During the recent Gaza war, Michal (not her real name), a single Ethiopian-Israeli mother struggling with poverty, was overcome by her young sons refusal to leave their apartment for summer programs at his school. The boy had been traumatized by the endless sirens and a rocket that fell nearby. A literacy-boosting program that is turning around failing Israeli schools played a major role in stabilizing and supporting the familys life – and the lives of many like them – in unexpected ways.
Innovative literacy program
Through the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI), Michals son Avi (not his real name) has been part of a program in his school in Rishon LeZion that is a unique partnership between American philanthropists, Israels Ministry of Education and the local municipality. The program, now running in 21 Israeli schools around the country, is aimed at turning around underachieving schools with large populations of Ethiopian-Israeli children and other young students from disadvantaged homes. It is anchored in an innovative literacy program which puts a huge focus on upgrading reading, writing and speaking skills, and encourages higher order thinking.
Along with the programs creation of classroom libraries and learning-friendly physical spaces, the students and the teachers benefit from the presence of literacy coaches, who bring top flight professional development into the classroom in real time. Support for differentiated or individualized learning is provided by trained teachers and principals, and more extensive reading and writing time is offered during the school day and beyond.
Avis Ethiopian Liaison had been working hard to build up trusting relationships with parents in order to empower them in supporting their childrens academic achievements. During the war, she became a key player in his familys drama by providing ongoing support and guidance for Avis mother during her darkest days. This went well beyond the original mission of the program – yet underscored the meaningful role that ICEI is playing in the lives of the students and their families as they strive to learn and achieve.
In 2007, the Moriah Fund took the lead in creating ICEI in collaboration with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University, the Center for Educational Innovation–Public Education Association (CEI-PEA), a veteran New York City organization which provides direct support for more than 200 New York public schools and has a long track record of turning around failing schools, and the Fidel Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
The academic opportunities for disadvantaged Ethiopian-Israelis and other at-risk children were less than promising. Ethiopian students – some 50% of whom live in poverty – were dropping out of school at high rates. Recent studies showed that only 11% of young adult Ethiopian-Israelis have a post-secondary education, compared with 42% of the rest of the Jewish Israeli population in the same age group.
At Moriah, they viewed the heart-breaking statistics as a challenge, confident that a mix of proven educational know-how, generous dollars and caring educators could break the cycle of poverty, frustration and disillusion that accompany many young Ethiopian Israelis into adulthood. They pounded the pavements in both the U.S. and Israel – visiting more than 50 New York City schools, raising funds, increasing awareness, recruiting educators and schools, and building institutional collaborations that have resulted in what is truly a model program. Targeted investments in turn-around programs anchored in boosting literacy create a sea change in the lives, hopes and opportunities of young at-risk Israeli students.
ICEI is having a dramatic impact by investing in teachers and changing the way they teach reading and writing – leading to more focused and intensive reading and writing instruction. Moreover, a multi-pronged strategy of supporting parents and schools in efforts to overcome diminished expectations, mentoring principals, training teachers and enriching the physical learning environment with books and furniture has generated remarkable results. Today, more than 15 Federations and foundations are supporting ICEI.
Well worth the investment
This past school year, some 3,400 students were directly involved in the program – nearly half of them Ethiopian-Israelis – and in the current year, the number of students in ICEI schools will approach 5,000. Only 28% of students entering first grade at ICEI-supported schools in 2013-14 passed their initial Learning Readiness Assessment, based on existing Ministry assessment tools. By the end of first grade, more than 80% qualified as full readers according to Ministry standards, and 89% passed the reading comprehension component of the Ministrys assessment, the most telling predictor of future success. These exceptional numbers help tell the extraordinary story of the programs impact.
The program began in three schools in Netanya. Today, ten municipalities are partnering with ICEI and Israels Ministry of Education, and more are asking to join the ICEI community. As additional American donors are inspired by the outcomes and possibilities this program offers, the Israeli educators are working hard to convince more schools, municipalities and potential partners within the Israeli government that investing in teachers is the key to creating more effective schools, and that scaffolding literacy early in a childs academic career has enormous payoff – for the children, their families, their communities, and the entire Israeli society.
Each schools program requires a significant investment, but it is well worth it. By reversing trends, and transforming failing and underachieving schools to successful ones, ICEI and American philanthropists are demonstrating that they can take an active part in building and shaping a strong, educated and motivated Israeli society, across all ethnic and socio-economic divides.
What is ICEI?
The Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI) is a bold educational initiative that provides low-income Israeli children with a foundation for success in school and adult life.
ICEIs remarkably successful program accelerates the rate of learning of nearly all students who participate in the program. It is anchored in a pedagogical model developed at Columbia Universitys Teachers College, and is now used in thousands of schools across the United States and around the world. Over the seven years in which it has been operational in Israel, it has been painstakingly refined and adapted to the local context.
ICEI is neither a remedial intervention nor an enrichment program. It is a turnaround program—unique in the Israeli educational system—that transforms the entire school environment by improving the way teachers teach and manage their classrooms, by reframing the role of principals and by engaging parents. Now operating in 21 schools in ten municipalities, ICEI is dramatically increasing students rates of learning, and launching thousands of at-risk children on successful educational journeys.
Mary Ann Stein is the President of the Moriah Fund in Washington D.C.
For more information on ICEI, see the 5-minute Israel Center for Educational Innovation Film on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa9UFblMYH0, or go to www.ICEI.co.il. For more information on the Moriah Fund, go to www.moriahfund.org.