Helping Ethiopian kids in Israel think about their future

The article below highlights Israel Center for Educational Innovation’s (ICEI) special relationship with Columbia University's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), highlighting the innovative literacy instruction model we have brought to 17 schools in Israel.

"Avraham Arago, an Ethiopian Israeli 6th-grader student in one of the ICEI schools, reflected that one of the reasons he loves reading and writing so much is because “… we have to think about our future”.  Thinking about the future is exactly what ICEI is doing. It is our strong belief that improving the social and educational achievements of Ethiopian-Israeli children is critical to facilitate their successful integration into Israeli society.  This vital program would not be possible without Federation’s support, for which we are deeply grateful.” ~ Don Futterman, the Director, the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI)

Over the past 4 years, The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund has granted $50,000 per year toward the ICEI program.  It’s part of the $1.9 million that goes toward funding programs focused on social equality in Israel.

Lessons from the Bronx for struggling Ethiopian kids in Israel

New York City knowhow is being brought to the school experience in Israel, with radically redesigned classrooms and libraries.

Article by Danna Harman published on May 26, 2013 in Haaretz, about the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI).

A student in the ICEI program. Photo by courtesy.


If it can work in Harlem, why not in Petah Tikva?

That seems to be the question a group of Israeli educators, hoping to help underperforming kids in Israeli schools, set out to discover.

Despite all forms of remedial efforts over the years, many of the underperforming kids in Israel continue to be children of immigrants from Ethiopia. Faced, in particular, with this sorry fact, this group of educators looked across the ocean for some novel solutions.

They found them at Teachers College at New York City’s Columbia University. That’s where the famed “Reading and Writing Project” was begun some 20 years by Professor Lucy Calkins to address the needs of underperforming kids in that state’s public schools: Schools filled, as are many schools in Israel, with students from different backgrounds. Many of them are immigrants.

The project, which played a key role in turning around the failing New York City public school system, has since been adopted in hundreds of schools around the U.S. and the world. In a nutshell, it offers this advice: Focus. On. Reading. And. Writing.

And so, the educators at the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI), a non-governmental organization started by the Moriah foundation, decided to give it a try. They partnered up with the Education Ministry and several local municipalities and imported the Teachers College model – philosophy, tools, curriculum, methods and all – to these shores.

And it worked. “It’s not another program,” says Don Futterman, ICEI’s director, “It's a way of looking at education and teaching that is totally different.” A pilot program was begun six years ago in three elementary schools in Netanya, and since has been rolled out in 17 schools in Petah Tikva, Bat Yam, Tel Aviv, Or Yehuda, Rishon Letzion and Kfar Yona.

At its core, the program, which was implemented with the guidance of a New York-based education consulting organization called the Center for Educational Innovation – Public Education Association (CEI-PEA), involves a strong focus on literacy, sometimes even at the expense of other class hours, with an emphasis on individualized reading and writing exercises.

Classrooms of schools following the model look different than typical classrooms – school bags are left outside so kids don’t fiddle with them, there are no superfluous decorations cluttering the walls, and clocks are hung prominently, so students can pace themselves and learn to work within scheduled blocks of time. Libraries of 600-1,000 books are a key fixture in each class, with the books organized into colored hives along the wall, sorted by level of difficulty.

Walking into a classroom, one is not going to see a sea of desks with a teacher standing in front of the room. Instead one might find the students sitting upright on a carpet in the corner, listening to their teacher who is sitting on a stool and reading out loud; or discussing a book in clusters of twos and threes, seated around a teacher at a horseshoe shaped desk. It would not be unusual to find parents in the classroom too, on hand for, say, an end of unit “publishing party,” where the kids present their written work.

Several new roles are integral to the success of the program: “Literacy coaches” – who are trained by representatives of Teachers College – oversee the implementation of the model in the classrooms; School “mentors”— typically former principals who have, likewise, been trained by ICEI – oversee goings on throughout the school; and community liaisons make sure parents are involved.

