How Druze Bested the Jews

How did a Druze school in northern Israel go from bottom to the top of the class in the span of a decade? The blood, sweat and tears that made Beit Jann High School the best in the whole of Israel.

A little way past Carmiel, in the central Galilee, you turn northward at the Rama intersection and continue straight for several kilometers until the right turn to Beit Jann. On the edge of Mount Meron, 150 kilometers from Tel Aviv, you will find Beit Jann High School, the best secondary school in Israel. Best, that is, at least according to the conventional standard of percentage of students who graduate with a bagrut ‏(matriculation‏) certificate. The school was at the center of much media hoopla earlier this month after it emerged that the Druze town of some 11,000 residents had ranked third in the nationwide rate of high school seniors eligible for a bagrut in the 2011-12 school year.

To achieve that, the school, Beit Jann’s only high school ‏(though some young people from the town attend school elsewhere‏), underwent a veritable revolution: According to data recently received by the school, their graduating seniors in June 2013 had a bagrut eligibility rate of 100 percent. In this, it bested schools from far more well-to-do communities in the Sharon and other central regions − including private schools that have admission requirements and charge high tuition fees.

Beit Jann, one of the poorest towns in Israel, whose residents are ranked in the second-lowest decile in terms of socio-economic level by the Central Bureau of Statistics, will again be declared one of the communities offering the best education.

As recently as 1999, the bagrut eligibility rate for Beit Jann’s high school graduates was a mere 13 percent − among the country’s lowest at the time. Since then it has gone up gradually every year. Although one can graduate high school without earning a bagrut certificate, this state-awarded certification is required if a student wants to apply for university. In the 2011-12 academic year, the bagrut eligibility rate at Druze schools reached 54.8 percent, higher than the nationwide average of 49.8 percent and similar to the eligibility rate at Jewish schools ‏(55.3 percent‏).

This sea change at Druze schools was generated by the veteran teachers, who were not replaced and received no outside reinforcements. The student populations, too, were in some cases made up of the same young people who had been attending these schools for years, and who had even failed in the past. The dropout rate also fell.

The Beit Jann Comprehensive High School succeeded even though some of its students have had a particularly hard time finishing their studies, and despite the poor economic situation of the village and the students’ families. It does not charge excessive supplemental fees, just the standard found at any other school. It accepts all comers, and it does not expel students. In fact, the school staff even tracked down several students who had dropped out and persuaded them to return, a moment before they enrolled in vocational schools.

The school’s achievements shatter one of the basic assumptions of senior education officials here − namely, that not all students can graduate from high school with a bagrut ‏(the curriculum for the certificate includes passing grades in certain mandatory subjects, like English and math, and in a number of other optional fields‏), and therefore alternative tracks, such as trade schools, must be provided for them.

The target of 100 percent bagrut eligibility served to underscore the main goal set for all Druze schools − not giving up on a single student. “I went to the principals and told them that it’s easy to strengthen only the ones who are strongest; you have to go to the weakest and give them the best pedagogical service,” says Muhana Fares, who heads the Druze and Circassian department in the Education Ministry, and who decided on the “no student left behind” policy.

To meet this target, the matriculation programs run by the Yeholot Association, and developed by its director, Nissim Cohen, were introduced into 15 Druze schools. ‏(The association was founded by the Rashi Foundation, an NGO that works in tandem with the ministry’s welfare services department.‏) The association gave teachers training and professional development in its method of accelerated learning to reduce educational gaps.

The bagrut certificate is the most basic prerequisite for landing a meaningful job and an essential step on the path to an academic degree. Despite this, in the sad reality of the Israeli school system, this accomplishment is far from a given. Fewer than half of high-school graduates attain a bagrut certificate. Even in the most affluent cities, not all of the students manage to obtain it. And in some of the poorest communities, 70 percent or more finish school without a bagrut.

In Beit Jann, we met, among others, 18-year-old Rachel, who had given up on school three years ago and, before the school’s pedagogic coordinator persuaded her to give it another try, had been planning to study hairdressing and become a housewife. Today she has an expanded bagrut certificate in science and technology, and is contemplating a degree in education. There was also 18-year-old Hikmat, who says he might have “ended up in prison,” but instead achieved a complete bagrut certificate and intends to enroll in one of the academic colleges in the north.

