The power to choose

(By Danna Karni)
By the time I completed my degree in education, I understood two important things about the direction my career would take.
First, I knew that I preferred to work in after-school programming rather than the formal education system.  And second, I decided that my educational agenda would focus on choice and responsibility – every individual has them and can be and do whatever he or she chooses.
And for me, the choice of after-school programming over formal education wasn’t a tough one.
During my training, I understood three simple yet painful truths about Israeli schools: (1) the classes are overpopulated, (2) the teachers are usually kept busy dealing with discipline issues, and (3) neither of the aforementioned problems can be easily resolved.  As sad as it might be to say it out loud, the truth is that the school as an institution is limited in its ability to make a genuine impact on children''s lives.
I also had no interest in being a teacher if I would rarely get the opportunity to do more than teach by the book. I wanted to engage my students, to talk about values, analyze current events, encourage them to dream and give them the instruments to make dreams come true.  I aspired to make a change.
But after-school programming is more than just a sweet gig for idealistic educators.  It’s an important educational tool for many children.
The smaller groups allow for enhanced interactions between the educators/counselors and students, including personal time and real conversations.  I have also found that the staff is usually more diverse in after-school programs, which makes for a more interesting learning environment for all involved.
It is important to understand that successes achieved through informal education are not the beginning of the end for formal education. By its very nature, informal education cannot and will not replace formal education. Rather, much of what is taught in after-school programs complements the schools’ curriculum. The difference is in the approach.  Informal education is all about changing the environment, slowing down and adding depth to the interactions with educators/ counselors and encouraging the students to think and explore.
Informal education is even more important for at-risk youth. Often, children from low socio-economic backgrounds have no structure at home and spend the hours after school home alone or wandering the streets.  It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that these children are enrolled in after-school programs that will provide them with a framework in which to continue learning, and a safe and warm environment where they can receive the love and attention they deserve.
Having worked with hundreds of at-risk youth over the years, I can personally attest to the fact that helping these children understand that they have choices in life increases their chances at success in the future.  Indeed, after-school programming can help break the cycle of poverty.
But the question remains: while we want all children to believe in themselves and their right to choose, enjoy learning and have access to a wide range of knowledge, how many of us actually choose to do what’s necessary to make this a reality?
In truth, it all boils down to a choice.
I chose after-school programming as my educational framework, and I have witnessed miraculous personal and familial transformations and tremendous societal progress in my small corner of the world.
My sincere hope is that others choose to support informal education, an act that will not only replace the notorious cycle of poverty with a copious cycle of giving but strengthen our educational system and empower our children.
Danna Karni is the Head of Educational Programming for The Jaffa Institute, a private, non-profit organization that provides after-school programming and a host of other social services to thousands of severely disadvantaged children and their families in the greater Tel Aviv-Jaffa area of Israel.