Excellence and integration for Druze students at Darca Yarka

‘Hard in training, easy in combat’ is one of Kamil Shela’s favorite phrases.

KAMIL SHELA, principal of Darca Druze High School for Science and Leadership. (photo credit: Courtesy)
KAMIL SHELA, principal of Darca Druze High School for Science and Leadership.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Hard in training, easy in combat’ is one of Kamil Shela’s favorite phrases.
Shela has been the principal of Darca Druze High School for Science and Leadership (Yarka) for the last five years. A few months ago, the Education Ministry released data regarding students who are taking the 5-points bagrut matriculation exams, including math, English and a variety of other subjects, and it appears that Shela can give himself a pat on the back after seeing his students’ scores.
Darca Yarka has ranked among the top Israeli high schools for the fourth year in a row, not just in the percentage of students passing their bagrut (matriculation exam), but also in their scores. It is the only school where 100% of students learning five-points math and five-points English have passed their exams. With statistics like this, it’s no wonder that the percentage of students at Darca Yarka with excellent bagrut scores is one of the highest in all of Israel.
Two hundred students who were handpicked from Druze villages in the region learn in 10th, 11th and 12th grades at Darca Yarka. They are tested in the areas of mathematical thinking, psycho-technical skills and language, but Shela emphasizes that Darca students don’t feel like they’re learning at an elite institution. “Darca is not a private school – funds come from the Education Ministry,” explains Shela.
Parents of Darca Yarca students do need to pay
NIS 2,400 per year, which also covers all the extra classes that are added to the daily schedule. “We are very competent at managing our budget,” Shela adds.
How many students apply to study at Darca Yarka every year?
“Since I took over as principal, over 200 students apply every year, from which we can accept around 65 or 70.”
Are some people critical of the school?
“No institution is free of criticism. What’s important is that our school reaches the goals we’ve set for ourselves, and that such a large number of students applies for admission every year. We have zero tolerance for copying or cheating, and we have almost no suspicion of plagiarism and cheating. Our goal is to reach an absolute zero. Many people claim that no school can escape a certain amount of cheating, but we have proven that we achieved our status as the top school without even a hint of cheating. The atmosphere in the school leads students to aim for excellence.”
SHELA, 44, who lives in Birka with his wife – an English teacher who works in another school – and two sons, has been working in the field of education for over 20 years, including as a university lecturer. “My teachers left a very deep impression on me, and I hope that I also will be able to help my students. By doing so, I feel like I’m helping the State of Israel and all of Israeli society.”
In 2003, early in his career, Shela worked as an English teacher and also functioned as the vice principal. Later, he received a Fullbright scholarship, one of the most prestigious programs in the world. So he packed up and moved to New Jersey for a year, where he worked as a university lecturer’s assistant.
Upon his return home, he went back to teaching at the same school, where the level of education was nowhere near what it is today. In 2014, after he was promoted to principal, he set the goal of reaching 100% of students passing the five-points English bagrut, which he achieved the very next year. And so he raised the bar and decided to aim for helping all the students pass the five-points math bagrut, too. That goal took a little longer to reach (three years), but now he can truthfully claim that all his students pass the five-points math and English bagrut exams.
Former education minister Naftali Bennett would have been proud of you. What do you think of current Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who has been called on to resign, despite being in office for such a short time?
“I’m not very well-versed in what’s been going on in the education ministry. My focus is on my work here at school. It’s very difficult for us when each new education minister makes changes in the bagrut system. Instead of spending all of our energy teaching, we have to always be following changes made by the new education minister. It’s very tricky following the rules, while also doing what’s good for the school.”
Even during this interview, Shela keeps steering the conversation back to the school’s achievements and the volatile political situation, instead of talking about himself. “For four straight years, our school has received the honor of excellence. This isn’t connected with the percentage of students passing their bagrut exams. It’s about our students excelling in the social sphere, too. Our students are required to volunteer 60-90 hours of community service, and yet the average number of hours Darca Yarka students volunteer is 120. This goes to show how committed our students are to community, that they value social commitment just as much as their own personal academic growth. No other school in Israel can compare.”
So, what’s the secret?
“The Darca chain of schools took us under its wings in 2011, and we’ve received an endless amount of support from them and our talented teachers are very committed to their students. Before they begin teaching, they undergo lengthy training, during which they receive extensive feedback from more veteran staff members and also from the students themselves. We only hire teachers who are a good fit for our school. We prefer teachers with a master’s degree who are caring and empathetic human beings.
“The atmosphere in the school keeps getting better and stronger each year. We like to tell the students how much we appreciate them as individuals and how proud we are of their hard work. We commend them for reaching such great achievements and making their parents so proud of them. We teach them to walk with their heads held high. Teachers are very friendly with their students – of course with all the necessary boundaries – and this helps our students to gain confidence.”
What’s your goal?
“To help young Druze students become leaders of their community, excel in academia, reach elite IDF units, succeed in politics and help our community. There’s nothing I enjoy more than when former students come back home to tell me about their successes and how they are helping make our society a better place. We spend a tremendous amount of time helping our students develop their language skills. We do simulations so that they’ll have an easier integration into Israeli society and a smoother transition into the army and college. ‘Hard in training, easy in combat’ is my motto. We’re doing everything we can to make it easier for them.”
Do you plan on staying at Darca?
“I always say – even if they offer me the position of education minister, I can’t imagine feeling more satisfaction from a job than what I feel today. A better salary would not make a difference. The staff here is so amazing and I love interacting with the students. If one day I stop feeling this way, then maybe I’ll move on to something new. The moment I feel I have nothing left to give to my students, I’ll hand the reins over to someone else.”
What’s your take on the Israel Nation-State Law?
“I believe one day it will be amended or rescinded. I’m a proud member of the Druze community and am happy with the way I fit into Israeli society. I will continue to work hard so that our young Druze students can be helpful, loyal Israeli citizens.”
Do you have any interest in entering politics at some point?
“Before the previous election, a political activist wrote me, asking if I was interested in running for office. It took me only 20 seconds to send him back my succinct reply: ‘Absolutely not.’ He then asked me if I would please take some time to think it over and I responded, ‘No, thanks.’ Politics is just not for me. I’ve always known I was an educator and I don’t think education and politics mesh well. They’re like oil and water, if you ask me. I prefer to stay here and do what I do best, and what I love more than anything else.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.