When you look at the school building, it is unclear how it manages even to provide its 790 high-school and 660 junior-high students with basic conditions for studying − and it is even more unclear how they accomplish such impressive achievements. The fact that the Education Ministry has not renovated the building in the 30 years since it opened is quite obvious.

The school does not have a real yard, merely a small clearing in the center of the building, and the paint is peeling off some of the walls. Classrooms here are very overcrowded, according to Education Ministry figures, averaging 37.6 students per class − higher than the national average.

Incidentally, the school’s impressive achievements are limited to its high-school students. In the standardized external Meitzav tests for junior-high schools, Beit Jann ranked in the fifth decile nationwide, meaning that students at about half the schools in this category did better.

Lions in the hallway

The situation is different inside the school. A few years ago, the school administration collected donations from residents and organized renovations independently. Principal Ali Salalha commissioned an artist to decorate the corridors with paintings of trees and forests ‏(“to create a relaxed atmosphere and also to conceal the electric and heating cables,” he says. Hallways are adorned with quotations by Druze elders, whose pictures also hang on the walls ‏(“to give students inspiration and role models to emulate”‏), and the support pillars have been given a faux-marble appearance ‏(“students won’t scribble on walls that look like marble”‏). The most striking element is two lion sculptures inside the main entrance ‏(“I wanted to convey power and nobility, to influence the area”‏).

“Success began in small ways,” says Salalha, who is in charge of the entire school, grades 7 to 12. “We started with a group of 30 students who participated in a Yeholot Association project,” adds Muhana Fares. But the effect was greater; it opened up many more obstacles within the school. After the initial success, the students and faculty developed an appetite. We extended the activity to the weakest students, and that is the reason behind the gradual and steady rise in eligibility for the bagrut.

“It used to be that a weak student was weak, and that was the end of it,” continues Fares. “Here they began to really see the students. They take the toughest students and touch their hearts, speak with them. They understand the teachers will help them, no matter what happens.

At the end of the school year last June, when the bagrut results were released, the school held an especially festive graduation party, calling it the party of the century. “It was the first time all the graduates attended the ball and felt they were equals,” Salalha says. The guest of honor at the party was someone the students had never met before − Nissim Cohen, the director of Yeholot.

Cohen himself had been a school dropout, but at some point came back and finished his studies and became convinced that every student could attain a bagrut certificate. He was accepted to university, and after completing a master’s with distinction in the sociology of education, he began developing a method that would ensure no student got left behind. Cohen called his method “accelerated gap reduction.” In the early 1990s, he gradually began introducing it at high schools in Israel’s outlying areas and at the Jerusalem school where he was the principal. Cohen’s association, Yeholot, focuses on 100 schools in outlying areas and in disadvantaged communities − Jewish, Druze, Arab and Bedouin.

The association’s rates of success are astonishing. One program targets those students who flunked most junior-high subjects and were on the verge of dropping out. At the end of 2012, 66 percent of its participants graduated from high school with a full bagrut. A second is aimed at students who stand to fail major subjects on the bagrut test, such as math or English. Some 90 percent of the students in this program eventually graduate from high school with a complete bagrut in all subjects.

“Aside from a minuscule percentage of exceptions, anyone can succeed in school − regardless of social background,” Cohen believes. “To help them, you need to pose challenging goals and work methodically. We work in cooperation with the Education Ministry, the school administration and staff, without outside teachers. As a moral society, we are obligated to accomplish the goal that all succeed in school.

“To this day,” Cohen adds, “there is a correlation between success in school and socioeconomic background. This correlation is harmful to us, contributes to rifts within society and causes a loss of human capital. It hurts the school and hurts the kids who embrace the failure and lose faith in their ability and, for lack of choice, turn to alternative channels that not infrequently include delinquency.”

