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A group of Australian educators landed in Israel on Monday to study firsthand the Israeli experience with educating disadvantaged populations, hoping to apply the knowledge in their efforts to improve education for Australia's Aboriginal population.
The visit is part of an ongoing program since 2004 in which experts from the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University's School of Education have developed "accelerated education" programs for Australia's disadvantaged populations.
"We hope to learn enough in these two weeks to go back and make [the Israeli-developed program in Australia] sustainable in the future," said Alan McLean, principal at the Shepparton High School in Shepparton, Victoria, some two hours' drive from Melbourne.
Accelerated education has meant "a different approach to supporting our underachieving students and indigenous youth," McLean told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
"It involves continuous short bursts of support," he explained, "what we call the '10-minute system.' A tutor or a teacher spends 10 minutes each day with a student developing their skills."
The project is called the Yahad Accelerated Learning Project (YALP) and includes, in addition to the accelerated learning program, a program to train parents, former students, teachers and community volunteers as tutors for the disadvantaged youth.
McLean adopted the program two years ago "when we were first visited by Israeli educators, who introduced us to the principles of accelerated learning, particularly for at-risk or underachieving students. Over the past two years, we've been discovering and implementing further principles of accelerated learning."
According to McLean, teachers at his school reported "a significant improvement in outcomes" due to the program.
The regular contact between students and teachers "is seen by the students as helping them, and they look forward to it. We want them to feel happy about it, and to understand that they can learn and improve."
According to Jessica Town, the Melbourne-based project administrator for all of Australia for YALP's professional development program, "I've seen some of our staff become empowered and self-sufficient," and the program has meant a "dramatic increase in their confidence as teachers."
"We've been collecting data since the beginning of the project," she noted, and "now, in the crucial midway point, all of the data suggests improvement in the students' results."
How did the connection between Hebrew University and Australian educators begin?
It started when Prof. Marcia Langton, professor of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, visited Israel in 2003.
Langton was impressed with the educational achievements among disadvantaged groups in Israel, particularly Ethiopian immigrants and Beduins, and decided to work toward bringing the model of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation's Tafnit program for accelerated learning, developed at the NCJW Research Institute, to Aboriginal education in Australia.
The following year, a Hebrew University delegation visited Australia to start work on the project. The group included Prof. Elite Olshtain, head of the NCJW Institute; Ayala Berkovitch, its assistant director; Dr. Shalva Weil, who has developed educational programs for the Ethiopian community; Moshe Solomon, who coordinates these programs; and Nissim Cohen, formerly of the NCJW Institute and then director of the Tafnit project at the Sacta-Rashi Foundation.
Once the group returned from Australia, working groups were formed with Australian experts to begin planning a collaborative educational program.
According to Berkovitch, the situation of the Aborigines "is parallel to the situation of the Beduins and the Ethiopians. There are objective problems, such as attendance. Rain, heat, distance... the students just don't come. We're also trying to show how it's possible to raise [the students'] motivation and self-esteem. We're educating teachers and working with students so they discover that they are competent."
The project is not a simple attempt to copy an Israeli educational model to Australia, but adapts to local conditions and needs.
"The name of the project is the Yahad Accelerated Learning Project. We like to emphasize the first word, which signals the essence of the project: cooperation," said Judy Yaron, the national YALP coordinator who remained in Australia year-round to coordinate activities. "We don't come as experts teaching those who lack knowledge. We're proud of the fact that we sit with the school and build the project together. Since the project is in five places in Australia, many times we take an idea from one location and bring it to another where it continues to develop. It takes a life of its own."
For example, Yaron noted, "We started a series of story booklets we wrote using Powerpoint, where the kids are the heroes of the stories within the context of their communities. This came because of complaints that there weren't enough books in the schools, and that they weren't culturally relevant to the kids.
"A teacher in another location saw the booklets and loved them," she continued. "We taught the kids in her class how to do it, and they taught other students in the school. The kids then printed out the books, which are written both in Standard Australian English and in the children's dialect of Koorie English."
In this way, she said, "The schools took our small idea and developed it."
"Change doesn't happen at once," Yaron continued, "especially in education. With that, in the places we work there is great excitement to work with us, especially among the children. From our experience, as soon as we work with the kids and they feel they're succeeding, they participate. They feel that work with us is fun and lets them do beautiful things."