A Call to Close the Gaps

The gaps in language and culture between veteran Israelis and most Ethiopian immigrants is so great we need profound rethinking on priorities in integrating them into society.

I remember the first time I held a pencil. It was in first grade in Ethiopia. Holding the pencil was new and strange to me, and writing was difficult.

Years later, when I was advising a mother who had immigrated from Ethiopia, I gave her preschool son a pencil and paper so he could scribble while waiting. The mother asked, in a critical tone: "Why are you letting him scribble?" I had to explain to her the link between scribbling and learning to write.

This little story illustrates thinking that typifies Ethiopian culture: Learning begins only in first grade and only in school. Informal education is not considered important, whether play, drawing or conversation. This fact is directly related to the constant media reports on the Ethiopian community's difficult situation, as reflected in their showing in the Meitzav exams - standardized tests measuring achievement in the fifth and eighth grades.

The gaps in language and culture between veteran Israelis and most Ethiopian immigrants is so great we need profound rethinking on priorities in integrating them into society. Today most investment goes to children of elementary and high school age. This is an essential investment, but neglecting younger children creates a gap that's hard to close when they reach school.

Since many Ethiopian parents don't speak Hebrew well and are unaware of the learning process in infants and preschoolers, their children arrive at nursery school at 3, 4 or 5 with gaps in language and other skills necessary for success in the school system. The language gaps stem from the mother's poor Hebrew and the fact that learning in Ethiopian culture is based mainly on imitation - and there's little verbal interaction with the child, as opposed to Western culture, which encourages conversation at an early age.

But the learning gaps are not only a result of language gaps. Children who are educated in the private or public education system early on, and children of parents who are aware of the issue, develop skills that prepare them for reading, writing and even arithmetic via play, conversation, songs and stories. Sometimes even televisions and computers are used. Children from the Ethiopian community, whose parents rarely speak and play with them and who are outside educational frameworks early on, arrive at the municipal kindergarten at a disadvantage. The situation only gets worse as they get older.

This means, of course, that for Ethiopian Israeli children to succeed in school, they must begin receiving attention when they are infants. Something can be done even if they are not in an educational framework.

Home guidance programs for mothers of preschool children, taught by academics of Ethiopian origin, have been highly successful. The mothers receive information and guidance from women who speak their language, are familiar with their country of origin and understand their culture. They learn to play games with their children that help them develop, and the children start kindergarten better prepared. Many children in the program are accepted to their cities' better schools and get a good start in life. The mothers we helped saw the counselors as role models and went out to work.

But home guidance programs require individual guidance for each mother, and to influence a large number of children we need many guidance hours, which cost a lot of money. To have a significant influence, we need a new model, perhaps one that combines a playroom and supervision for the toddlers with coffee and lectures for the parents - a model attractive enough to persuade the parents, who are dealing with problems of integration and earning a living, to leave the house, meet with a counselor and receive guidance.

Through this guidance, they will better understand their role as parents in Western society and their responsibility for their children's success in the school system and in Israeli society. In addition, they will receive tools for developing the skills their children need.

Still, the Israeli school system cannot shirk its responsibility for Ethiopian children and expect the change to come with the help of the parents alone. The state and the Education Ministry must launch a program that sends the most experienced kindergarten and elementary school teachers to the nurseries, kindergartens and schools where Ethiopian children are being educated. These teachers must be well compensated.

I have no doubt that a combined effort of parents and experienced educators with a strong sense of mission will dramatically improve the achievements of Ethiopian children. The community's future in Israel depends on this effort.

The writer is the CEO of Hiyot, an organization that provides aid to Ethiopian immigrants in and around Haifa.