Teachers at the Hammer Boys School in Bat Yam are deciding whether to take their junior high students to London or New York on their upcoming virtual reality trip. At the Gymnasia in Kiryat Malakhi, pupils sit on bouncy yoga balls at desks on wheels against a wall of live green foliage. Over 15,000 students in these and 25 other schools nationwide spend part of class-time stretched out on couches reading books and magazines, watching videos on tablets, speaking on camera, writing speeches and performing plays.
“We mix, match and modify the best of what’s out there, and combine it with ideas of our own,” says Dr. Gil Pereg, CEO of Darca, the six-year-old educational network to which these 27 schools belong. “We see ourselves as an experimental laboratory for today’s education.”
Darca (Aramaic for “The Path”) is clearly on the right… path. In schools once known for poor performance, children from disadvantaged homes are now looking toward a future in engineering, teaching, medicine, academe and more. An unprecedented 85 percent of students in this backyard of Israel’s public education system matriculated this past academic year. Given that matriculation unlocks the door to social mobility, that figure says a lot.
The Darca network was created in 2010 at the initiative of the Rashi Foundation and Alliance Kol Yisrael Haverim (KIAH), French philanthropic organizations long involved in educational interventions in Israeli schools. Their aim: to invigorate failing schools in educational crisis in Israel’s geographic and socio-economic peripheries. Joined three years later by the US-based Youth Renewal Fund, they have together furnished Darca with $53 million — an unprecedented sum for Israel’s education system.
The schools in Darca’s sights are doubly disadvantaged: First, they serve communities with high unemployment, large new immigrant populations and fraying social fabric; and, second, unlike schools in stronger areas, they are administered by small local authorities with neither experienced education departments nor funds to supplement Education Ministry budgets.
The Darca Maxim Levy School in Lod was one of these: It had three principals in four years, its Jewish, Christian and Muslim pupils said they were ashamed to say where they went to school, and fully half of them were categorized as youth at risk. “You never knew whether it was class time or recess, because students roamed around outside all day,” said one teacher.
Believing that children in Lod, Netivot and Kiryat Shmona are entitled to an education equal to that of children in affluent communities, Darca looks for schools just like the Maxim Levy one. It has pioneered a multi-pronged makeover which — with funding support, and teachers, parents and the local authority on board — can turn a school around within a couple of years.
With good English opening many doors, language teaching is a first emphasis. “Most of our students come from homes without English, and many see it as an impassable barrier,” says Dr. Mor Deshen, Darca’s senior vice president for pedagogy. “In addition to our two English centers, we have English labs in all our schools so students experience the language as part of everyday life. These are rooms with couches where youngsters can take a book off a shelf and lie down to read it, a big TV-video, a booth with headphones where they can record themselves and play it back so they know how they sound. It’s a format that not only engages the kids, but also allows teachers to work with small groups, addressing all skill levels.”
Students are encouraged to keep options wide open by taking matriculation English at university-entrance level (4- to 5-point), and almost 90 percent of those who do so succeed. An approach similar to the English-language rooms is now being developed for math, with Darca’s first model math room to open at the end of the year.
The network’s ultimate learning environment is the YES I CAN! classroom. Ideally to feature in all Darca schools, the 50,000-shekel prototype opened in the Darca Kiryat Malakhi High School in October 2015. An all-Israeli innovation designed by architect Lior Ben-Sheetrit, YES I CAN! makes learning fun while improving concentration: It seats fidgety students on yoga balls, resting in frames; its desks are on wheels; it is free of distracting noticeboards and posters; three of its walls comprise geometric shapes inspired by the video game Minecraft, and the fourth is covered in growing vegetation. Three closed-off workstations are for quiet study.
Compelling as YES I CAN! may be as a learning environment, Darca is introducing a technology that will take its students far away from it. This year they will go either to London or to New York — and, in the future, perhaps to Machu Picchu, Antarctica or the international space station. Authorized by Google Expeditions, pupils in Bat Yam’s Darca Hammer School will don headsets that take them into virtual 3-D environments, where they can wander, explore and converse. “Their teachers will guide them until they’re comfortable there,” says Deshen. “Then they’ll lead.”
The virtual reality and YES I CAN! attention-grabbers are underpinned by tried and tested techniques — libraries, expanded teaching hours, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) instruction and more. But the key to the Darca transformation, according to Pereg, is neither libraries nor computers, but about how the kids see themselves.
“Working with the network’s 1,618 teachers is crucial,” says Deshen. “They must believe in their pupils and show it with every word they speak — and their pupils must know their teachers believe in them. We’ve adapted a U.S. model, the Indiana Critical Friends Group, to work with teachers on this and on their professional development, and to support them and get their feedback, so that we can modify what we do to fit each school and community.”
Since what happens in school often impacts on the functioning of the entire family, parents are also brought in. And in struggling families, Darca extends a hand — arranging extra tuition, counseling, emotional support, a mid-morning sandwich, a hot lunch, even a winter jacket or dental care — and doing it as if this is what schools routinely offer.Six years on, schools in Israel’s periphery are clamoring to transfer to the Darca Network. They see balanced budgets in its schools, plummeting violence in its playgrounds, more of its students volunteering, more of them active in youth movements, and growing numbers of their graduates recruited to elite army units. They have seen matriculation eligibility in Netivot’s non-religious Darca High School rise from 13 percent to 62 percent in just three years; they have heard Gedera’s mayor crediting Darca’s takeover of the town’s three struggling high schools for rising real estate values; and they have seen Lod’s Darca Maxim Levy High become a sought-after school.
Aiming for a maximum of 50 of Israel’s periphery schools, Darca is hoping to add Bedouin, other Arab and ultra-Orthodox schools to those from the religious, secular, Druze and agricultural sectors currently under its umbrella. It has yet to lose a tender.
“We’re not looking to take over Israel’s school system,” Pereg stresses. “What we’re doing is building an educationally innovative model, proving that it works and offering it as a prototype countrywide and even beyond.”
For more information, see www.darca.org.il
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