Floodlit Minds

Beginning their second year, the founders of Havruta, a private high school near Netanya, reject charges of elitism and are confident they can transform education in Israel.

311_Havruta high school (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Havruta high school
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Around six years ago, four very serious people decided that Israeli society was not in particularly good shape. They determined that the problem was due largely to poor leadership, and that the way to address it was to educate Israeli youth to be better, if not excellent, leaders.
A major obstacle to this solution immediately became apparent, however. The group concluded that Israeli youth could not be educated for leadership, or much of anything else, because the Israeli educational system was broken and needed to be fixed.
RELATED:What the Harkness Method isThus Dror Aloni, son of former education minister Shulamit Aloni and mayor of Kfar Shmaryahu; teacher and journal editor Nurit Mayer; teacher and Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership Fellow Ruth Knoller-Levy; and Ra’anan Avital, former Prime Minister’s Office staffer formed the Israeli Center for Youth Leadership (ICYL).
Its immediate purpose: to build a high school unlike any other in Israel.
On a raw winter morning in January 2009, Metro sat down with Mayer and Avital at the site in Neveh Hadassah – near Tel Yitzhak, between Ra’anana and Even Yehuda – where ICYL’s new Havruta High School for Leadership and Culture was slated for imminent construction.
Said Avital at that meeting: “We believe that Israeli society needs leadership for the future that will be excellent in every sense. Because we have so many challenges, whether it’s threats to our security or the need to unify all the different kinds of groups we have in this country, we believe that excellent leadership is crucial to the future of Israel.
“And we believe that to get that, the earlier you start the better. So we felt we should start in high school, which is a formative age at which kids begin to develop their identities, their values, and begin to understand what’s important to them in life.”
The idea was to create an educational environment that would not necessarily produce fully developed, 18-year-old leaders at graduation, but provide students with the capacity, commitment, intellectual resources and strong Israeli identity to help them develop into genuine leaders.
Mayer added that in addition to catering to its own students, the new high school would serve as a model for replication – a system of methods and approaches that could be used by other schools, one after the other, until Israeli education was transformed.
AS THEY planned their curriculum, the four founders were committed to the idea of a broad liberal arts education that would accomplish the seemingly impossible task of combining a worldly, cosmopolitan global awareness with a strong Israeli and Jewish personal identity.
And rather than educate kids to have what they called “laser minds” – brilliant students specializing in one field of interest – the new school’s goal was to create the “floodlit minds” essential for leadership, involving the ability to integrate many fields of knowledge to see the big picture.
As for methodology, the four had found their model in a style of teaching known as the Harkness Method, developed in the 1930s at Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive private school in the US state of New Hampshire (see Related).
The method involves the use of an oval table, large enough to seat 12 students and a teacher. There is no head of the table. Teacher and students interact respectfully, everyone participates equally, and each person is responsible for his or her own learning.
The four founders saw this method approach as the perfect combination of the Socratic method of teaching and traditional havruta-style Jewish learning.
The Havruta High School for Leadership and Culture opened its doors on the August 31, 2009, and conducted its first year of operation with 46 ninth- and 10th-grade students. Now, as the school begins its second year, Metro is visiting again to see how much a full year of actual teaching – living, breathing Israeli teenagers – has affirmed or altered the founders’ original vision.
As we head for the school, the first thing we notice is that it is not where we expected it to be. Havruta’s buildings and campus were supposed to be constructed at Neveh Hadassah, where we had our first visit, but problems with the site’s owners forced a change in the school’s location.
Havruta currently occupies three buildings on the quiet, tree-shaded campus of the Ruppin Academic Center, several kilometers east of Netanya. More buildings, all unused Ruppin dormitories, will be renovated and added to Havruta over the next few years, as the school’s enrolment increases.
Havruta’s current enrolment stands at 80 students, comprising two ninth grades, two 10th grades, and one 11th-grade group.
“Next year, the 11th-graders will move up to 12th grade, so we’ll have a full high school,” says Ra’anan Avital, who is our tour guide for the day. Like the other three founders, Avital, 55, does not teach at Havruta; he is the CEO of the school’s parent organization, ICYL. The current number of teachers is 21.