The program Cohen developed is extremely demanding for schools and teachers but also takes tremendous efforts on the part of the students participating in it. Some of the students in the association’s program begin high school lacking any basic knowledge or the ability to read and write. They embark on an intensive course of study that includes marathon sessions after school that continue after school hours and into the evening, and during vacations and holidays. There is a test at the end of every class. Six months into the program, at the end of 10th grade, the program’s students take a 3-point bagrut in math − “to show them that they can, and to begin narrowing the gap,” Cohen explains.

The students spend most of their time studying, which doesn’t leave much room for a social life − quite a change for students who, until recently, had expected to drop out of school. Therefore, a substantial part of the program is devoted to building their motivation, and also preserving parental involvement. The method calls on teachers in the class to become personally acquainted not only with the students but with their parents, too. Some of the parents, Cohen says, have lost faith in their children’s ability to succeed in school, and the teachers have to restore that faith.

Your method takes the childhood out of school. It introduces students to an existence of classrooms, studies and tests.

Cohen: “And what is the alternative? Is there an easy solution? The work required is necessary for rebuilding the kids’ confidence in their own ability. Concessions and easy solutions do not challenge kids who have amassed so many failures, and they are a trap for all of us. The kids learn a critical value − that in order to succeed, you must invest, and that is not terrible. They also enjoy the personal attention. And some 20 percent of the program’s graduates, who had been on the verge of dropping out, are now studying in academic settings.”

According to Cohen, “the ones who work unusually hard are the teachers. We must increase the cooperation with the Education Ministry and find an institutional way within the system to reward, train, support and encourage these wonderful educators.”

All of the students in the program gave their consent after the participating teachers met with them to discuss it. “The student needs to understand what’s in store for him and what the difficulties are,” says Iyad Muhanna, who serves as the program’s pedagogical adviser from Rashi. “You must not force him to participate in the program. In the course of the conversation, he realizes that he is in a problematic state and that dangers await him in the future, and therefore he would be better off changing the situation.

“These are students who have a very hard time believing in themselves, after all the disappointments they experienced,” adds Muhanna. “They say, ‘Where were you during the nine years in which I’ve been flunking and you tell me that everyone was wrong and you are right?’ Sometimes the faculty holds several conversations with the students to get them onboard.

“We constantly explain to the students that, in order to succeed, you have to invest and make an effort. We bring them to a realization that they control the material and are responsible for their own success, but it comes after a great investment. Yes, they will study on Saturdays and at unusual hours around the clock.”

“The moment that students experience success, after having previously received scores of 10 or 20 in math, motivation awakens in them that continues to spur them onward,” says Jalal Sa’ad, the pedagogical coordinator of the school. “We advised teachers that every time a student gets a good grade, one of the teachers is to call up the parents to let them know. Up until then, it had been customary to involve them only where there was trouble.”

“The students sometimes don’t believe their achievements,” adds Sa’ad. “They tell us about experiences from the past, and sometimes you are ashamed to hear the things they heard from teachers − who told them they are worthless.”

Changing attitudes

For the past two years, the leap in the bagrut eligibility rate for Druze students has been the highest in Israel. If this trend continues next year, it will surpass the rate within the Jewish community. The change began in the early 2000s and also involved a rise in the number of academic degree holders and a decrease in school dropout rates. This is the product of a multiyear plan spearheaded by Fares and the Education Ministry.

In the past decades, the Druze community, which makes up about 1.7 percent of the country’s overall population, and whose young men generally serve in the army, has also benefited from two government decisions to bolster it with additional budgets, as well as with contributions from the Jewish humanitarian assistance organization the Joint Distribution Committee.

Today, there are 190 Druze from northern towns enrolled at the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. To demonstrate the depth of the change that has taken place in the community, Fares notes that half of these students are women. However, he adds that there are still religiously devout families that do not allow girls to attend coed institutions, and that there are still not enough jobs in northern Israel for Druze women.

“We built the program to achieve success, and we managed to and inspire a change in Druze public opinion awareness of the matter,” says Fares. “Parents now have a sense of urgency when it comes to education. In my opinion, it is also connected to frustration. They saw that others can afford a better way of life thanks to education, and realized that we need to look after ourselves.”

Fares personally visited some parents of students at high schools in the Yeholot program. “It wasn’t easy coming to the parents,” he admits. “The purpose of the visit is to get them to believe in the ability of their children, who have failed in the past. To the students we said, again and again: ‘You failed because of others’ mistakes, not your own. You can succeed.”

