After the Clan Wars, a School Recovers

A young, ambitious principal has turned things around at Ramle's Arab high school

Behind the heavy blue iron doors, you could hear some angry words in Arabic. Someone, it appeared, had forgotten to leave the building open. A maintenance worker was sent to get the keys as 10 students from Ramle's Arab high school waited impatiently to get inside for their arts workshop.

At last the door opened, revealing a large but not very aesthetic work room. Before last year, the room was used for courses in auto maintenance and repair. These courses were stopped, and today the facility is used by students with behavioral problems, who are at risk of dropping out of school. They are taught by a local artist in a program supervised by a social worker. Some faded car and auto maintenance posters still hang on the walls, and one of the art students was diligently copying one of the posters.

Owing partly to the initiative of its young, ambitious principal, Nasser Abu Safi, Ramle's high school has changed dramatically during the past year. The replacement of old study tracks such as car maintenance by more up-to-date courses in fields like physics, computers, and business administration; special programs for pupils with learning problems; the introduction of new pilot programs, like the formulation of a constitution for the school and a special program for outstanding students in science - all these are manifestations of the revolution in Ramle's Arab high school.

Though it will take a few years before the improvement in student performance can be measured, it is already apparent that in just over a year, Abu Safi has turned a failed institution (in which 20 percent of the students were illiterate, and virtually no one passed the matriculation exams) into an up-to-par high school.

Yet the story of this high school, which is located at the heart of a low income, violence prone area, goes beyond the issue of academic improvement. Spearheading his reforms, Abu Safi has paid a personal price. The revolution he has started has not been accepted by all the students and community residents. A year ago, his new car was torched, and anonymous phone callers have threatened his life.

For the new principal, this rocky start was a turning point. He stayed at home for two weeks. The police intervened, and rounded up suspects; but Abu Safi agreed to return to work only after parents personally put themselves on the line, guaranteeing that he would be safe and giving him personal support. From the day Abu Safi went back to his job, parents have taken turns volunteering as security guards on the premises.

The Arab high school serves most of the Arab residents of Ramle and Lod (there are two private high schools in Ramle as well). Bedouin study there alongside veteran Ramle residents; Muslims study with Christians; and youths from various clans learn together. To say that the student body is diverse and complex is an understatement.

"The school's population creates constant tensions," says Abu Safi.

For five years, the high school was at the eye of a storm caused by clan wars in the Juarish neighborhood. "When I visit the school, and look at pictures of its graduates on the walls, I see youngsters who are no longer alive," says Anwar al-Muhrabi, a Juarish resident and parent of a tenth grader. "It's as though we are here now after a war. Parents lost children, either because they were murdered, or because of drug use. We decided that we weren't going to put up with the situation any longer."

Apart from some patches of green around the school, the facility's grounds are stark and unwelcoming. The large concrete yard easily accommodates 720 pupils during the school's recess at 10 A.M.

During one such mid-morning interval, it does not appear that Abu Safi's presence in the yard disturbs the youngsters. Two giggling female students stroll by the principal, and greet him. Asked whether they're afraid of the principal, they respond, incredulously, "Of course not." The principal also views it as an odd question. He believes that the easygoing way in which students respond to him reflects the school's new democratic-spirited administration.

Yet some Ramle residents think that student composure and confidence has a different source. "These are pupils who relate to the principal from a position of strength," says one parent. "Families are very strong here, and parents are a very dominant presence in their children's lives. It's hard for any other adult to stir respect." Yet this same parent admits that discipline in the school has improved immeasurably during Abu Safi's term.

No learning climate

For 12 years, the high school was run by a conservative principal, and its standards steadily declined. The school belonged to the "Ramle-Lod association," an organization established several years ago with the aim of promoting education in both towns, but whose efficacy was compromised by local political power struggles.

"As a result of prestige and status wars, the school was neglected," explains Hassan Shuhanah, who has had more experience teaching at the school than anyone else on the faculty. "The school fell between the cracks. We never received resources, not from Ramle and not from Lod. Each town passed responsibility along to the other. The principal wasn't ambitious. He didn't want to rock the boat."

As violence worsened in the area, the school's decline accelerated during the latter half of the 1990s. "The school looked like an open market," says one woman teacher from Ramle. "There was no learning climate. It felt like all the students were illiterate. There was no way of knowing who had the skills needed to learn, and who didn't. When you entered the school, you couldn't tell whether it was a recess interval, or whether classes were in session. Most of the students were outside."

