Accustomed to 150 soldiers obeying his every command, Major Itzik Grovas admitted to some trepidation when faced with a class of 12-year-olds.A burly, six-foot, former commander in Egoz, the elite infantry unit, which saw action in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Grovas is now part of a different kind of elite.He and a cadre of 142 idealistic, highly motivated university graduates are devoting two years to teaching some of Israel’s most disadvantaged students through a new program called Teach First Israel (TFI). Grovas teaches high school history and seventh-grade homeroom in Kiryat Shmona, the country’s northernmost city.Transform the trajectory “The problem you are trying to address is the same all over the world,” Kopp told a group of rookie teachers during a recent visit. She had visited a similar program in Pakistan just three weeks earlier. “A student’s socioeconomic background determines their educational prospects, even in the most developed countries. “If you’re a kid growing up in poverty, your reality looks similar across the world.It gives me a feeling of optimism because if the problem is similar from place to place, it means the solutions are sharable in a global network. You can help provide kids with an education that can transform the trajectory of their lives.”Israel is hardly an exception when it comes to the yawning socioeconomic gap in the quality of education; this despite figures published recently by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD ), which ranked Israel as the second most educated nation on earth with 45 percent of Israelis possessing post-secondary degrees.But Israel placed in the bottom half of the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams for 2009, placing 36th out of 64 countries in the reading section, and 41st in the sciences and mathematics section. The test also demonstrated unequal achievement within Israeli society – children from low socioeconomic strata scored approximately 100 points lower than wealthier students.Another problem is that too few highestachieving university graduates are entering the teaching profession, shrinking the pool of quality teachers.“We have to invest in the quality of teachers or else educational reforms will not bear fruit,” asserted Shlomit Amichai, former director general of the Ministry of Education and now chairperson of Teach First Israel. “When I heard about this program, I saw the potential for our country.In my close to 30 years of experience in education and working in the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC ), I got to know the caliber of young, socially conscious volunteers who bring with them values and a burning sense of purpose. TFI is not a manpower agency for the placement of teachers. We are a movement with a mission.”Teach First Israel was launched as a partnership between the Education Ministry, which provides 75 percent of the 10 million shekel ($2.7 m.) annual budget, JDC -Israel, the Hakol Hinuch Movement and the Naomi Foundation. Critics of the American program argue that Teach for America’s efforts are a drop in the bucket and that recruits leave after their two-year stint just as they learn how to teach. Enthusiasm and creativity can only go so far in violent and difficult inner city schools and an intensive five-week training program in the summer before they begin to teach does not adequately prepare the young teachers. However, about 67 percent of the more than 24,000 Teach for America alumni still work fulltime in education either as teachers, principals, founders of charter schools and rising leaders in school systems.The Israeli program Since it is only in its second year, it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the Israeli program. But for its third recruitment cycle, TFI is already flooded with 700 applications for 120 spots – with three months left until the application deadline. In its second year TFI received more than 1,350 applications for 89 teaching positions.“We look for people who are really talented, love kids, and believe that where you are born is not supposed to determine your future,” related Asaf Banner, the program’s CEO .Participants, who must commit to two years, receive a regular teacher’s salary from the municipality in which they work.“We’ll see in the next few years how we have succeeded,” Banner said. “It may seem like a drop in the bucket if you look in the short term. But for the longer term, how many future school principals are among our recruits? How many future leaders in education? For an individual kid, sometimes all you need is one adult who believes in him in order to make a difference.”It was a hard sell at first to convince school principals to hire the rookie teachers, noted Amichai, the TFI chair. “The following year it was easy because they all asked for more of our teachers. I saw the gleam in the principals’ eyes.”One Israeli innovation, which answers some of the criticism leveled against the American program, is additional “on-thejob” training one day a week during the school year at Beit Berl College in conjunction with Haifa University, which earns the recruits a teaching certificate.