Every educator’s dream

How the Mifras program is creating a platform for innovation in Israeli education.

Mifras program 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Mifras program 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
‘I think that everyone comes into education with a certain vision: what you want the education system to be like, who you want to be as an educator,” asserts Zehavit Goldman, principal of the Begin High School in Rosh Ha’ayin.
Goldman, whose school is the only state academic high school in the city, credits the Mifras Educational Entrepreneurship Incubator program with challenging her to examine herself and her school and decide what to change about them.
The Mifras program, established in 2012, began as a means of addressing the underlying disconnect that often exists between the education system and educators. Dr.
Bat Chen Weinheber, one of the program’s founders, says that while “the education system provides solutions for schools dealing with difficulties, those solutions often come from the outside.” Although there is tremendous “desire to help schools, knowledge and autonomy often do not trickle down to those in the field: namely, principals and teachers.”
The aim of creating Mifras, she says, was “to look at the education system from the inside out: to try to really involve those on the ground and look at what they believe in, and areas in which they want to move forward.”
And so last fall, 10 principals from across the country were selected to take part in the two-year fellowship program, which consists of bimonthly group meetings at which participants hear from leaders in the fields of education, development and management. In the first year of the fellowship, principals are asked to develop a new initiative for their schools, which they then implement the following year.
Though all participants come into the incubator with a preexisting idea of what their initiative will be, the concept and application of each project develop over the course of the program. In addition to providing general consultations and professional advice, Mifras equips each participant with an entrepreneur who serves as a personal tutor and mentor to assist that principal’s process.
“We began by sending an email to principals across the country, through the Education Ministry,” Weinheber says. To be eligible to participate in the fellowship, principals had to have been in their position for between three and six years. Mifras, she explains, “did not want principals who were too new, nor principals who were likely to leave the education system in the near future.”
Out of a pool of 100 applicants, 40 principals were interviewed for the fellowship’s pilot year.
Shlomi Irim, principal of Hatomer, a school for children with special needs in Ness Ziona, says it was after his interview and meeting the program’s staff that he became truly passionate about participating in the fellowship.
“Sometimes a principal might close his eyes and ask, ‘What would you do to move things forward at your school?’ When you open your eyes, everything you might want, Mifras has,” he says.
“There is no reason for you not to succeed.”
Goldman echoes Irim’s sentiments: “Mifras gives you an opportunity to dream and actualize your dreams. I’ve been working much harder than I was before, but I bless every moment since I came into the program.”
And the actualization of dreams is indeed occurring as the participating principals’ initiatives get under way. Najwa Farahat, principal of the Ahman Samah school in east Jerusalem, dreamed of giving her graduating students a better chance of matriculating into higher education. She recounts her pain at seeing recent alumni waiting for rides.
“Every day, I came to school, and I would see my [former] students with backpacks – except instead of being filled with books, they were filled with tools for work. It made me feel terrible,” she says.
Since Ahman Samah follows the Jordanian curriculum (known as the “targee”), many students – even those who attend high school – have difficulty matriculating into the Israeli higher education system.
To counter that, Farahat proposed a pioneer program that would allow students to complete the bagrut (matriculation exam) in the afternoon as a stepping stone to both higher education and increased social mobility.
“Unlike with the bagrut, on the targee it is hard for capable students who are not at the top of their class to succeed” she explains.
“There are no yehidot [differences in difficulty level] on the targee, nor does one have the option of retaking an exam in an attempt to improve one’s score.”
By creating an option for her students to obtain a complete bagrut, Farahat feels she is instilling in both her students and their families a feeling that nothing is outside the realm of possibility.
“To succeed, my students need support and someone who believes in them,” she says. “That is what we are trying to provide.”
Her after-school bagrut program began this fall, with 20 former students enrolled and interest in the program only growing. She says the support that Mifras has enabled the program to receive from the Education Ministry and its Arabic education director “is truly heartwarming.”
