Making a Difference

Source: Tovanot B’Hinuch Newsletter, August 9, 2016

By Karen Tal

[In September 2011, the recipient of The Charles Bronfman Prize, Karen Tal pledged to utilize her award winning work at Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school as a catalyst to transform additional schools. Here, in Karen’s own words, is an update.]

Turning around schools with large percentages of children at risk is a difficult but achievable task. Contrary to skeptics, transforming a failing school into one of great repute is less a matter of possibility than it is of determination and effort. With proper planning, relatively meager resources, and enthusiastic volunteers – and most of all with principals who are entrepreneurs and leaders – an informed and dedicated team of reformers can transform weak schools. Even those in the geographic and social periphery can emerge as inspiring educational institutions and positive anchors for their neighborhoods.

As a young graduate still optimistic enough to try even the most unlikely of methods, I tested my theory of education reformation, to success, by enlisting the help of a dedicated group of educators, lay leaders, professionals, and a few donors.

In 2002 the Municipality of Tel Aviv decided to combine a failing elementary school with a failing secondary school, offering me the challenge to “make a difference.” And thus began my work with the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv.

Huge, seemingly insurmountable obstacles were apparent from the beginning. The school’s student population included a significant contingent of children of foreign workers, and children from Central Asian republics of the Former Soviet Union. Many of them were undocumented; refugees who had fled war in Africa and native Israelis whose families were part of a multi-generational cycle of poverty. If we were to turn around a school like this, our efforts could not be singularly aimed, but had to be multi-pronged and holistic in nature.

In a short period of time, we were able to pull together a committee of caring and committed Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs and other member of the business community, nonprofit organizations including academic institutions, and soldiers from a leading IDF intelligence unit who served as role models and tutors in language and mathematics. Together, they formed an Action Committee, which remains our model to this day. With the help of Israeli and overseas philanthropy, we initiated an extended school day and were able to transform the once struggling school into a center for academic, cultural and athletic excellence, broadening horizons for our students. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we opened a center for the students’ parents offering Hebrew-language and computer skills courses, simultaneously educating parents while also converting them into advocates of the school.

In order to track our progress, our team created a mapping system that would provide an academic and social summary of the students and their families. Furthermore, the Action Committee was aware of each student’s aspirations and personal interests. Some of our supporters began to do similar work in several other schools, where I served as an advisor.

All of these participants helped to plant the seeds for academic success. Within just a few years of launching our initiative, the school’s performance skyrocketed. Success in matriculation exams, required to enter higher education, jumped from 24% to 85%. My successor at the school has since raised it to 92% – far above the national average.

The unexpected transformation that occurred in the hallways of Bialik-Rogozin soon attracted both local and international attention. In 2011, HBO released a documentary about the school entitled “Strangers No More.” That film ultimately won the Oscar for best documentary short. Responding to the positive press coverage and overall success at the school, some of our Israeli donors and local leaders decided to form a new initiative to recruit entrepreneurial principals to replicate our model in other underserved school communities.

The same year that the school’s incredible story garnered an Oscar win, I was honored to be awarded the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize that recognizes young humanitarians whose work is inspired by their Jewish values and is of universal benefit to all people. Its goal is to recognize dynamic leaders whose innovation and impact serve as inspiration for future generations. Although the award was presented to me personally, in truth, it acknowledges and affirms the important work undertaken by so many individuals, organizations and business enterprises who are partners in my effort to create dynamic change in a school. Coincidentally, the award was presented just as we were bringing new schools into the new initiative – Tovanot B’Hinuch, which, translated to English, means “Insights to Education.”

Tovanot B’Hinuch is now working with 22 schools – both elementary and secondary – including public schools in the Israeli secular, religious, and Arab sectors. All of the schools within the initiative have effective Action Committees led by influential Israeli businessmen and women, civic leaders and former generals in the IDF. We are working with 97 partnerships, including 1400 volunteers from NGOs, academic institutions, elite IDF units, Israeli corporations, and, of course, dedicated individuals. Our student and family mapping effort enables us to assess the comprehensive needs of each student and develop tailored programs for each school. We have instituted teacher training programs, social and therapeutic interventions and an outside evaluation team to help us continue to strengthen Israel’s educational vitality.

In our high schools, we have worked with principals to create innovative tracks for matriculation credit, including science, technology, environment and biomedical studies. As student dropout rates have decreased across the board, matriculation rates of schools in the Tovanot B’Hinuch initiative continually rank well above the national average, as do induction rates into the IDF (including many of the elite units). As part of our holistic philosophy that combines academic success with fostering the fulfillment of the dreams and aspirations of our students, one just this past summer, one of our school robotics teams and one of our school track teams represented Israel in international competitions in Beijing, performing extremely well.

Tovanot B’Hinuch is now planning for the next five years of growth and innovation. We believe that our entrepreneurial approach to education is applicable to other countries where volunteerism and innovative spirit are part of society. In other words, this is just the beginning.

Karen Tal is the former principle of the Bialik-Rogozin School and the co-founder of Education Insights, a nonprofit entity empowering dynamic public school principals in Israel’s social and geographic periphery to transform their schools and improve students’ prospects for success. Karen is the 2011 recipient of The Charles Bronfman Prize.