(In the US, recruits get only a five-week summer course.) Another Israeli improvement is hiring a veteran teacher in each of the 35 participating schools to act as mentor to the young recruits and ease their acceptance in the teachers’ lounge. As a matter of policy, at least three recruits are placed in each school to form a support group.Another Israeli first is a program called Reality, which brings Teach for America recruits for a 10-day trip to Israel to connect with their Jewish roots and meet their Israeli counterparts. This program is funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Samberg Family Foundation.Wendi Kopp Kopp, who made the 2008 “Time” magazine list of the world’s 100 most influential people, recently met with the Israeli recruits at Beit Berl College near Kfar Saba. Tall, slim and blond, she wore little make up, only mascara that accentuated her blue eyes and lipstick that managed to stay on through lunch.A simple, black pants suit and a taupe sweater completed the high-powered look of the successful social entrepreneur.Over lunch, Kopp listened with intensity to each teacher’s story even though she must have heard it all before since founding Teach for America 23 years ago.Kfir Kilion, 26, with a degree in economics, left a job in the business world because, he said, he “didn’t want to help the rich get richer.”“My mother is a teacher but I never thought I would be a teacher,” he told Kopp. “For me it’s the little changes, the difference that you make in someone’s life. That’s the reason I chose to do this.”Kilion teaches ninth through eleventh-grade math in Kiryat Shmona. “When they finish high school, I want the children in Kiryat Shmona to be competitive with the children in north Tel Aviv,” he said. “To have a better life and social mobility you must have better grades.I know we don’t like to talk about tests and grades, but at the end of the first semester I checked the tests and I really got excited.”Nicole Hazan, 22, originally from London and one of three new immigrants in the group, teaches English in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv.“I really feel that being able to help Israeli youths succeed is a very meaningful part of being in Israel,” she said. “I find it rewarding and as my Hebrew gets better, I’m more certain that this is for me.Success is contagious and motivation is contagious and when students complete a task successfully, it keeps me going.”Grovas, the former commander of an elite infantry unit, told Kopp that after his six-year army service he took a job in a high-tech company at a salary three times higher than his current pay.“I ran away from the high-tech company after four months and now I’m glad to come to class every day even though I work longer hours,” said Grovas, who holds a degree in Israel studies and archeology from Bar-Ilan University. “I’m considered a tough teacher who doesn’t take nonsense,” he told Kopp. She smiled and nodded her head in approval. He told her that he now commands a reserve unit of some 100 soldiers who come from the same socioeconomic strata as his students.“This is very interesting,” she said, smiling. “I’m getting the flavor of what it is like here.”What Grovas didn’t tell Kopp is that teaching in that particular school provided him with a poignant, uniquely Israeli sense of closure.“In the Second Lebanon War a soldier under my direct command, St.-Sgt.Liran Saadia, was killed in the beginning of the war in the battle of Maroun al-Ras along with four others. He was my radio operator and he shadowed me everywhere I went for about eight months,” Grovas later tells The Jerusalem Report.“I have been in very close contact with the family since his death and I got quite a shock when, by chance, I was assigned to Kiryat Shmona. Liran graduated from the same school where I now teach. His younger brother is a student in the same school in the twelfth grade and will soon enlist in the army. I meet him in the corridor and we talk.”Every year on Memorial Day, which honors fallen soldiers, it is customary for schools to hold an assembly. At this year’s service at the Danziger High School in Kiryat Shmona, Grovas plans to speak to the students about St.-Sgt, Liran Saadia, who sat in the same classrooms as they do, walked the same corridors and kicked a ball around in the same yard. Grovas will give a firsthand account of what happened that day in the battle of Maroun al- Ras that cut Liran’s life short at age 21.“The first time we crossed the border into Lebanon, there was a feeling of facing the unknown. I had the same feeling on my first day as a teacher wondering what will happen in the classroom and whether students will accept me,” he remarked.The Israeli program is modeled on Teach for America, which recruits elite college graduates with leadership potential to teach in low-income urban schools. The American non-profit program is the brainchild of Wendi Kopp, 45, who conceived the idea of a US national teaching corps, similar to president John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, while writing her senior thesis at Princeton University.In 2005 the project evolved into Teach for All, a global network headquartered in New York City. Two years ago Israel joined the roster of 22 other countries that include India, Japan, Brazil and New Zealand, with a model adapted to the Israeli context. So far, a total of 143 recruits teach some 19,000 students in the country’s social and geographical periphery. Despite the seemingly small number of teachers, Israel has the largest program per capita in the global network. Local recruits, most of whom join after their army service and after earning a bachelor’s degree tend to be older and more mature than their American counterparts.