• ISRAEL \ Jul 30, 2002
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    Parents worried by school's `overly-religious` approach
Parents worried by school's `overly-religious` approach Until June, parents in Jerusalem who wanted their post-kindergarten-age children to have an accredited international education conducted in English had little choice but to send their children to the Anglican school. But shortly after the June graduation, arguments between the religious Anglican administration and the largely secular, expatriate parent body - many of whom are serving in short-term diplomatic or journalistic posts - escalated into a dramatic accusation by the top school official of a "conspiracy" between parents and some of the staff.

Now, some parents are said to be turning their energies from fighting an administration they perceive as overly focused on religion to brokering a deal with the American International School in Israel to expand its year-old Jerusalem branch as quickly as possible.

The secular American school opened a Jerusalem campus for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children last August in a building leased from the campus of the Israel Goldstein Youth Village on Shai Agnon Boulevard, and its promotional copy emphasizes the school's secular nature.

Etty Villanueva, former president of the Anglican International School board and a key opponent of stronger Christian emphasis at the school, said she and other parents who had sent their children to the Anglican school are trying to expand the American school's facilities at least until fifth grade as an alternative English educational option.

"We're putting our energy now into a new school and I think a better school, a more viable school," said Villanueva, adding the parents are applying for grants from outside sponsors.

Villanueva describes herself as non-religious, though she was brought up a Christian. In that, she is like most of the parents at the school, who are either secular or not particularly committed Christians and who send their children to the school for the education and the English, not the Anglicanism. Only about 12 percent of the students (based on last year's student body population of about 240) are "committed Christians," a school official estimated. There were about 20 Muslim students and "a handful" of Jewish ones this year.

Some parents were cautious about the prospect of moving to the American school and said they did not want to speak about it prior to September. American International School representatives were not available for comment.

But even if the school expands up to fifth grade for the coming year, Villanueva's son will not benefit from it. The entering seventh grader will likely be attending the main campus of the American International School, located one and a half hours away in Kfar Shmaryahu, north of Tel Aviv. "It's a lot of time, it's terrible, but it's our only option," said Villanueva.

Villanueva and her husband, who has worked for the Dutch foreign service in Jerusalem for the last two years, have ruled out the possibility of returning to the Anglican school, after the accusation of conspiracy resulted in an overhaul of the school board and a fear had set in among some parents that the school would begin emphasizing its Christian side over its international character, leaving academic excellence to wane.

The quality of the Anglican school, which was founded in 1962 and is located on Hanevi'im Street, has been slowly crumbling, said one parent who did not want to be named. "It's becoming less and less of an attractive, exciting educational institution and more of an outdated, anachronistic tool in the hands of missionaries."

`Not fundamentalist'

The school is administered by the Israel Trust of the Anglican Church (ITAC), which grew out of a British organization called the Church's Ministry among Jewish People (CMJ) but is now an independent sister society. Defenders of the school say those who run it are not fundamentalist, merely committed to running a Christian institution, the nature of which parents must understand when they sign their children up for it. The school does have an obligatory religious education class that must be taught by a Christian and ought to have a strong Christian flavor, according to the Rev. Tony Higton, ITAC general-director. But he said the school is not involved in any type of missionary activity, and called it "our number one priority" to make sure there is no lowering of academic standards.

It was Higton who first leveled the conspiracy charge, in an e-mail sent to parents, staff and board members at the end of June, a few days after graduation. "Clear documentary evidence has come to light very recently that certain influential members of the school community have been involved in a conspiracy to use the revised parents' amutah [non-profit organization]... as an alternative power base to control the school in a way which bypasses the board," he wrote. "Ultimately they intended to reach a point where they would be able to take over the school completely."

But if there is any conspiracy afoot, then Higton himself is at the heart of it, Villanueva maintains. In reaction to what Higton viewed as a parental insurrection against the school's management, he fired the 11-member school board and created a more internal one that, at least for now, is comprised only of seven ITAC members, three of whom are parents of children in the school. "The conspiracy in my view is the way that Tony Higton handled this whole taking charge of the school," says Villanueva.

The stage was set for the conspiracy accusation in the 1995-1996 school year, when ITAC decided to close the school and sell the property, despite parental objections. The organization eventually recanted its decision, but in the meantime parents decided to start an amutah, or non-profit organization, intended to give parents some control over major school-related issues. At the time, parents intended to collect tuition fees into the amutah as a way of demonstrating their negotiating power, said Villanueva. "Where the money is, that's where the power is," she added.

Around January, Villanueva, then-director Chris Wright and one other person began participating in an e-mail discussion regarding a resuscitation of the amutah as a way of giving parents a greater voice in the school, again by collecting tuition fees. Villanueva told the school board the amutah was necessary as a separate legal entity to facilitate fund-raising - which was also true, she said. But when the board found out that it would cost 2,000-3,000 pounds just to pay for a lawyer to set up a British branch of the non-profit organization, the plan was dropped from the agenda, she said.

Higton was furious when he found out about the plan after his arrival to Jerusalem in April, when he was shown the private e-mails. If the plan had succeeded, said Higton, "those in charge of the amutah would be able to hold the school to ransom." The objective, he said, was extensive control of the school "without any responsibility toward the organization which runs it ... They were seeking to obtain ITAC's money in order to undermine the role of ITAC."

The conspiracy rift is further complicated by several simultaneous changes in the school's makeup. The security situation has led to a greater number of non-returning students than usual. The school usually loses about one-third of its student body per year due to families returning to their country of origin. This school year, about half of last year's approximately 240 students were expected to return. The school was compelled to cut about half its budget and fire approximately half the staff last year. So far, registration for this school year has risen to an anticipated 147 students, but if some parents who had registered their children in the Anglican school end up sending them to the American school, that number could drop.

In addition, the tension over control of the school developed just as Wright, who was widely liked by parents and students but more controversial among staff members, was finishing his term, and a search for a new director was underway. Some parents were concerned about the renewed emphasis on Christianity that a new director could bring to the school, based on Higton's requirements.

For instance, the new Christian school document Higton drew up to outline the goals of the school emphasize Christianity much more than Wright's school description had. Out of nine items that described the school's beliefs while Wright was director, only one mentioned Christianity, saying, "The Judeo-Christian scriptures are the source for the school's framework of Christian beliefs and values."

In a similar list created by Higton, Christianity or ITAC is mentioned five times in eight items. The school, he wrote, "provides an environment in which young people can explore the potential of a spiritual dimension focused on Jesus Christ to counter the pervasive influence of an increasingly secular world [but does not evangelize the students]." He also wrote that the "essential role" of a principal in a Christian school "is the creation of a distinctive Christian community."

Expatriate parents who are only here for a few years and are not interested in Christian community often miss the point of a Christian school, said David Pileggi, an Anglican father of three who moved to Israel 22 years ago. Following an interfaith dialogue that took place at school, one of Pileggi's daughters, a student there, told him: "The Muslims knew who they were and the Jews knew who they were, but most of my classmates didn't really know who they were as Christians."

Christian students in a Christian school, Pileggi said, deserve to be reinforced by their own institutions. "It's not an issue of making everyone into pious Bible-carrying Christians," he said, who is on the school board but said he was speaking only as an individual parent. "It's an issue of identity."

Perhaps the mostly secular parents here for the short term have such drastically different needs from committed Christians who have made their lives in Jerusalem that another English-speaking school in Jerusalem wouldn't be such a bad idea, he said. "Maybe everyone will be happier if that's the solution."