Where Bible Classes Mean the Most Heated Debates

Shortly before the end of the last school year, when the Moshe Katsav affair was at its peak, some parents approached the principal of the Ganim School in Ganei Tikva, Aviva Balish, and asked if the president's picture should perhaps be taken down. Balish decided to have the students debate the matter. This is not unusual at the Ganim School, where much of the week is devoted to spirited discussions on current events. The decision: "We thought that as long as Katsav had not been convicted, although it wasn't a source of great pride, he was still part of the country," Neta Goldstein, a rising seventh-grader, said.

Ganim School is part of a relatively small number of experimental schools. Most of them are regular public schools whose principals the Education Ministry has given the freedom to initiate changes.

The changes can be anything from an independent research project in place of a traditional matriculation exam, a program for strengthening scientific thinking, or a humanistic-philosophical approach.

The director of the Education Ministry's department for experimental education, Ganit Weinstein, says none of the approximately 110 innovative institutions select their students. The budget, about NIS 2 million, goes mainly to program development and teacher salaries.

However, the budget has remained practically unchanged in the past decade, even though the number of schools has increased, and the number of non-Jewish schools in the program is relatively small.

Ganim also offers a program in "active civics," which, for example, involves composing petitions on a variety of issues and sending them to the Knesset. The students also serve on committees to solve various conflicts, from one student scribbling in another's notebook to hurtful gossip and violence. Balish has veto power over decisions, but says she almost never intervenes.

Every week at Ganim, six to eight hours are devoted to discussions on individual and societal identity; the Education has only recently has mandated one hour a week of such discussion in regular elementary schools. First-graders begin by addressing their own identity and continue on to laws and norms that affect the community; sixth-graders discuss various kinds of leadership and leaders.

Last year the students discussed Adolf Hitler. "The class debated whether he was a leader, or whether the bad outcome of his actions made it impossible to call him that," sixth-grader Aviv Tzarfati said. "Finally, after many arguments, we decided he really did lead Germany, but that he was a negative leader. Some kids said it depended how you look at it, because from the German point of view, he might have been a good leader."

Discussions also covered the Second Lebanon war. "Some people think one way, some another. That's what makes it intersting. We enjoy the debate," Goldstein says.

Sixth-grade homeroom teacher Ophira Tam says she tries to avoid the usual race to complete another chapter of material, because class debates are valuable. Bible lessons are especially passionate, the students say, because of comparisons with present-day Israel. "Regular schools believe that there must be an answer to every dilemma, and that it should be immediate," Balish says. There is no time for thinking, because you are working against the clock to cover all the material, she adds. "Our model is different."

Ganim's standardized test scores are higher than the national average. At another experimental school, Nazareth's Galil High School, matriculation rates jumped from 37 percent to 70 percent of students in five years. Other schools, including some that draw from lower-middle class communities, also showed improvements.

Ramat Hefer is one of the country's veteran experimental schools. Here, the matriculation exams are the focus of innovation: Instead of the standard tests, the students pick subjects to study in small groups, overseen by the teacher and consulting university professors. They are then tested by Education Ministry personnel and present a research project to parents.

Yoav Kalti, who finished Ramat Hefer last year, took the highest matriculation exam level in Arabic. He completed two research papers and a standardized test analyzing the speeches of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during the Second Lebanon War.

"My parents both went to regular schools, and the world they knew was one of memorizing and chasing grades," Reut Levy-Carmel, a 12th grader, says. "Suddenly they see me summarizing articles and meeting with experts, and they slowly began to realize the significance of the dialogue. I feel I have reeducated them."

"You can make the changes you dream about," Ramat Hefer principal Bruria Sela says. "You just have to be allowed."