Amid the financial and educational difficulties faced by schools in the periphery, the Darca network of high schools has spent the past five years strengthening the pupils, teachers and principals in their institutions.
The network has set a goal of increasing both the rates of eligibility for matriculation certificates among their graduates, and strengthening the core values of the pupils, such as volunteerism and democracy.
Darca, headed by Jimmy Pinto, has grown from seven schools to 25 across the country in the past four years, serving the state-secular, state-religious and Druse sectors, with plans to expand into the Beduin, Arab and possibly ultra-Orthodox sectors.
Dr. Gil Pereg, CEO of Darca, spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday about the keys to success in the schools, as well as future plans for the network.
The schools were established by the Rashi Foundation and KIAH-Alliance, with the support of the Education Ministry, and were joined in 2014 by the US-based Youth Renewal Fund.
According to Pereg, the partnership between the organizations is not exclusively in the realm of financial aid, although he does call the contributions by the organizations “unprecedented” in the education system.
He said that the managerial know-how of the three backing organizations is one of the key elements to the success of the schools.
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“Every time I think about how a principal from Netivot here in Israel can learn from managerial or organizational advice from someone with a senior position on Wall Street... I think this is very exciting,” said the head of the school network.
It is hard to ignore the importance of matriculation eligibility in Israel. He spoke of the more than 83 percent of students in the Darca schools who are eligible for a matriculation certificate after completing high school.
Matriculation eligibility, said Pereg, is a tool for social mobility, something very important to the students who come from the periphery and want to enter fields such as engineering, medicine and academia.
Gedera is one example of a town that was struggling in terms of its education system, although it isn’t quite considered part the periphery. The Darca system took over all three of its high schools and eligibility rates rose drastically.
The mayor of Gedera even credited the schools with a rise in real-estate prices.
Another example is the rate in Netivot, which rose from 13% up to 60% within two years of Darca managing the school.
Pereg emphasized the importance of teachers and the belief that investing in a support system for them and principals is key to improving the school.
“We know that the position of principal today is extremely complex, very challenging and difficult... specifically in the places we work,” he said.
Principals, he explained, get a wide berth to work as they feel is best suited to their school, but alongside that freedom they are given a support system to lean on when needed.
Pereg himself established his career in education at two of the strongest schools in the country – Blich High School in Ramat Gan and AMIT High School at Bar-Ilan University.
After years of working in two of the country’s strongest schools, he said that when he heard about the plans for the Darca school system, he couldn’t imagine not being involved.
The opportunity to utilize what he had learned in those schools and allow for the students in the periphery to be afforded the same opportunities, was how he felt he had to move forward with his career.
Sometimes, “it seems almost like magic,” Pereg said of the transformation in matriculation eligibility and general excellence at the schools.
But the core of the change, in keeping with Darca’s philosophy and that of its partners, is to ensure that the teachers believe in the pupils and the pupils are made aware of that belief.
Sometimes, he said, it’s hard to make that change, but the language used in the classroom and the way teachers approach the class, makes a difference in the way the students see themselves and that is a key emphasis in the school system.
The change, he said, is visible, when hearing the pupils speak about their futures as engineers, teachers, academics and so on, with confidence, despite the fact that their parents often have no academic education.
Darca and its partners go further than just ensuring excellence in the classroom.
Pereg said it is often difficult to believe what the pupils are missing – food, winter jackets or even a fridge at home.
The Darca schools make sure to deal with these issues, in addition to academic issues, to ensure that these children have their basic needs taken care of.
The US-based Youth Renewal Fund, the newest partner in the Darca system, led by chairman Marc Rowan and president of YRF Darca Sam Katz, brought with the Rashi Foundation and KIAH an investment of $53 million, making Darca the schools network with the strongest financial backing in Israel.
Due to the partnership between the Rashi Foundation, KIAH and YRF, Darca is expecting to double its number of schools to 50 within seven years.
The point, however, is not to take over the school system.
Pereg explained that what is important is to build a working model, prove that it works and then allow for it to be copied across the country and abroad so as many pupils as possible can benefit from it.
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