Beautiful Inside and Out, 'Inclusive' Tel Aviv School Is What 21st-century Education Could Look Like

Could this be the wave of the future?

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Yoga and relaxation corner. The Bikurim school in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.
Yoga and relaxation corner. The Bikurim school in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.Credit: Roni Cnaani
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Israeli architecture isn’t particularly brilliant. Most new residential buildings are ugly copies of each other, and the country’s public buildings aren’t as charming as their counterparts abroad. The only field of architecture in which there’s been a detectable change in recent years is in school buildings.

If in the past most schools were boring containers meant to store children from 8 A.M. to 2 P.M., better-looking schools have been built around the country lately, thanks to the integration of younger, more innovative architectural firms that have changed the field, and the professionals working in some of the government and local governments.

One of these schools can be found on Leonardo da Vinci Street in Tel Aviv, near the Ironi Alef high school and the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. It’s called the Bikurim School, also known as the “inclusive school,” and it is indeed beautiful, inside and out. It’s a format that exists in only five Israeli schools, where 10 percent of the students in each class have special needs that can include a visual impairment, hearing loss, autism, emotional problems or cystic fibrosis.

At play. The Bikurim school in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.Credit: Roni Cnaani

The school is growing, adding a grade every year. As a result, the internal spaces undergo changes every year; this year, for example, a gymnasium was added, along with a roof balcony and another balcony on one of the floors that has a colorful play installation with geometric shapes. The school opened last year with first grade classes, but the building was closed after a few weeks due to safety problems. It was later reopened, and this year it is housing first and second grades.

From the start, the designers had limitations to contend with: They had to design a school with 9,000 square meters of floor space on a lot of around one acre. L2 Tsionov-Vitkon Architects designed the building to be part of the fabric of the city. The facade is an envelope of exposed concrete architectural elements and other industrial elements in shades of yellow and orange. Some of the fences that traditionally surround urban schools were eliminated and the school is five stories high, making it the city’s highest elementary school.

Because of the limited area, a variety of spaces was created on each floor, some of them closed and some as balconies. The central space is dominated by a staircase.

Students learn measurements and sign language through play. Credit: Roni Cnaani

“The central space gives an open and airy feel to the interior of the building, despite is density and size,” explains architect Lior Tsionov. The number of classrooms was reduced to 18, from 24 in the original plan, in order to support the school’s inclusivity. Each pair of classrooms has a common space that allows for out-of-class activities. The classroom walls, like those in all the new schools in Tel Aviv, are transparent. There is also a preschool on the grounds.

City education department head Shirley Rimon Bracha, who walked through the school with this reporter, said city officials had investigated the effectiveness of transparent classrooms.

“We started this after a tour in the United States,” she says. “It’s expensive and we wanted to see if it was good for teachers and for the students. We questioned teachers, students, and parents. The teachers said it allows them to keep an eye on the children when they’re outside. The pupils also like it. In the secondary schools we put opaque stickers on part of the wall, so that there’s only half-transparency.”

The flagship program

At a late stage of the planning, Sarit Shani-Hay entered the picture; she’s a furniture and interior designer who has broadened her activities to include educational institutions.

She’s primarily known for designing spaces for wealthier populations, like a preschool complex in Kfar Shmaryahu and the King Solomon private elementary school in Kfar Hayarok, north of Tel Aviv.

A sitting corner to encourage interpersonal interaction. Credit: Roni Cnaani

For the past two years she’s also been involved with institutions that are not awash in funds, like the public spaces in the Hayarden School in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, a space for first graders in a school in the Arab community of Tamra, in the Western Galilee, and a kindergarten and preschool complex on the site of the former wholesale produce market in Tel Aviv (which are public preschools, but were built with funds from the Gindi construction firm).

Shani-Hay was hired to design the public spaces of Bikurim’s ground floor and the classrooms and public spaces on the second floor.

On the ground floor she created wooden bleachers with cushions in three shades of green. The space under the stairs was also turned into sitting areas, with green padding.

Resting and play corner at Bikurim school in Tel Aviv.Credit: Roni Cnaani

The teacher’s room that Shani-Hay designed stands out, with yellow lockers for the teachers and modular tables that allow for a variety of configurations. The wall facing the yard is transparent, allowing a dialogue with the students.

The classrooms Shani-Hay designed also look different from most. Along the transparent wall between the room and the hall is a modular storage and seating unit, and the classrooms feature a variety of desks, tables, chairs and benches. Shani-Hay also designed areas that are suitable for students who use wheelchairs.

The spaces outside the classrooms that she designed are varied: One of them is a type of kitchen, there’s another space for performances, and in another area there’s a type of abacus from which the children can learn Braille and sign language. Another interesting area is a long space with no specific use, whose walls were padded with soft materials in cool hues, with mats provided so it could be used for yoga or as a quiet resting place.

“We designed spaces that allow the children to move freely and safely,” Shani-Hay says. “It was important to us to create areas that allow for lounging and for intimacy, alongside group work. In every classroom we created nooks that give a home-like feeling. The public area is playful, and everything was approved by the Education Ministry. We couldn’t just make a hole, it had to be padded and meet standards.”

Can this design be replicated in other public schools?