According to Muhrabi, the teachers were afraid of the students. Gang fights were common occurrences in the school, just as they were on the streets of Juarish. "Luckily, guns weren't taken inside [the school]," he explains. "But the school was in ruins. It wasn't a school."

Following the lead of some other education-conscious parents, Muhrabi sent his oldest child to one of Ramle's two private high schools. "That was three or four years ago," he says, "when violence was at its peak." When it was time for his second child to enroll in a high school, Muhrabi decided to join the effort to improve the local public school.

Local police officers believe that the reduction in violence in the town three years ago set the stage for improvement at the high school. Affairs in the town settled down, they say, after members of the Karaja family were moved away, drug-selling venues were shut down, and community-oriented policemen began to patrol the town.

Parents give a slightly different version of events. They say that the school started to improve because they themselves got fed up with the violence and began to organize. "People finally realized what was going on," says Muhrabi. "There are today in Ramle more pharmacists, engineers and lawyers. Each parent looks at the children of his neighbors, and asks questions. `Why shouldn't I provide the best possible education for my child, why shouldn't he become a lawyer,' they wonder."

Two years ago, pressured by residents and teachers, the school's principal decided to leave his post. He was kicked upstairs, and became a supervisor for the local school system.

Special programs

Abu Safi, 39, who has a masters degree in educational policy, worked with community centers before he took his post at the high school. He had no prior experience as a school principal. He started his work during the second week of the last school year, after the principal who had been appointed received some death threats and ran for his life, quitting the job after just three school days. His predecessor's short-lived, unhappy experience didn't intimidate Abu Safi. As someone who had worked in community affairs, the high school population in Ramle interested him, Abu Safi says.

Abu Safi made allies with the most dedicated teachers on the school staff, and encouraged them to feel that they had crucial roles to play. Shuhanah, chair of the teachers committee, is today Abu Safi's right-hand man. As part of the school improvement project, he explains, teachers started to work full school days, and were compensated for it. "I told the teachers, `we haven't been working for 10 years; so let's start now,'" he says.

Abu Safi recognized that the adoption of special projects at the school could be a means of attracting state funds, and prestige as well. Students were encouraged to participate in a bewildering array of projects - youth science projects run by Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, youth leadership programs, a "safe school" project (run with the police), matriculation exam preparation programs, and more.

Behind the scenes, policemen helped ease relations between the principal and the parents. Abu Safi met with parents who are believed to have local clout, and generated enthusiasm for his efforts. A genuine students' association was formed; working together with parents and teachers, the association wrote a new set of behavioral regulations to govern affairs at the school.

Why would anyone oppose such reforms? One parent explains that Abu Safi encountered some early resistance from parents who wanted the principal to come from their clan. The principal also apparently got some anonymous threats from students who had exploited slack disciplinary norms at the school, before Abu Safi was hired.

"Some students used to frighten the teachers," explains one teacher. "Teachers would hand out exam questions in advance, and pretend not to notice when students cheated." Abu Safi announced that he wasn't going to tolerate substandard classroom norms and exam cheating, explains another teacher, "and so he annoyed some people."

The principal continues to walk a tightrope. He keeps the door to his office locked during the school day. Only persons with whom he is acquainted can enter; he opens the door by pushing a buzzer.

Does he still fear for his life? Responding to this question, the principal notes that Ramle is a place where the unexpected happens. Police say that the potential for "fires" is still running high in the town, particularly in light of current economic and political tensions in the country.

"Ramle isn't 100 percent quiet," says Muhrabi. "But people want to put an end [to the violence]. They simply want a better future for their children."

Violent students are expelled

Abu Safi's campaign to improve Ramle's high school has one problematic aspect: he has decided to expel pupils with major behavioral problems. Violence, he says, is the red line that has to be enforced - students who cross this line are forced to leave his school. Last year, eight students at the high school were expelled; the policy continues, and just last week, four more youngsters were asked to leave.

Abu Safi claims that the youngsters who are expelled are then integrated into more suitable youth frameworks, and that the expulsion process is carried out in conjunction with parents, and with their consent. Yet, due to the lack of educational alternatives in the Arab sector, particularly in Ramle, these youngsters often have to go to Jaffa to find alternative institutions.