As the Israeli school year opens, native Israeli high-schoolers will be joined by nearly 500 new students from overseas, participants in the Jewish Agency's Naaleh and Elite programs. The Elite program, with 60 participants, is for North American students, while Naaleh is for students from all over the world, including the former Soviet Union, France, and South America. For the first time, this year will see one student from Australia. Both the Elite Academy and Naaleh are joint and fully subsidized programs of the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Education. The students will be studying at a variety of Israeli high schools, ranging from the secular Mosenzon Youth Village in Hod Hasharon to Yeshivat Ohel Shlomo, a Bnei Akiva school in Beersheba. The Naaleh program has been operating among the Diaspora communities of Europe, South America and South Africa since 1992, and nearly 11,000 high school students have already attended the program's affiliated boarding schools, Yeshivot or Kibbutz regional high schools. The Elite Academy is relatively newer, currently beginning its fourth year. Arie Kom, father of Danielle, 16, from Miami, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday that though the decision to send his daughter was not easy, he drew comfort from the fact that Danielle has a friend going along with her. "She is all excited and looking forward to arriving and studying in Israel. Even though she knows Israel pretty well and visits there every year, it's not easy to let your child move far away from her parents, especially at this age. "I believe this is a good and important experience for her. If it works, we might move back to Israel," said Kom, an Israeli businessman who has lived in the US for the last five years and in Venezuela before that. The students have to undergo a rigorous application process in their homelands before being accepted. Each student's educational goals are examined together with their parents and the Elite Academy or Naaleh representatives in their countries, and special curriculums are devised for students who have exemplary talent in fields such as mathematics, physics or computers. All students take part in field trips, extracurricular activities and seminars with their Israeli peers. The aim of the project is to encourage the young students and their families to make aliya, to serve in the army or to serve as "ambassadors of Israel" once they complete the program and return home. "The project has 1,400 high school students every year; 500 of them are new students. Each student receives a full educational scholarship and the program enjoys a high rate of 80%-90% of students who stay afterwards in Israel," said Yeshayahu Yechieli, director-general of the Naaleh program. Elie Klein, Elite Academy program director in New York, says the program retention rate is quite high, and over 96% of the students graduate from their chosen school and receive an Israeli matriculation - recognized by universities and colleges worldwide. "Students apply to the program for a variety of reasons, from learning Hebrew to meeting new friends, but they all agree they have something important to contribute. We allow them to develop their talents and hone the skills that will enable them to be a part of Israel's future," said Klein. "The students receive full room and board, medical insurance, pocket and travel money and a budget for maintaining telephone contact with their parents," says Oded Salomon director-general of the Jewish Agency's Immigration Department. "In return, the students are required to take their studies seriously, to achieve the educational objectives of the Academy and abide by its rules." The annual cost per student at the academy is about NIS 30,000, completely subsidized by the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Education. In addition, each class has an educational team, consisting of a class teacher, housemother and social instructor, at least one of whom is fluent in English, Russian, French or any other required language. Another professional team is available for both social and moral support and each Naaleh student is paired with a host family who provides home-away-from-home hospitality during Shabbat and school holidays. Whenever possible, the families they are set up with are themselves veteran immigrants, an arrangement which greatly aids the students' absorption in Israeli society.