Israel's Exeter

Is a soon-to-be established highly exclusive high school right for country?

February 19, 2009 16:59
Israel's Exeter

havruta high school 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Back in 1930, in the darkest depths of the Great Depression, oil magnate and philanthropist Edward Harkness donated the then-staggering sum of $5,800,000 to the exclusive US private school Phillips Exeter Academy. In a letter to the school's headmaster, Harkness suggested using some of the money to re-think conventional classroom instruction. "What I have in mind," he wrote, "is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods." In one Exeter classroom after another, the traditional rows of students' desks facing a teacher and blackboard at the front of the room were replaced by an oval conference table, large enough to seat 12 students and a teacher, with everyone able to look everyone else in the eye. Lectures were replaced by discussions, and the distance between teacher and students was removed. With everyone equally visible, all were expected to participate and interact, and no one could sit back, daydream or hide. Learning became lively, students discovered how to share ideas and to listen to one another respectfully, and everyone was equally involved. There was no "head of table," dominant position or "power seat." In time, this developed into what is now known as the Harkness Method, in which students learn to think critically, listen analytically and interact respectfully. Most importantly, however, the Harkness Method came to promote the idea of each student taking responsibility for his or her own education, with teachers acting largely as facilitators. Pioneered at Exeter, the method has since spread to over 40 leading schools in the US and, recently, one in the UK. And if four very committed people here in Israel have their way, it will soon be coming to a school set to rise in a quiet rural village about 20 minutes north of Ra'anana. The four are Dror Aloni, son of former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni and mayor of Kfar Shmaryahu; teacher and journal editor Nurit Mayer; teacher and Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership Fellow Ruth Knoller-Levy; and Ra'anan Avital, formerly a staffer at the Prime Minister's Office. They are the founders and officers of the Israel Center for Youth Leadership (ICYL), whose major project at the moment is the establishment of the Havruta High School for Leadership and Culture, a private four-year high school that promises to be unlike anything else in Israel. The school, named for the Hebrew word meaning "together," or "in company," will be constructed at Neveh Hadassah, near Tel Yitzhak, between Ra'anana and Even Yehuda. Metro sat down recently with two of the four founders at their own Harkness table - the first, they say, of many others that will one day grace most of their classrooms. Avital, 53, the robust and surprisingly soft-spoken CEO of ICYL, describes the proposed high school's raison d'etre. "We believe that Israeli society needs leadership for the future that will be excellent in every sense. Because we have so many challenges, whether it's threats to our security or the need to unify all the different kinds of groups in this country, we believe that excellent leadership is crucial to the future of Israel. And we believe that... the earlier you start, the better. So we felt we should start in high school, which is a formative age in which kids begin to develop their identities, their values, and begin to understand what's important to them in life." Avital acknowledges that when the kids graduate at age 18, they will not be fully developed leaders, but he believes they will have the basic capacity, commitment, strong Israeli identity, as well as the necessary intellectual resources to help them develop into genuine leaders. Mayer, ICYL's educational director, expects their new high school to act as a high-quality counterpoint to Israeli education in general which, she says, leaves a lot to be desired. "Israelis' most important resource is education. And we believe we have to invest in education. The way things are now, we don't achieve as much as we need to, as much as we could. We know that in terms of international examination standards, we are not doing well at all. We know that a large part of the kids coming out of high school are ignorant about who they are, the history and culture of Israel, their background. And not only that, failures in the current system affect the numbers that go into the army afterward." She points out that fewer high-school graduates are going into the army. "This is all to do with education. We want to fix that as much as we can." As far as "fixing" the educational system, the administration is aiming to serve as a model, whose approaches and methodologies might be replicated elsewhere. Mayer says, "Our aim is to present a permanent example to try to improve the educational system. And one of the ways we believe we can do this is not to live in some kind of bubble, but share what we're doing with others." That, she says, is why Havruta hired its teachers a full year before the actual start of school next September. "They're getting a full year for teacher training," Mayer explains. "This is one of the most important reasons why we are paying these teachers full-time this whole year, before the first student arrives. We're trying to do something different. To do something different, you have to think differently. We want to take education to a new place that will not only prepare our students to achieve the most out of their own abilities, but will also have an impact on the general education system. We are developing teachers, as well as students. We will invite teachers and others from outside the school to come and see and learn, while our teachers will go out to other schools to show them what we are doing." Havruta will open with teachers who not only have had a full year of pre-service training, but who were carefully selected to begin with. Only one out of every 27 applicants was hired, says Avital, and all have Masters and Ph.D. degrees. What will the new high school actually try to do, and how will it go about doing it? "First of all, we're talking about children's minds and children's character," Avital explains. "When it comes to the minds, one of the members of our advisory board is Prof. Howard Gardner from Harvard University. He directed us toward developing what he calls 'floodlight minds,' as opposed to 'laser minds.'" He explains that schools that specialize in, for example, sciences, arts or music try to develop very focused minds that penetrate into these fields like a laser. Whereas leadership demands a "floodlight mind" - "the ability to see the big picture and integrate different fields of knowledge... our strategy is to teach students to see the big picture," he says. What does the administration plan to include in their proposed "big picture?" According to Avital, "It will be a liberal arts education. This is certainly not common in Israel. But we feel that is the basis of a broad mind. We're talking about developing thinking skills. It can be analytical, it can be intellectual, it can be creative, it can be collaborative thinking - which is very relevant for the 21st century in a