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Darca is a ground-breaking educational network that is succeeding in turning around failing schools in Israels periphery through innovative teaching methods and extensive investments

Wendy Elliman
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Wendy Elliman
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It used to be that only youngsters who had no choice would attend the Darca Maxim Levy High School in Lod. The school ran through three principals in four years; fully half of its Jewish, Christian and Muslim pupils were categorized as youth at risk, and all of them were ashamed to say where they went to school — if they went. You never knew whether it was class time or recess, because the kids roamed around outside all day, lamented one teacher.

It took two years and NIS 1.5 million a year to turn things at Maxim Levy on their head. Today, enrolment is up, its students attend class, school violence has nosedived and matriculation rates have soared. In this and 26 other schools in Israels geographic and socio-economic periphery, once known for poor performance, children of under-educated parents are looking toward futures in engineering, teaching, medicine, academe and more. An unparalleled 85 percent of them matriculated this past academic year.

Providing the tools

This sea-change can be laid at the door of Darca, the educational network to which these 27 schools belong. Darca (Aramaic for The Path) was created in 2010 at the initiative of the Rashi Foundation and Alliance Kol Yisrael Haverim (KIAH), who put up $25 million to invigorate failing schools in the backyard of Israels public education system. When the Youth Renewal Fund (YRF) came aboard four years later, that sum more than doubled to $53 million — the strongest financial backing ever known by an Israeli school network.

All three organizations have long focused on narrowing Israels educational gap. Increasingly, they saw that intervention programs — bringing in, say, extra tutors for a math exam — cant answer todays needs, notes Darcas CEO, Dr. Gil Pereg. They concluded that it was better by far to mentor the schools own teachers and give them the tools to do their job. And thats only one piece of turning a school around. A comprehensive plan was needed. And that led to setting up a new educational network.

It is a network whose funders never saw their participation limited to money. Between them, they have significant managerial knowhow to contribute — which means a school in Netivot, say, can access organizational advice from a senior figure on Wall Street.

Wall Street is a long way from the challenged schools that Darca aims to turn into high-quality educational institutions with strong core values and solid matriculation results. These schools are in Israels periphery and usually serve communities where unemployment is high or the social fabric is fraying, says Pereg. Theyre administered by small local authorities with neither experienced education departments nor funds to supplement Education Ministry budgets — the fabled 15 percent which wealthier municipalities redirect from property taxes to longer lab hours, another study track, a pretty school garden.

Educational laboratory

Darca levels out the 15 percent, doing the renovations, and providing the libraries and computers — but it does far more than this. We see ourselves as an experimental laboratory for todays education, says Pereg. The parents of many of the children we teach didnt complete high school. Many of our youngsters come from homes without English, and many are unused to sitting through class or have any expectation of succeeding in school. So we mix, match and modify the best teaching approaches that are out there, and combine them with ideas of our own to help these children learn and succeed.

English language, the key to many doors, is one emphasis. Most of our 15,000-plus pupils see English as an impassable barrier, says Dr. Mor Deshen, Darcas senior vice president for pedagogy. We have two English learning centers, as well as English labs in all our schools where students experience the language as part of everyday life. These are rooms with couches where youngsters can take a book off a shelf. We make it a relaxed part of everyday life. We have English labs in two of our schools so far, with couches, a big TV-video, and a booth with headphones where they can record themselves and play it back so they know how they sound. Its a format that not only engages the kids, but also allows teachers to work with small groups, addressing all ability levels.

Students are encouraged to take matriculation exams in English at university-entrance levels, and almost 90 percent of those who do so succeed. An approach similar to the English labs is now being developed for math, with Darcas first model math room to open at the end of the year.

Innovative classrooms

The networks ultimate learning environment is the YES I CAN! classroom. Ideally to feature in all Darca schools, the NIS 50,000 prototype opened in the Darca Kiryat Malachi High School in October 2015. An all-Israeli innovation, 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 green 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 to take its students far away from it. This year, authorized by Google Expeditions, junior high students in Bat Yams Hammer School will don headsets that transport them to a virtual 3-D environment (this year, it will be London or New York), where they will wander, explore and converse.

With a handful of exceptions, the 1,644 men and women teaching in Darcas schools have come joyfully under its umbrella. We function as a kind of mobile education department, providing them with professional support, says Deshen. They contribute their knowledge about the school and the community. More important than all of that, however, is helping to restore their belief in pupils and to demonstrate it to the kids with every word they speak.

Since what happens in school often impacts on the home, parents, too, are brought along on the educational journey. Darca holds out a hand to struggling families, 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.

Proving that it works

Six years on, schools in Israels periphery are clamoring to transfer to the Darca Network. They see balanced budgets, more of its students volunteering, more of them active in youth movements, and growing numbers of their graduates recruited to elite IDF units. They have seen matriculation eligibility in Darca Netivots nonreligious high school rise from 13 percent to 60 percent in just three years, they have heard Gederas mayor crediting Darcas takeover of the towns three struggling high schools for rising real estate values, and they have seen Lods Darca Maxim Levy High become a sought-after school.

Our aim is to give children in Lod, Netivot and Kiryat Shmona an education equal to that in Israels affluent communities, says Pereg. Our supporters are enabling us to build an educationally innovative model, to prove that it works and offer it as a prototype countrywide and even beyond.