The school year lies before us, brimming with hope. Let’s make the most of it. The 2005 – 2006 school year is officially underway in Israel.

Thankfully, the talked-about teachers’ strike has been averted. The educational system here is undergoing some changes, and the process has not been an easy one.

An education reform task force headed by high-tech businessman Shlomo Dovrat was appointed in 2003 to evaluate and revamp the system. This year marks the first stage in the implementation of the commission’s recommendations, which are outlined in the report that bears Dovrat’s name.

One of the biggest changes for the general public is longer school days, with students remaining in school until 4 p.m., rather than 1:00 or 2:00. The longer school day means that parents who, until now, worked part-time jobs in order to be home when their kids got home from school will now be able to seek full-time employment. In addition, Israeli students will, for the first time, have a two day weekend just like most students around the world.

The Dovrat program has not reached our schools yet, so our kids will continue attending school as usual. The plan is that each year more cities will adopt the program, until eventually the whole country has made the switch. I have not yet heard an estimate on how long that will take.

Obviously, there are other reforms recommended in the report, including raising salaries and qualifications for teachers, to attract the highest possible caliber of educators. Some of the other suggestions are causing an upheaval in the teachers’ unions. For instance, there have been mass firings (and later some re-hirings) of teachers. The people I know are uncertain whether the Dovrat Reform will improve the education system or not, but most feel that a change was due.

There have been other changes since the last time I wrote about schools in Israel. A couple of years ago, many schools began requiring the students to wear uniforms. Now nearly half of the public schools in the country have a dress code. This seems to be just one step among many being considered to improve discipline in the schools. Some supporters of uniforms say dressing alike helps blur the socio-economic differences among the students. Others say the uniforms promote within the students a stronger identification with and support of the school. These may well be true, but it also seems to me that by requiring a uniform, the school’s administration is saying to students, “you are under our authority while you’re here.” Based on my experiences, I would say that is a much-needed lesson these children need to learn.

Also under consideration is the return of the policy of students being required to stand when the teacher enters the classroom. In addition, students would be expected to address the teacher, not by his or her first name (as they do now in many schools) but as “Teacher”.

I am also in favor of these changes, and not only because my own interactions with teachers when I was a student were of a more formal nature. I believe knowing you must show respect for your teachers instills in students the habit of decorous behavior at school. Whatever you might say about Israeli schoolchildren today, it’s doubtful you would use the word decorum in the sentence, except perhaps to point out the lack thereof.

For parents of school-age children, the first day of school can be like New Year’s Day. Our lives make a sudden shift. From the lazy calm of summer, we jump into the structure and schedules of school time. Last week, teachers greeted parents and children alike with the same words they use on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year): “Shanah tova” (a good year).

Now, the first day of school is behind us. The remainder of the year lies before us, brimming with hope and shimmering with possibilities. Let’s make the most of it.