An Israeli touch

Recognizing the importance of early childhood education, two women set out to implement change in Ghana.

Israeli Help in Ghana521 (photo credit: Maxine Dovere)
Israeli Help in Ghana521
(photo credit: Maxine Dovere)
NEW YORK – They are two women divided by age, background and personal experience. But Janette Hirshmann and Gladys Amaning, of Israel and Ghana respectively, have jointly developed a visionary program to provide this and future generations of Ghanaian preschoolers with the initial tools needed to achieve their full potential.
Hirshmann, 82, made aliya from apartheid South Africa in 1953. She is a master teacher of children, the former director of the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa.
She has taught children with special needs and the hearing impaired, and she has planned courses for educators from around the world. She now works with MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) to create outreach programs.
Amaning, more than three decades younger than Hirshmann, is the director of education for the metropolitan district of Kumasi in Ghana. She holds a BA in home economics and a MA in education.
She came to Israel to learn from Hirshmann.
They are colleagues, partners and friends.
“It was love at first sight,” Hirshmann says.
Hirshmann and Amaning recently brought news of their preschool education project in Ghana, the Kumasi Haifa Training Program, to an event at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.
In 2002, Kumasi, Ghana’s secondlargest city, recognized the importance of preschool education and set a goal of providing primary education for every child.
Then, in 2006, the city was designated to be a Millennium Initiative City, which allowed it to move forward with its ambitious plans.
“Until then, national early childhood education was a bone of contention,” Amaning says. “Teachers were not trained. The setup was a mess.”
The MCI designation provides a framework, advice and connections but does not provide financial assistance – that is where Israel came into the picture. The head of MCI in West Africa, Abenaa Aboateng, met with MASHAV and came to the Golda Meir Training Center at Israel’s Mount Carmel. After reviewing the program and visiting Israeli kindergartens, Aboateng invited MASHAV to partner in developing the Kumasi Early Childhood Education project. The State of Israel agreed to participate and fund the training programs.
Hirshmann and her Israeli colleague, Aviva Ben-Hefer, visited Kumasi to “find out what was on the ground.” What they saw was not encouraging. Very young children seated on hard benches, spending long days in dark, stark, overcrowded classrooms, harshly disciplined by a teacher equipped with a whipping cane.
Hirshmann and Ben-Hefer asked what Hirshmann called a “simple” question in Ghana: “What can we do to help?” The answer was more complex.
IN 2008, five Ghanaian educators, led by Amaning, took part in the Kumasi Haifa Training Program, under the auspices of the MCI. For three weeks they learned both theory and practical application at the Mount Carmel Center with a group of 25 African educators, including Nigerians, Kenyans and Ethiopians. Participants, explained Hirshmann, pay only for airfare, while the Israeli government pays for everything else, including touring throughout Israel. The teaching is “very practical, very diverse,” she says.
“For many, it was a first exposure to preschool education – a new experience for the teachers,” Hirshmann says.
For more than 25 years, the Mount Carmel Center has brought Israeli expertise to countries all over the world. Still, even with teacher enthusiasm, implementing an educational program across cultures is not easy. Amaning says, “We have to plan very well, to send the whole concept and adapt it to use in Kumasi.”
She and her colleagues photographed Israeli classrooms “to let the public know what we have seen.” Upon her return to Kumasi, she called directors and head teachers who had been chosen to lead the program.
“They became excited and interested – and decided to adapt and implement the program.... It was not easy. This was an entirely new concept,” she says.
When the teachers saw the pictures of Israeli classrooms, Amaning says, “They thought they were in a different world.”
“Is that what kindergarten looks like?” the teachers asked, according to Amaning.
The teachers had to understand that children learn by playing.
“Teachers put theory to the test and practiced by acting like children,” Amaning says. “The teachers had a great time laughing and talking, doing role playing, then setting up classrooms. They got the concept.”
Teachers returned to their classrooms in Ghana and began setting up a new environment. Despite their enthusiasm, they were terrified of losing control. But the reaction of the children – enthusiastic, cooperative, and involved – convinced the teachers of the value of their new approach.
“The children had a ball, so did the teachers,” says Amaning.
“There is a total turnaround in Kumasi’s early childhood education,” she adds.
ALTHOUGH THE joint Israel-Ghana program remains underfunded – teachers have incorporated new teaching methods into the classroom using mostly local materials – absenteeism, both of teachers and children, has dropped dramatically.
“Everybody is interested,” Amaning says. “Children want to come to school, teachers want to teach. The program has changed the community. Parents got to know their children, teachers are better able to communicate and establish better relationships. Children talk about what goes on at home.”
Hirshmann and Amaning agree that change does not happen instantly. In four years, 130 teachers of the Kumasi metropolitan area have been trained through the Israel-Ghana program, but there was no foundation on which to build. Many of the concepts the program introduces are new and complex.
“We are still in the process,” Amaning says.
Asked what was most needed to advance the preschool program, Amaning says, “We need money in Kumasi. The children don’t have books or materials. What we need is material support.”
She explains that most classroom materials in Kumasi are self-created by teachers, who pay out-of-pocket.
“We need help,” she says. “We need a resource center, a library. Our dream is that all the children in Ghana will have the opportunity to have a good start in life.”
By this past February, the number of Ghanaian professionals who have participated in Israeli MASHAV training courses had reached such a critical mass that the Embassy of Israel in Accra (Ghana’s capital) launched a MASHAV alumni network in Ghana, the “Shalom Club,” to encourage the continuing exchange of ideas and experiences.
“We love Israel,” Amaning says. “Israel is changing children’s lives.”