One of the first questions I asked Fares, Cohen and Salalha alike concerned copying on tests. “I’m not certain you would ask that if it was a Jewish school that had done well,” Cohen commented. Fares quickly countered that “when I speak of the community’s achievements, someone Druze, too, might get up and say it’s probably because of copying.” However, he adds, “copying goes on everywhere, and actually among Druze, the rate of invalidated test booklets goes down as eligibility for a bagrut goes up. We give students tools so they will not copy. Every person has self-respect. According to our values, copying is a kind of theft, and I believe in the students that they will not do that.”

“It took us four years to reach 100 percent bagrut eligibility. It didn’t happen overnight,” Salalha says. “Three years ago, we began focusing on the weak students through the collaboration with the Yeholot Association. Some of the students barely knew how to read and write and had more than nine failing grades on their report cards.

“We persuaded them that it is worth their while to succeed, that a bagrut certificate is the ticket to a better future, to academia, to a family and better standing.”

Why was the target set at 100 percent?

Salalha: “Every student is important. I wouldn’t want my child to be without a bagrut, so why should another child not have a bagrut? There is no reason for us not to succeed. The Jews are a minority, too, and see how far they have gone. I could have continued as usual and made excuses for my failures, but I want this society to be the best in the world.”

Zeid Kablan, who is principal of the senior high school, adds: “We managed to bring a humiliated population, which had never experienced success, to feel a sense of pride; to switch from a bad framework to a place that thinks about the future and about how to succeed and contribute to society.”

‘Say that you can’

“If I hadn’t taken part, I would have ended up in prison,” says Hikmat Najam, a graduate of the program. “I was a very disruptive kid. Nobody paid attention to me, not even my parents. Everyone looked at me differently. They led me to understand that I couldn’t amount to anything and they didn’t know where they’d find me in a few years. Now I want to succeed and go far. In ninth grade I failed eight subjects. Today I have 34 bagrut units, including a bagrut in science and technology. We sometimes studied in school from 8 A.M. until midnight. They kept telling us to forget the words ‘I can’t.’ They told us, ‘Say that you can.’ They constantly encouraged us. When you take a test and pass it, your fear of failure begins to fade. The first time I succeeded on a bagrut I was amazed, I couldn’t believe it was me. I ran home to my parents with a feeling that was indescribable.”

Rachel Khir is another of the high school’s graduates. “When I was in junior high, I didn’t study and didn’t even want to come to school,” she recalls. “I wasn’t hoping to make it to high school, and certainly not to do a bagrut. The surroundings and also the teachers in the junior high made me feel I wouldn’t do anything good with my life. I wasn’t even supposed to go to high school − after junior high I enrolled in cosmetology studies at a vocational school, but the pedagogical coordinator grabbed me for a conversation and brought me here.

“I thought I would be a housewife,” she continues, “but now I want to go to college. My parents are very proud of me. My father put up my diploma at the entrance to the house. Yesterday, I was at an open day at Tel-Hai Academic College and they told me I can enroll, but I am checking out additional colleges. I want to study education and art therapy. I like to help children, and I want to help them like the teachers here helped me.”

What needs fixing in the school system?

Khir: “The teachers’ attitude. Until I met the teachers here, the teachers never looked out for the kids. They couldn’t, or didn’t want to. There are teachers who, when a student tells them he didn’t understand the lesson, only says that it’s because he wasn’t focused at the beginning of the class. The teachers would go with the strong ones and leave the weak ones behind.”

“It is hard for teachers to believe after years in which they got used to the idea that not everyone succeeds,” says Yeholot’s Muhana. “It’s not just the teacher who thinks this − the parents do, too. This method shatters the old system. The students here feel they have been given attention for the first time in their lives.”

“This method has created a change in the consciousness of teachers at the school,” adds coordinator Jalal Sa’ad. “It put into their minds the fact that even the lowest-achieving students can succeed, and they discovered that this really is true.”

Gil Eliahu
Gil Eliahu
Gil Eliahu
Gil Eliahu