“This is a flagship program,” Shani-Hay says. “It’s the harbinger of a new trend. Inclu [a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive education] initiated this and the Tel Aviv Municipality took up the gauntlet. It’s complicated to do this in existing schools, but new schools should embrace this approach. As far as I’m concerned, all schools should look like this. You have to invest in the educational environment because if encourages varied learning. It’s not necessarily connected to inclusive schooling, but in general to an environment that corresponds to the 21st century. Today learning is not in the teacher-and-blackboard format, and my design allows for a different type of learning. In this school you can lean back, you can convene in an intimate fashion, or in groups.”

Playground equipment on one of the floors. Credit: Meged Gozani

If I run a school with a low budget, can I create environments like this?

“Special environments need a budget. When you design a school with nongeneric elements, it requires a different budget. But you can design part of the school this way, as we did in Tamra. It’s important to at least invest in the public areas.”

Shani-Hay is disturbed that most school budgets are invested in the structure and not in interior design. “Lots of times they build an attractive building – or an unattractive one – and there isn’t a penny left for its inside parts. Then you enter a very alienating educational institution. In an idea world the architect works with an interior designer. It’s connected to budgets and also to a way of thinking that examines all the needs. Sometimes they let the architect do the interior design as well, but he doesn’t always get to it.”

A new gymnasium at Bikurim school. Credit: Meged Gozani

Unlike the preschools in Kfar Shmaryahu or the King Solomon School, where Shani-Hay was involved from the beginning, at Bikurim she was brought into the picture “at the last minute,” as she put it. When she’s involved from the beginning, she is also involved with the structure so that it will be suited to the interior. In the inclusive school, a lot of non-classroom space was left with no design while the classrooms were carefully planned. “The earlier I get involved the better it is,” she says. “I have a chance to give feedback on the internal division of the spaces. Interior designers have to be integrated more.”

The inclusive school is funded differently by the Education Ministry and at any given moment there are two or three staff members in the classroom.

Bikurim school in Tel Aviv Credit: Mikela Bersto

“Learning takes place in groups and all the spaces in the building are learning areas,” explains the principal, Ravit Levy. “We learn at learning stations, some of which are compulsory and some optional. As far as I’m concerned all the pupils have special needs and we have to adapt ourselves. A learning station can be anywhere – in the hallways, in the yard, in class, in the public areas. One of the advantages of this design is the flexibility it allows – we are always moving things.”

Levy says there are professionals in the school who are always in the classrooms. “For example, a therapist who must work with a certain child on social skills. Or a remedial teacher. They sit with one of the groups and all the children benefit.”

New chairs and desks

When Shani-Hay says during the tour that the school is a flagship project, she is cut off by Rimon from the city’s educational administration, who doesn’t tend to dramatic pronouncements – not about the schools with special content (like the school of science or the arts) nor about their architecture. “I don’t have a flagship school,” she says. “And we can’t afford her” – referring to Shani-Hay – she adds, in a hint to principal Levy, who hopes that the other floors that aren’t yet designed will be as beautiful as the existing ones.

So apparently Shani-Hay will not be designing the floors for grades 3 through 6. “In the end these are public funds,” says Rimon. “To us all the schools are equally important.” In this context she mentions that Inclu wanted the Bikurim school to take children from throughout the city. “We didn’t agree. It’s meant only for the children who live near the school. It’s regional only for the special education pupils.”

It should be noted that for all Tel Aviv schools, the municipality more than doubles the Education Ministry budget, because the ministry’s budget isn’t adjusted for multistory buildings and doesn’t allow for varied equipment or to add space beyond the ministry’s plan. The interior design for the two floors that Shani-Hay designed cost 1 million shekels (over $284,000). Rimon believes that a quality educational environment can be designed for less.

“[Shani-Hay] is very expensive,” Rimon says. “For sure you can create excellent environment at lower cost; that’s what we are doing in all our schools in the city; we are making amazing spaces. Shani-Hay is a brand. Inclu made a deal with her and we got the bill in the end. I don’t want one school to have and not another, and we have a lot of suppliers who create special learning spaces.”

For example?

“Last year we replaced the chairs and desks in all the city’s first grade classrooms, because they’ve changed the instruction methods to less frontal and more personal. That cost a lot of money. Everything became personal modular desks that you can raise, lower, or connect into threes and fours. We gave the principals a catalogue and every school chose its own bookcases and benches, beanbag corners and more.”

The planning of all new schools in recent years has been adapted to the needs of contemporary learning and they are all planned with varied spaces for different types of learning, Rimon says. “We gathered the architects who work with us and explained this to them, and every time there are new architects we explain the educational approach to them. The corridors are double [-duty] – our hallways have also become learning space. The teachers room will be a research space, they won’t just sit there without being able to work. We are setting up thinking laboratories that recall WeWork co-working spaces. We are planning pseudo-galleries for displaying things.”

School planning alters the learning?

“Of course. When there’s a new place to work, you work there. True, there are teachers who set up the new tables for frontal learning. It’s a tough process and teachers don’t change in a day. It’s a process. We do training sessions and there’s a lot of work, but each time there’s another teacher who dares and they learn from each other. We are seeing a substantive change.”

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