Haifa Program Keeps At-risk Teens in School

H., 17, is an 11th-grader at one of the schools in Haifa. Until a year ago he was planning to drop out of school to work with his father, collecting and selling cartons to greengrocers. Now, a year after he joined Otzma, he cannot stop smiling.

"My primary goal is to finish 12th grade with a matriculation certificate and continue on to computer studies, hopefully abroad," he says, adding, "a year ago I didn't have the self-confidence to say that or to think I could make it come true."

Haifa's education department has been running Otzma for two years. Its goal is to help at-risk youth and to make sure they do not drop out of school by identifying each teen's strengths, and building individual programs to move these students ahead scholastically and socially. The program's facilitators become involved in every aspect of the students' life - family, school social life and leisure time.

"These are kids who have had many failures in their lives," Ziva Talbi Solomon, director of the municipality's at-risk youth program, says. "Most of them come from poor homes and have a low self-image, and we are seeking ways to make them successful."

The program operates in eight of Haifa's neighborhoods, some of which are considered poor. Coordinators are each responsible for a few students, and they work with principals, homeroom teachers, the welfare department and the families.

One such coordinator is Inbal Maman, of the Haifa suburb Kiryat Haim: "When we identify a student at risk of dropping out, we try to find his strong points and build a individualized plan for him. If we see he shouldn't be home before 5 P.M. for whatever reason, if he wanders around town or has no one at home to set limits, we organize an informal education activity for him."

The program now has approximately 213 students. All were in danger of dropping out. The results are encouraging: Only three might still leave school. Using a different approach, the program coordinators connect to the teens. "We are seen as anti-establishment," Talbi Solomon explains. "We talk to the kids at eye level, we talk to them about music, and build their confidence. We give them the feeling that we want them to succeed and help strengthen their self image. The goal is to empower the kids, but of course we also respond to their shortcomings. What is less good is swallowed up by what is good," she adds.