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US Educators Learn Lessons on Location in  Israel
By Vicki Cobb

Recently, a delegation of seven U.S. school superintendents visited Israel. It was an intense look at the geography, history, religious importance, struggle for survival, education systems and contemporary life of this tiny nation—approximately the size of New Jersey and home to about 8 million people. The trip was organized by the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL) to promote some of the hard-earned lessons learned by the Israeli people that could benefit others.

The group was given an overview of Israel’s truly impressive accomplishments since the 1948 War of Independence by journalist Amotz Asa-El, who writes for both the Jerusalem Post and the Wall Street Journal. He cited that most Israelis agree, this land is the home for all Israelis, including but not limited to secular Jews, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Bedouins, Druze, orthodox Jews, and ultra-orthodox Jews.

The remembrance of the Shoah, or Holocaust, has seared Jewish memory. So war, peace, and hatred are studied in the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, a part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The group heard speakers discuss their work at the Institute. Dr. Dalia Gavriely said that the horrors of war are not a part of normal Israeli life.

Ronni Shaked, a former journalist now working toward his doctorate, is examining the roots of hatred. He concludes that it will require a change in attitude from within from the people before they can resolve the territorial, religious and cultural differences. “But, change is possible,” he said.

The delegation of U.S. school superintendents met with Danny Bar-Giora, Head of the Jerusalem Education Authority. The job of educating the 250,000 students in Jerusalem is complicated by the fact that there are four different kinds of public schools. Twelve percent are public religious [Jewish] schools, and fourteen percent are public secular schools. The students from these sectors serve in the army after graduating high school. The largest segment, at forty-two percent, is the ultra-orthodox who don’t serve in the military, seldom go on to college, and don’t contribute much in taxes, although the communities are active in the political arena. Arabs make up thirty-two percent and have separate schools. They don’t serve in the army but many go on to higher education and contribute to society. The task of recruiting teachers for four different types of schools is an ongoing challenge.

Dr. David Harman, a distinguished educator, spoke to the group over dinner in a popular Jerusalem restaurant.  He was born in Jerusalem, and earned his doctorate at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and has served on the faculty of Hebrew University, Harvard University and Columbia University's Teacher's College. He has been an outspoken advocate for tolerance and pluralism and his commitment to the Jewish Diaspora has led to strengthening peoples’ Jewish identity throughout the world. He stated, “If you want to know what is going on in a nation, don’t look at the news, look at the schools.”

The ORT School in Arad in southern Israel has a youthful principal, Gregory Pozianski , who came from Russia twenty years ago. Russian educators, who have high standards for their students, have been making a difference in Israeli schools and Pozianski  is a model principal. This school which is part of the ORT, Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network emphasizes science and technology and is partnering with the local Israeli air base to prepare some students to be airplane mechanics when they enter the army. Four ORT students had recently returned from the International Space Olympics in Moscow, which they had entered for the first time and proudly won an award. Dr. Charlotte Frank, a U.S. educator and board member of AIFL, was one of the members of this delegation. She has accompanied other delegations of educational leaders to Israel over the years. On a previous trip she had noticed the purpose and energy of the ORT school and decided to help the Network. Her family’s generous donation funded two rooms in the school—a computer lab and a planetarium, to further the school’s commitment to science and technology. The Frank Aerospace Study Center was dedicated to the applause and appreciation of all during this visit.

What can the schools do about the tense relationship between Israeli Arabs and Jews? An extraordinary experiment is occurring in northern Israel. The population is 40 percent Arab and 60 percent Jewish. Mr. Morad Ziadat, the principal of the first Arab school to partner with a nearby Jewish school, explained the school’s mission to the U.S. educators: “The people here all live the same lives whether they are Arabic or Jewish. They are farmers, work in factories and have shops. Since we share the same life, we should know each other’s cultures. So in the Hebrew school we study Arabic. In the Arabic school we study Hebrew. And we have a lot of meetings with the pupils from both schools. Jewish and Arabic students come together to celebrate the Independence Day of Israel on May 14. It’s not easy because of the scars of ’48 and ’67. But on this day, all together, with white and blue shirts, with flags and all the ceremonies of independence, everyone celebrates. Our goal is to have social equality here and to work together to reach our goals.” What was the inspiration to make this move? “After the war of ‘67, some of the local kids found a shell and 21 of the kids were killed in an explosion and that is why they decided to reconcile the two areas.”

What about technology in the schools? The group visited the Nechalim School, near Tel Aviv, which is pioneering the use of the “Time to Know Project.” This project was developed and financed by Shmuel Meitar, co-founder of the Israeli hi-tech company Amdocs. The technology infrastructure means that every student in a class has a laptop and headset and it includes software that creates an educational experience for each student that moves them from instructional to constructivist learning. During class, when the kids are working on their computers independently, the teacher can keep track of them through a command center that monitors the work the kids are doing in real time. Since all the materials are on the web, both students and teacher can access them from home as well as school. Students can share their work with each other through an online gallery and teachers and administrators can easily monitor student progress. Time to Know has developed a very ambitious curriculum which is a complete year’s worth of lesson plans, learning activities, and homework assignments. The curriculum combines ‘blended learning’ materials, from movies, to on-screen tutorials, to paper exercises. This year Time To Know is running over 30  pilots in the U.S. and around 50 in Israel as well as pilots in China and South Korea.

Both U.S. and Israeli educators are most concerned about the kids who come to school with many serious issues that interfere with learning. Perhaps the most impressive school to tackle this problem is the Bailik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv that turns no child away despite their language, refugee status, financial status, immigration status of their parents, or special needs. In one of the poorest neighborhoods, the school became Karen Tal’s challenge in 2005, when she took over as principal. The school’s diverse population from 48 countries, with many at-risk students from some of the poorest families, even refugees from war-torn Darfur, has found a home in this school. The students need a lot of support, including meals, tutoring, social workers, medical help and an extended school day from seven AM to seven PM. Tal has managed to raise money from charitable organizations and philanthropists and has recruited 200 volunteers from Tel Aviv to work one-on-one with students. The results are remarkable. Despite the fact that this K-12 school has grown from about 460 to more than 900, and is about to accept 125 more, the percentage of students completing matriculation exams has grown from 28 percent to 90 percent. The school was the focus of a 2010 short subject documentary film Strangers No More, which won the Academy Award in that category. Tal has recently turned over the reins of the Bialik-Rogozin to a new principal so she can take on a new challenge—a troubled school in Jerusalem.

“There is no magic to good education,” Karen Tal told the U.S. education leaders. “You have to care, role up your sleeves, and do the work.”#



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