Listening to them is everything
Efrat Zemer (Maariv, 26 June 2009)
Hili Tropper, only 31 years old, with no experience in teaching or administration, takes on a tough school in Ramle. The pupils there were expelled from everywhere else. This year the school boasts a record number of full matriculation certificates. It's not nuclear physics, he explains, it's simply education
Two out of the four of the pupils in the math skills class are newly injured. The first boasts prominent stitches on the back of his head, the consequence of an encounter with the sidewalk. The second is recovering from a fall off a horse, which sent him to the hospital. The stitches don't bother them. "They treated me and I came straight back to school for the matriculation exam," brags the first. The second pupil's story is truly heroic. He fled from the hospital, took the test in his pyjamas, and immediately afterward slipped back into the hospital. "See what terrific kids these are," says Hili Tropper, principal of the Branco Weiss School in Ramle. "See how much they want to learn and succeed." He has reason to celebrate. For the first time, the Branco Weiss School has a critical mass of pupils who are graduating with a full matriculation certificate. And none of them takes this for granted.
About 24,000 pupils drop out of the school system every year. The injured boys and their classmates were almost part of that statistic. They had been expelled from a number of high schools. They were one step away from dropping out of the system altogether. But they decided not to give up, and what's more important is that the system decided not to give up on them. There is only one admission criterion for this high school: that other schools don't want you. Every pupil has his or her own reasons. Tropper doesn't like to talk about this. He prefers to invest in his pupils' self-image. To forget about the past and think about the present. The pupils themselves recount that about half of them know police stations from the inside, along with the shadier sides of Ramle, Lod, and Tel Aviv. Others have problems at home, problems with the bank, or behavioral problems. They are what is known as educational risks.
Half of the schools run by the Branco Weiss Institute are defined as high schools for pupils at "educational risk." Tropper's superiors also took a risk. He's a 31-year-old with no experience in administration or teaching. What does he know? But this is exactly what helped him bring so many pupils who were on the verge of dropping out to a full matriculation certificate. The simple fact that the pupils-not the system-have to be the focus. The principals, the teachers, and the textbooks are all supporting actors. Evidently you need to come from the outside in order to understand this.
Not Just to Check Off
Tropper came to education from the social-action angle. He is the son of Dr. Danny Tropper, who founded Gesher, an organization that promotes dialogue between secular and religious Jews, and has presided over it for almost 40 years. Hili himself has founded prominent social organizations such as "Good Neighbor," and especially "Ma'aglei Tzedek," which introduced the "Social Seal of Approval" for businesses. While he was working with "After Me," an organization that prepares teenagers for combat military service, Hili received a phone call from Aviv Keinan, the director of the Branco Weiss school network. Come run the school in Ramle, he asked him. Tropper turned him down. Keinan suggested that they meet nevertheless. Three weeks later Tropper was sitting in the principal's office.
"It's possible to educate beyond the matriculation certificate," Tropper said this week. "The school's job is to change [pupils] from a situation of ‘surviving' (and they have every reason to be that way) to a life of being dreamers, people who aspire. So they don't just check off another day of school. At the beginning it was difficult. The pupils we collect have report cards full of failing grades. You ask a kid where he's going and he has no idea. They just get by. With no goals. And now, every one of them is taking the matriculation exams. One hundred percent. It's incredible. It was a long process, which succeeded thanks to the children's commitment. The credit is theirs."
In the introduction he contributed to his graduates' yearbook, Tropper tells the children that they shouldn't look for overnight success along the lines of "A Star Is Born," but should take the long road and succeed. He says that the pupils had difficulty believing their teachers when they were told that the same matriculation exams are given all over Israel. That the test they take is taken by pupils all over the country at the same time. That there are no concessions or short cuts. "Ultimately, a person adapts himself to what is expected of him, what is required of him."
"For two-and-a-half months I played hooky and no one said anything to my father," says Miri, one of the pupils. "When you're with 40 other pupils, it's impossible to learn anything. I never thought that I would do a matriculation certificate, so why should I stay at school? I used to sit in the school kiosk the whole day. What starts off on the wrong foot ends up on the wrong foot. I enrolled here just to pass the time until the end of 12 years of school, and suddenly they wanted me to study. Here if even one day I don't feel like coming, they call me to find out what's going on."
Another pupil, also named Miri, confesses: "I need a little more attention. I have no problem saying that. I drifted from here to there and no school knew how to cope with my needs. Schools don't have time for pupils like me. I gave up on school. I would put on a school shirt for my parents and then go back to bed. Nobody called from school for several months. Here I was in shock. If I didn't show up just one day they called my mother. They even sent me a text message, "Good luck on the final exam." Now Miri is on her way to completing a full matriculation certificate and also volunteers in a special education school in Ramle. Netanel, a 12th grader, admits that he is a little afraid about graduating. "I didn't get attention, so I would make trouble. Something was wrong with me to begin with because I wasn't learning anything, but now I'm in ‘calm' mode."