WE MEET an 11th-grade biology class that has spent most of its session on its feet, strolling around the rural campus. The teacher explains that biology is about things that happen outside, not inside a classroom. The students appear attentive and engaged. We converse briefly in English, before the students continue on their way.
We learn later that the teacher, Omer Choresh, 38, holds both a PhD in molecular biology and an international reputation for discovering the molecular structure of the adhesive element in the silken webs of spiders – the glue that catches flies. This groundbreaking research is already being used to develop alternatives to the traditional needle and thread for closing human body wounds and surgical incisions.
We enter a building, wander by a math class and notice something immediately – no Harkness table.
With a refreshing lack of fanaticism, Avital explains that the tables are not necessarily suited for all types of learning. And yet despite the missing table, the students have seated themselves in a kind of “Harkness formation” and are in the throes of a very lively discussion – in a math class, of all places.
The teacher has suggested a way to approach a particularly difficult problem in trigonometry, and a girl is spiritedly challenging his premise. We’re later told that the teacher, who  came to Havruta after more than 20 years in hi-tech, actively encourages this kind of discussion in all his classes.
Turning down a small corridor, we pass classrooms, nooks and crannies in which one-on-one tutorials and counseling sessions are in full swing. Conversations between individual students and staff range from quiet to emotional. These sessions, Avital explains, are geared not only to schoolwork, but to personal and social issues as well.
And then we are taken to the bathroom.
“This is probably the only school in the world that shows visitors the bathroom,” says Avital. “It was made to be nice, and it is kept nice by the students. No graffiti on the walls, no paper towels on the floor. If you respect people, especially young people, they will respond positively.”
This point is underscored by a glimpse into a nearby computer room – unguarded, unsupervised, and open all day. Students can use the state-of-the-art computers whenever they want or need to: to do schoolwork, check e-mail, visit Facebook, play games, or simply surf. Students keep the room clean and well-ordered; nothing is taken or vandalized.
Inevitably, we wend our way toward the office of the two co-directors of academic affairs, and these individuals appear at first glance to be as different as night and day.
One is a very secular-looking academic. This is Dr. Luli Stern, 47, with a PhD in microbiology and a previous academic career at Tel Aviv University and the Technion in Haifa. The other is Rabbi Eliyahu Stolovich, 37, a knitted-kippa-wearing, long-bearded religious Zionist and former teacher at a yeshiva in Kfar Etzion.
At opposite ends of the political spectrum, and with religious views so different as to be beyond comparison, the two somehow work together comfortably, their skills and personalities actually complementing each other, almost like yin and yang.
Stolovich, interestingly enough, conducts a bimonthly beit midrash for all the school’s students jointly with a very non-religiously-observant history teacher, who grew up on a Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz.
The directors and teachers of Havruta are not only diverse, but highly educated as well. Virtually all hold advanced university degrees; some have PhDs. Most could be enjoying far more prominent careers elsewhere and making a lot more money than they are earning at Havruta – which is not much more than a high school teacher’s salary in Israeli public schools.
Why are they here? Biology teacher Choresh, whom we met earlier in the day, provides us with one explanation.
“I did very significant things in science, like finding and characterizing the two genes that are components of the glue of the spider web,” he says. “It was very exciting, a real breakthrough that appeared all over the world. I could have taken the research position I was offered at Tel Aviv University.
“But I really began to ask myself: What am I going to do for the rest of my life. Sit in a lab, surrounded by chemicals? Work with little test tubes of DNA? I decided that it just was no longer for me, and that I really wanted to be a teacher.”
After a stint of trying to teach science at a violence-ridden high school in Holon, Choresh found his way to Havruta.
“I have found this place to be very open minded, not so much restricted to the Education Ministry program and way of teaching and learning. I found this place more open... I can express my qualifications much more here than in any other place.
“I can develop new things here. I can show the kids ways of thinking in science, relate them to science. I could not do that in Holon, where I had to deal with a lot of discipline problems and violence. It didn’t fulfill my big dream.
“Here, I’m teaching my ninth-grade students the history and philosophy of science. I can’t imagine teaching such a beautiful subject in a regular high school in Israel. And the way we’re doing it is very creative and interactive. I’m not just lecturing, or giving them facts. I feel like I can do anything I want to do here.”