Since it is a pioneer initiative in an east Jerusalem school, her program is currently under consideration for expansion by the Education Ministry.
Irim, too, says his initiative stemmed from a desire to find an effective way of helping his graduates.
“When interacting with a person with special needs, it is common to want to provide them with support. However, when you give someone a hand, you’re not always helping him walk. You actually might be preventing him from doing so,” he notes.
After interviewing several alumni and their parents, he saw that many of his alumni were unable to integrate into their communities.
“We decided that to create the change we were looking for in our students, we had to change the way we thought,” he says. “It’s not about ‘changing the student,’ it’s about changing his environment, so that he will subsequently become more independent.”
Irim proposed renting an apartment in the center of town where students could – on a rotating basis and with supervision – live while in their last two years of high school.
“We believe that if students are able to develop basic life skills at a young age, their chances of becoming contributing and participating members of their community exponentially increases,” he says.
For younger pupils – beginning from fourth grade – the apartment could serve as a curriculum tool, he continues.
It would simulate independent living and expand the scope of students’ experiences to include activities such as grocery shopping.
Accompanying this initiative are coaching sessions for students’ parents, as the period after graduation can often be somewhat traumatic for parents.
The Education Ministry is working on expanding Irim’s initiative as well, with five special-education schools across the country planning to open similar apartments next year. Irim hopes to inspire lasting change in special education programs both nationally and internationally.
Of course, renting an apartment is not cheap, which makes the financial support Mifras fellows receive particularly significant. Though fellows are instrumental in fund-raising for their own projects, with the process still ongoing, each principal receives a budget of between NIS 75,000 and NIS 120,000 for his or her initiative.
“Everything starts and ends with a dream,” says Goldman. “If you have a dream, you have ambition. If you have ambition, you look for tools. Then you use those tools to try and realize your dream.”
She says that Mifras was helpful in every step of that process.
The seeds for her initiative grew out of a conversation she had with her own four children, who range in age from 21 to 32. Goldman says she realized they had not been taught basic decision- making techniques while in high school.
“Our students come to school, and 70 percent of the time they are learning passively in frontal lecture-style classes.
Ideas such as how to cope with conflicts and difficulties, and tools such as basic decision-making, are all too often ignored,” she observes. “We want our children to be leaders – of their communities and of their own families – and we, as a school, need to provide them with tools to make this happen.”
She began her enterprise by asking each of her senior students to write down two life skills they had received while in high school, and two life skills they had not acquired, but wanted to learn.
“I was very surprised,” she says, “because the skills that they were most interested in were not what I would have assumed [my students] would construe as important.”
The Education Ministry has two main platforms: that students should succeed academically (with a specific focus on the bagrut), and that they should be taught basic life skills. “I feel that sometimes we put too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter,” says Goldman.
One of the first things she did in her project was rearrange the distribution of the matriculation exams, having her students complete the majority in the 11th – rather than 12th – grade. This provides students with an opportunity to improve their scores over the summer and during 12th grade, rather than having to retake bagrut modules after graduation. She is also working on a program that would give a year-long psychometric exam preparatory course to 12th-grade students, which would conceivably enable them to take the exam before – rather than after – their army service.
In addition to the potential academic benefits, she felt that redistributing the matriculation exams would free up parts of the curriculum for students’ personal growth and the acquisition of basic life skills. Though she had thought the focus of her program would be on conflict resolution and decision-making, she found that her students were most interested in personal empowerment.
“They wanted to know how to get on their feet and continue to move forward,” she reports. “And we wanted to impart that every failure is a step toward success.”
Students also brought up concepts such as time management and managing their own finances.
“While self-awareness and financial responsibility will always be central components of our program,” Goldman explains, “each year we will build a new curriculum around our students and their perceived needs.”
The last component of her initiative was to give her students a greater familiarity with different parts of Israel.
Each year, she picks six points on the Israel National Trail, with a three-week curriculum focus on each location. In the fourth week, the students have the opportunity to visit the location in a two-day seminar. This way, students can tangibly expand their cultural and geographic knowledge of the country by seeing it with their own eyes and interacting with and being hosted by local residents.
