How to Get Schoolkids to Excel? Have 'Em Sign a Contract First

Around 15 seventh graders from the Shazar School in Bat Yam move their desks to make a circle around their teacher. A few weeks ago, they signed a "personal study contract" in the presence of the faculty in which they outlined their personal goals. The contracts are shuffled, and the students have to guess who wrote which one. One student hopes to improve his breakdance skills, another to remain among the high achievers in math, while a third wants to argue less with friends.

The conversation that develops is part of a 45-minute meeting to start their day. Hundreds of such meetings are taking place in junior highs and elementary schools all over the city - encompassing 11,000 students in a program called the "Bat Yam model for personal education."

In recent weeks the Education Ministry has put together a program for change in junior high schools, based on the Bat Yam model. In addition to the morning meetings in small groups and the personal contract, the plan includes an after-school tutoring program, home visits by teachers, and work with kids at risk of dropping out.

The program also involves training for teachers, some of whom have not dealt much with social and educational issues beyond their areas of expertise.

The Bat Yam program, now in its third year, is being followed up by the Institute for Democratic Education, an educational research and development group.

According to various sources, the budget to implement the program on a national level over the next few years, beginning next year, is about NIS 300,000 to NIS 400,000. (The Bat Yam municipality says the teachers in the program earn about 30 percent more for their involvement.)

"This is one of the most beautiful projects of recent years," Education Minister Yuli Tamir says. "It is expensive because every class actually has two homeroom teachers, but the investment is worth it. The junior high level needs refreshing, and this is exactly what the program does."

After the morning meeting, the students discuss how they are reaching their goals. One of the girls says she is improving in her Bible studies by listening more in class and doing a better job on her homework. Her test grades have improved. Two other kids tell the group about their after-school guitar lessons, and play some pieces to applause. Somebody suggests they start a class band.

The teacher also tells the kids how she is making progress on the goals she has set for herself, and the students show support. At 9 A.M., the meeting ends, the desks are moved back into rows, and the normal classroom activity gets underway.

The direct student-teacher relationship in the program helps kids overcome the obstacles they face when moving from the smaller elementary level to the large, more demanding junior-high framework. "Daily meetings help us see to it that no student gets lost," a teacher explains.

After-school meetings two or three times a week in "contract-support centers" also help, where kids can get scholastic help from university students and young tutors doing a social-service year before they enter the army. The city is also involved, sometimes providing for basic needs such as new shoes for kids from needy families.

The main activity in traditional schools "is classifying kids according to their abilities," says IDI director Yaakov Hecht. "Our concept is different. Every person is a genius, and you have to find and strengthen the areas of genius in every child." Hecht says the morning meetings are the way to do this.

The personal education contract can involve family goals as well as scholastic ones. A goal can include, for example "investing more in grandma and grandpa," and reporting on visits with them, or "giving to the school." The kids, their teachers, the principal, their parents and their program homeroom teacher all sign the contract in a ceremony, along with Bat Yam mayor Shlomi Lahiani.

Shazar principal Doris Lifshitz says most program participants have improved 10 to 15 grade points in a number of subjects since the program started at Shazar last year. Violence has declined, she says, and student and teacher satisfaction are up, according to an opinion poll.

Budgetary difficulties are still a hurdle, Lahiani says, with 25 percent of the city budget going to education, along with another NIS 150 million raised from contributions. Some teachers also opposed outside tutors and even the morning meeting came under fire because it takes time away from regular classes. But Hecht believes in the dialogue the meetings engender. "They can bring about a revolution," he says.

Lahiani says the program is a move "back to the values of the generation that founded the state" - of the school as a community.