So how does a 14-year-old kid from Kfar Saba, Hadera or anywhere gain access to teachers like this? Theoretically, getting admitted to study at Havruta is a lot like getting into any one of a number of very prestigious small colleges in the US.
Prospective students first complete and submit an application form. If that looks good, they are called in for the first of a series of interviews and assessment activities with school staff. If those go well, recommendations follow.
A STUDENT’S grades are looked at, but only as part of the big picture, and not as a determining factor. The process is lengthy, complicated, daunting and perhaps a bit grueling, but Havruta staff say it enables them to find what they are looking for.
And what are they looking for? Well, one thing they’re not necessarily looking for is what the Education Ministry defines as a “gifted” child – one with an IQ of 135 or above.
“We’re looking at the candidates in a more holistic way, in the sense that they can excel in different ways. And it’s not just English, math and Hebrew,” says Avital. “We’re looking for people who have high learning potential – not necessarily across the board.
They might be weak in math, for example, but good in other things.”
“No. 2, we’re also looking for the capacity to develop leadership potential, which would show itself in social interactions, in communication skills, and in personality traits that you can see in these full days where we bring them here together in groups and see how they interact with each other.
“So if a kid has some kind of raw leadership potential, you’re going to see that. And it’s not necessarily in academic capacity. It’s something else that’s very diffi-cult to define, but you can identify it when you see it.
“The third thing we’re looking for is real motivation from the kid, and not just parents who want him or her to go to the best school. A kid who is willing to make the effort. He has to be really serious, and the admissions process tries to assess how serious a kid is – does he really want to be here?”
The next question is obvious: Once the kids have actually made it into Havruta, what do they get?
Well, the first thing they get is what everyone else gets, or is supposed to get: the full ministry highschool curriculum for matriculation – Hebrew, English, math, science, history, literature and so on – but with two major differences: 1. The subjects are taught in Havruta’s own way, with individual teachers given a remarkable degree of freedom and autonomy to choose how they wish to teach these subjects; and 2. the matriculation curriculum is seen not as a target to aim for, but rather as a baseline starting point.
Co-academic director Stern sums it up: “At regular high schools, the matriculation curriculum is the ceiling; here it’s the floor.”
Havruta adds its own custom-designed curriculum, comprising two four-year tracks.
The first of these, called “Journey through Israel,” involves both an extensive and intensive examination of Israeli society. In this one-full-day-a-week program, students are expected to spend the first year visiting different communities throughout the country; learn about institutions and centers of power during the second year; spend the third year learning about Israel’s rebirth as a sovereign nation, and devote the fourth year to learning how to bridge the differences between different groups in Israeli society, and between Israel and the Diaspora.
By the end of the first trimester last year, Havruta students had already visited the Druse town of Daliat el-Carmel and the Arab village of Kafr Kara, meeting with their peers for a joint session of learning and cross-cultural dialogue.
The second one-day-a-week curriculum track, Social Engagement, is a program of volunteerism and community service.
Last year, students were involved with disabled children, elderly people, the children’s ward at Ichilov Hospital, the Givat Haviva Ecological Center, and a turtle sanctuary. At the end of his or her four years at Havruta, each student is expected to present a project involving some form of social service or community involvement.
In addition, each trimester of the school year is kicked off with a week-long special program before regular classes begin.
The Writing and Thinking Workshop, for example, promotes both analytical thinking and written communication skills in a full-week program developed by Bard College in the US and adapted for Havruta in conjunction with Bard staff.
Students also study one elective subject per trimester such as philosophy, ecology, geography or music, and each student is expected to set aside three full hours a week for personal study.
As impressive as all this is, the school’s main strength is probably the amount of time and attention devoted to each student.
The kids start their long day meeting in small groups under the guidance of a mehanech. More than just a homeroom teacher, the mehanech serves as both mentor and role model, taking full responsibility for the academic, social and leadership development of each of his or her students. In addition, every student is entitled to optional afterschool hours with any of his or her teachers for one-on-one tutoring or counseling.
Like virtually everything else in Israel, however, Havruta has its vocal critics. Most of these focus on the annual cost of attending the school – which currently runs at NIS 35,000 – and charge Havruta with elitism and a desire to cater only to the rich.