The Ethiopian community in Israel, which numbers about 120,000 people, 50 percent of whom are under 25, has one of the highest dropout rates and lowest achievement records of any community in the country.

Recent studies by the JDC Brookdale Institute, a center for applied research on human services, found that only 32 percent of Ethiopian students were eligible to sit for college entrance exams, compared with 50 percent of students in the general population. The institute also found that more than 50 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli parents were not equipped to assist their children with schoolwork.

This weak culture of literacy is something that needs to be addressed, says Futterman, both in terms of pushing and encouraging the children to read, write and speak up in school, and in terms of involving the parents. “Often these parents, who might not speak Hebrew, do not understand the modern technology and might not even be literate, feel alienated from the school system, and with nothing to contribute,” he says. “They have to be included.”

Meanwhile, while the original commitment of the program was to the Ethiopian community, they are not the only ones benefitting. As a prerequisite for coming into a school, ICEI insists that at least 30 percent of the student body is from an Ethiopian background (although some schools have up to 95 percent), but the program itself is run for the entire school population.

“The parents in the Ethiopian community were getting fed up with their kids being pulled out for remedial studies. They said it was isolating and stigmatizing, and implied those kids were not up to speed,” explains Futterman. “We knew that the solution was to bring in a program for everyone – and change the way the whole school operates.”

The program costs around $220,000 per year for the first couple of years, while the school is being outfitted with the likes of in-class libraries and furniture, and is dependent on ongoing professional support for the principal, teachers, students and parents, says Futterman. Costs later “decline considerably,” once outfitting is completed and the faculty masters the instructional model.

The costs are shared almost equally between three bodies: the Ministry of Education, the participating municipality, and a group of 15 private foundations and federations that have joined up with the Moriah Fund, including Yad Hanadiv, the Steinhardt Foundation-Israel, the San Francisco and Toronto Jewish Federations, and the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Foundation.

Futterman is the first to admit the costs for setting up and running the program are relatively high for Israel, but argues that the long-term investment more than justifies the investment, “particularly when compared against projected costs of remedial programs and dropout prevention or repair programs.”

Haviva Lahav, the principal of Petach Tikva’s Netzach Yisrael school, invited ICEI in three years ago. She was nonetheless not completely sure how shifting to the model would pan out. She has been at the helm of the school for nine years in total, and was skeptical about any claims of “miracle” change. But these days, she is a walking advertisement for the program. “If you want different results, you have to try something new,” she says.

The school, which has 89 Ethiopian students out of a student body of 244, has, as a whole, seen its test scores on nationwide exams rise to above the national average. Its graduates are being accepted into better middle schools than ever before. “It fit like a glove,” Lahav says of the model. “What can I say? It is good.”

Avraham Neguise, a prominent leader within Ethiopian community in Israel, is not involved directly with the program but is also a fan. “Of all the projects I have seen, this is the best one out there, and I only wish the education ministry would spread it to more schools,” he says. “Not only pedagogically speaking, in terms of the reading and writing, but also on a social level. There is no doubt the project helps kids feel integrated and it raises their self-esteem.” Avraham Arago, a bespectacled 12-year-old Ethiopian who was born in the Gondar region and immigrated to Israel with his family at age 3, is one of those kids Neguise is referring to: a top 6th-grade student at Netzach Yisrael who loves to read. “Really,” he says, he loves it more than playing video games, and even more than soccer.

Arago is busy, on this particular day, explaining a recent story he has written – a science fiction tale about a space machine – to Niv David, a fellow, non-Ethiopian, sixth grader. “I’m not embarrassed about reading and writing stories, even when my friends in the neighborhood think it’s nerdy,” says David.

“We have to think about our future,” says Arago solemnly, nodding his head. “We say, don’t judge a book by its cover – and that means also, don’t judge a kid by whether he or she is reading a book. Kids who read might be very cool too. Cool and smart.”

Categories: Grantees, Israel, , Overseas


June 19, 2013


The Federation