I Saved a Child Today
Every teacher at the school teaches several subjects, so they spend as many hours as possible with the pupils, win their trust, and get to know them closely. They also make home visits. If a pupil has a court date they accompany him. "The homeroom teachers are the pupils' mother and father," says Tropper. "This is also their job definition. What is ostensibly irrelevant to me, is very relevant to me. A child with problems at home has less time to study. Children will make progress only if we send them the message that we're with them all the time."
The Branco Weiss Institute for the Development of Thinking was founded 19 years ago. It engages in educational activities in the schools; during the past decade it has also operated its own network, which has grown to ten schools all over Israel, half of them comprehensive schools and half of them for children at risk. All of Branco Weiss' activities are conducted in conjunction with the Education Ministry and local authorities. The educational approach is holistic, with an emphasis on individualized instruction. The schools are funded by the Branco Weiss Institute (from donations and foundation grants) and by the Education Ministry and local authorities.
Most of the faculty is employed on terms comparable to those in regular schools. A few have personal contracts. Tropper says that he's "not acquainted with" the stereotypical image of teachers as worn out or as people who happened into the profession merely because they weren't accepted into other professions. "People who teach out of ideological commitment are more interested in a place like this. A teacher who succeeds here goes home and says ‘I saved a child today.' That's the language. I don't see teachers who are worn out; I see teachers who come also on Friday and on Saturday night to sit with a pupil. The teacher leaves school only after the last pupil leaves."
It's impossible to ignore the substantive problems in the educational system.
"The problems are real, but the eulogies for the educational system are premature. The salaries are of course sad, and teachers, particularly male teachers, have to work another job. It's obvious that the salary has an effect. If a teacher could work only here and receive appropriate remuneration, things would be better. Beyond this there are ethical problems. The prevailing language is about pupils' rights, and that's nice, but there are no pupils' obligations. A culture arises of minimal obligations. Of teenagers who grow up with few demands made of them. Education takes place within a certain culture, and this is a culture which is less daring, which has trouble defining what is permitted and what is forbidden."
And then it's easier for a slow pupil to test boundaries?
"It may indeed be more confusing for pupils who are slow and need clear language. The pupils here must have boundaries and they want boundaries. They understand that the boundaries help them. On the one hand things are quite strict, yet on the other hand it's very sensitive. I always tell them ‘If I give in to you, I give up on you.' They may get annoyed, but they understand."
Give Them Professional Education
The school, which is part of the Branco Weiss Institute network of schools, is funded by the Education Ministry and the Ramle municipality. According to network director Aviv Keinan, schools like this are essential. There is no optimistic forecast that would render them superfluous. "These schools are not trying to put anyone else down," says network director Aviv Keinan. "Even when a large school does excellent work it can't provide a solution for all of these children. The structure of the system would make it crazy for a principal to devote 90 percent of his time to 10 percent of the children. For this reason, for instance, while I would prefer that teachers have a teaching certificate and experience, the first thing I look for is the spark. I have an argument about this with the rest of the world, because to my mind the communication with the children is more important than expertise in a given classroom subject."
Along with the daily scholastic struggle, emphasis is also placed on enrichment activities. The pupils have already produced two CDs of original songs this year, "Voices from the Soul," which they wrote and composed. There is also a horse farm and psychodrama, cooking, and photography classes. And lots of excursions.
During the last annual trip the school surprised pupils with a flight over Israel. Many of them were exposed to different regions of Israel for the first time. "At the beginning of the year they fight with me a lot and get angry a lot, until trust develops," says Tropper. "Sometimes they can say a sentence that sticks a knife into your heart, like ‘You too will give up on me in the end.' It's a very long process."
There is a line of thought that one of the reasons only half of all pupils obtain a matriculation certificate is the decline of technological education. Could it be that your pupils dropped out of the system because of the chase after grades on the academic matriculation exams, when they could have flourished in vocational education?
"The race to pass matriculation exams is a mistake, but the change should not come from the weak. So long as the State of Israel doesn't offer two equal streams in education, I don't want the strong sector of the population to click their tongues and say that the matriculation certificate is not the most important thing, while in practice they continue the chase and relegate these kids to being hairdressers or electricians-not that I mean to denigrate those professions. Generalizations are not in order, because it's a fact that most of the gang here can do a full matriculation certificate. A matriculation certificate is currently the entry card to Israeli society and to a sense of equality. If society really wants to make a change by developing other options for being in the mainstream, that's okay, but if that means that vocational schools are opened in the development towns again and everyone who has a little trouble in sixth grade is told that he is not suited to an academic track, then it's out of the question. Every literature teacher knows that the subtext is stronger than the text. You can't tell children that the sky is the limit but that they can only be mechanics. That's a lie."
Twenty-four thousand pupils drop out of the system every year, and it is estimated that thousands more are hidden dropouts. Is this a gap that can be closed?
"There aren't enough tools to hold on to the pupils who drop out, but we can reduce the number. If we open a school like this in every city we will already be reducing the number. Look at these pupils. I don't think they're miserable and I don't think they're unfortunates, and the sky really is the limit. This is why I tell them: don't be the best of the dim-witted, be the best of the best."