On closer examination, the charge is unmerited. In its first year, over 40 percent of the school’s 46 students received scholarships averaging 75% of full tuition.
This year, says Avital, “Almost half of the students are on scholarships. Of those, 14 students are on full scholarships, studying here for free. We have 80 students, so that’s almost 20%. The others are on partial scholarships, depending on what their families can afford.”
Havruta also practices what it calls a “needs-blind” admissions policy, in which a student’s financial status plays no part in determining whether he or she is accepted.
The result is a culturally and economically diverse student body that represents a reasonably good crosssection of Israeli society.
Says Avital, “The kids come from different places. We only have one Arab student, but we are open to any kind of student, and I believe that in the coming years we will have more [Arabs]. We have religious kids, secular kids, rich kids, poor kids, Ethiopian immigrants, Russian immigrants, kids from cities and from moshavim.”
Other critics claim, in effect, that the unique quality of the curriculum and teaching methods ultimately does Havruta’s students a disservice, that the school’s overarching “differentness” creates an artificial bubble from which students will emerge unable to live as viable, effective Israeli citizens.
“Who says that regular school prepares you for life in Israel?” Stern counters. “I think the regular schools in Israel are more stressful and violent then real life in Israel. The schools are not mirrors of these problems, they are amplifiers.
“Our kids learn how to negotiate and how to talk, and how to change things. Not in a violent way; but they do learn how to fight and get what they want.
Isn’t that a good way to prepare them for life?” Adds Choresh, “I think regular schools are a mirror but what we are trying to do here is to change things, to be a model for change. You do this by offering something else, and hopefully it will be a model for other schools, then for the entire educational system, and, finally, for society as a whole.”
The third charge is a bit stickier. While many education professionals in Israel have shown an eager curiosity to visit Havruta, see what’s going on and perhaps come away with new ideas, others – as might be expected – have resented hearing their schools described as “regular” and denigrated by Havruta officials as some kind of grossly inferior “Brand X.”
Even a casual observer can’t help but notice the irony of Havruta founders demonizing an educational system of which they themselves are products.
Avital counters, “First of all, yes, we are products of the system. But speaking for myself, I’m a product of Israeli schools when they were better than they are today. I think that a lot of excellent Israeli kids today are excellent in spite of their schooling, not because of it – because of what they get at home, from their parents, and their own qualities.
“The idea of building the school emerged out of the shortcomings of the system. The need for this school is out there, when you look at what’s happening in the system.”
What about special afternoon enrichment programs, weekly pull-out programs for special students, and the full-time advanced classes sponsored by the ministry?
“They prove a point – that the need is there,” Avital responds. There are different ways to address the need, and those are partial solutions. We’re more radical. In a sense, we’ve said that we don’t want to take the typical Israeli school and improve it with patchwork. We want to redesign the Israeli school for the 21st century.”
WHETHER OR not the founders and staff of Havruta are able to do that, of course, remains to be seen. After one full year in the trenches, however, do they think that they are at least on track?
Says Avital: “We believed when we planned the school that if the kids were put into a situation where they had to be active learners, eventually they would realize the benefits of it and become better students. That happened over the first year. It didn’t happen immediately, but by the end of the year they were completely different in the way they approached learning.
“Before, they thought that learning was about coming to school, listening to the teacher, taking notes and passing the exam. Today, they’ll tell you that learning is about understanding, about research, about trying to figure out how things are interconnected, and so on.
“It took time for us to do this, but it took less time than we thought. Just one year.”
The founders’ one disappointment revolves around numbers. At present, there are 21 excellent teachers, a world-class curriculum, highly innovative programs and only 80 kids. “Israeli parents will sit home and complain about the educational system, but when it actually comes to making a decision and taking responsibility for their kids’ education, they’re not there yet,” says Avital.
“On the other hand, if you talk to the parents of the kids who are here, you’ll hear endless superlatives about the changes they can see in their kids over the past year. And they think it’s a wonderful school.”
The founders and staff are optimistic, however, expecting Havruta to grow to 130 students next year, and 200 the one after.
Whether Havruta succeeds in transforming Israeli education or not, one thing is certain. We have not heard the last from this fascinating and very different new school.

For further information about the Havruta High School for Leadership and Culture, call the school office at (09) 891-3211.