global world. We're talking about strong English language skills, which are essential for success. And we're talking about generally developing a cosmopolitan world view - being able to see things from different points of view and not being provincial and just seeing things as an Israeli." "Our other strategy involves the children's character. One day a week, every week; and one week at the beginning of every trimester will be extracurricular. These will not be routine days where you learn history, geography, language, etc. They will be days that are in the hands of the teachers and students for all kinds of initiatives - projects, workshops, going to the community, visiting different places in the country, anything that is active, that is character developing, that gives you real experience," he continues. In that regard, a particular strength of the new high school is expected to be its location, at the outskirts of Neveh Hadassah. A "youth village" housing upward of 300 children, Neveh Hadassah caters to children at risk, kids from broken homes, children who come to Israel as unaccompanied minors, along with various special-needs cases. Havruta officials hope that their students might begin honing their leadership skills by reaching out to the Neveh Hadassah children. The new school will feature classroom study in small Harkness table groups, a lot of individual study facilitated by teachers acting as advisers, long school days, and a wide range of extracurricular activities and group projects. Mayer notes that while most Israeli high schools focus on preparing students for matriculation exams, Havruta will not. "Matriculation exams will be a very small part of the curriculum we are planning. And by the time we teach the skills we plan to teach, I guarantee that the students will have no problem passing these exams excellently." Some critics might charge that the Havruta planners are guilty of overly demonizing the existing Israeli school system, setting up a straw man simply to knock down. Indeed, whereas both Avital and Mayer are themselves products of the very educational system they now decry, the question that arises is whether some of what Havruta is planning to offer might already be going on in other Israeli schools. Mayer acknowledges that it might, but not successfully. She says, "The Education Ministry spends a lot to teach culture in regular schools. But, in a way, it doesn't affect students at all. Maybe because it's taught as a subject, and not as a way of life in the school, as the spirit of the school. Here, it will be the main thing that goes into every other subject. You cannot learn culture as just a subject you're examined on. Take English, for example. We'll teach English at such a high level that the students - and it's a guarantee - will come out of school knowing English perfectly." Avital takes a broader view, saying, "When we began planning for this school, we didn't start out by saying,'We have a bad education system. Let's fix it.' We started out by asking questions, like what is the best way to prepare for leadership? What is the idea of education that we should give them? And we started putting together pieces of that puzzle. We must have excellent teachers, who are totally committed. The teachers have to have excellent working conditions, so they'll be motivated and not burn out after a year or two. We have to have a different way of teaching, a different atmosphere, a different curriculum. And when we put those puzzle pieces together, we looked at what we'd created, and then we looked at the education system, and asked ourselves, 'Can this new animal live in that old zoo?' Forgive the metaphor," he says with laughter, "but the answer was 'no.'" Avital is adamant that their new facility will not simply be another version of the American School, situated close by in Even Yehuda. "We will differ in the most fundamental way. We will be an Israeli school, based on Israeli culture, connecting people with Israel and the people of Israel. The American School is an excellent school, but there is nothing Israeli about it. There is nothing connecting it to Israel. You could be sitting in an American School in Switzerland, Singapore or Argentina, and it's exactly the same experience." The cost of attending Havruta High School for Leadership and Culture is expected to amount to NIS 2,900 per month. Avital acknowledges that this is high, even for private schools here in Israel, but still less than half, he says, of what it costs to go to the American School. However, Havruta's administrators pledge to assume full responsibility for every student passing math and English - without additional, extra-fee tutoring. The cost will also include a daily hot meal, as well as certain valuable perks. For example, aside from the skills they acquire at Havruta, students have an opportunity to come away from the school with something more tangible. Thanks to a special collaboration between Havruta and Bard College in upstate New York, students will be able to complete college studies and leave Havruta with an Associate in Arts degree. Avital says, "The Israeli education system is simply not ready to experiment and invest in leadership. They are ready to invest in special education, in the country's periphery, but not in this. The option of offering this sort of [approach] as a public school simply does not exist. We had no option but to go private. But we don't want this to be a school for the privileged only. We're committed to having a very broad scholarship program." How broad depends on the school's success and available funding from supporting foundations and philanthropists. One of the administration's goals is that after a few years, scholarship students will comprise no less than 50 percent of Havruta's student body. Havruta's planners are also sensitive to charges of elitism - that their school will be attended by children who, in the great baseball game of life, were born already positioned on second or even third. Avital's normally soft voice becomes louder as he declares, "We do not believe that if we can't do this for everyone, we shouldn't do it for anyone. Israel has a need for leadership, but not every Israeli citizen has to be a leader. And when we find kids with leadership potential, we have to invest in them differently - not necessarily more, but differently." Finding leadership potential is expected to be the overarching goal of Havruta's recruitment and admissions procedures. Getting into Havruta will apparently be a lot like getting into prestigious small colleges in the US. Prospective students will complete and submit an application form. If their applications are successful, they will then be called in for the first of a series of interviews with school staff. If those go well, recommendations will follow. To round out this assessment - more qualitative than quantitative - grades and test scores will also be considered, but as the smallest piece of the overall puzzle. What is next for the Israel Center for Youth Leadership, once the Havruta high school is up and running in Neveh Hadassah? "Our dream is to have three more schools, one in the Negev, one in the Galilee, and one in Jerusalem. But it will take time." For further information, visit the ICYL's Web site at

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