Goldman says it is her sincere hope that “every principal in Israel has the opportunity to take part in [the Mifras] program. It turns on the light in teachers’ eyes.”
Though it is unlikely that every principal will take part in the fellowship program, Mifras does offer an “open workshop” that is available to principals around the country. The workshop, which officially began two months ago, has already worked with 20 principals nationwide. It offers educators a bank of up to eight personal consultation hours, educational materials on a variety of subjects, specialized lectures and seminars, and two hours of consulting with a content expert on the basis of need.
Weinheber says that while in the open workshop format, some principals will need more help than others, the program was created to provide them with “whatever help they need.”
She describes one principal in the North who, knowing that many of her students were unlikely to continue in traditional academics following graduation, wanted to provide them with the most appropriate skill sets. Weinheber says Mifras managed to furnish this principal with literature, general information and specific examples of schools that had dealt with similar situations.
“In the case of this principal,” she explains, “we’re not taking a lot of credit – [the principal] didn’t need much, but the fact that we were able to give a little, and share the information that exists with people in the field, is significant.”
In addition to the Education Ministry, Mifras’s partners include the Lautman Fund, the Beracha Foundation, JP Morgan, Keren Daniel, Villar International Ltd., Avney Rosha and the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. It is Weinheber’s hope that in the coming years, Mifras will continue to expand and be able to share Israeli education solutions with a global audience.
“I recently presented our program to a group from Germany. Israel has considerable experience with the absorption of new immigrants into the education system, both with and without Mifras,” says Weinheber, “and programs like Shlomi Irim’s can have applications for an international audience.”
It is not unlikely that Weinheber’s own dream will become a reality. At the end of her interview, Farahat says that earlier in the day, she met with a group of 25 principals and superintendents from South America.
“When I told them about the Mifras program, they couldn’t believe it,” she says. “They were really impressed.”
Irim says that for him, the bimonthly meetings of the fellowship program were a time to learn innovative information not only from presenters, but from the other fellowship participants as well.
“Hearing from the other principals puts you on a path to question the root of your goals and direction, and to question how you came to your idea,” he reports.
“Initially I didn’t think that these questions were significant, but Mifras made me realize how important it was to understand the underlying motivation of my initiative.”
One meeting that he found particularly moving was a discussion about breaking paradigms. In the meeting, the fellowship participants discussed whether society even needed schools in the traditional sense, and that perhaps with digital advancement, it made more sense for students to learn via computers and/or through homeschooling.
“The fact that we – a group of educators – were even having that conversation is remarkable,” he says. “That’s what Mifras does: It asks you to break preconceived notions, and it makes you feel that there is nothing that can stop you in achieving your goals.”
Goldman says that she, too, found the bimonthly meetings important.
“[They] presented us with different ways of thinking, examining the education system and ourselves, and assessing problems and their solutions,” she says.
“We were then able to continue the discussion with our own respective staffs, students and students’ parents.”
The participation of each school’s staff is an element that Farahat finds particularly meaningful.
“I sat with my staff when I began writing out my initiative, and in this sense, they were very much part of the process,” she says, adding that each principal’s staff had an opportunity to meet with the other Mifras fellowship principals and their staffs. “This gave them the opportunity to interact and learn from people they would have been unlikely to meet otherwise, making the Mifras program about more than just the principal.”
She also notes that the fellowship’s open Web forum enabled principals to continue their discussions outside the structured meeting times.
“There was no time that I left a meeting without new information or thoughts regarding what I would be doing at school the following day,” says Irim.
As in other forms of administration, he points out, a principal can often feel alone. “You have certain responsibilities toward your staff and students, and your role is to give support to others. This support is part of your position, but also means that during difficult times, you sometimes find yourself feeling somewhat alone.”
And that’s where Mifras comes in, he says – “to give you that support.”