an easy out,” says Cohen. “It seems like an easy thing to say, to offer free education from ages 3 to 5, but it’s obviously an enormous amount of work that needs to go into making it happen. I would rather had someone say that it would happen next year. Instead it’s now happening in a half-assed way.”

Israeli cities have three years in which to build enough preschools to meet the expanded demand. In Jerusalem, 54 new ganim were built for the start of the school year, a record for the country, enrolling 1,000 new students, according to the municipality.

“We’re doing our best,” said a city spokesperson.

In fact, certain cities, such as Jerusalem and Rehovot, have been noted for their efforts to offer enough spaces in the free preschools. In Beersheba, for instance, there are more than 1,000 children who did not receive a spot in a public preschool, out of some 3,000 children eligible for registration in the free public preschools, according to Liat Mhadipor, a mother of three in the southern city.

Mhadipor, who registered her youngest son in February for a public preschool across the street from her house, was only notified at the end of June that there was no space available for him, requiring her to find a private preschool.

“It was a nightmare,” says Mhadipor, whose two older sons had both gone through the public preschool system. “We started sending dozens of emails to the municipality.”

After registering at several private and semi-private preschools, Mhadipor found out at the end of July that her son was accepted at their neighborhood preschool, the one they had chosen at the start of the entire process.

“It’s a very hard year this year because everyone wants a public preschool; they all want to save the money,” she says. “But the municipalities knew what the numbers would be like back in February. Why didn’t they start planning back then?”