Making the grade

An innovative school in Haifa takes education far beyond the three Rs

Oded Hershko with some of his pupils on the first day of school at Nirim Elementary School in Haifa (photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
Oded Hershko with some of his pupils on the first day of school at Nirim Elementary School in Haifa
(photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
It’s the first of September and 134 children are holding 134 balloons in the school courtyard. When the sign is given, all at once, the balloons are released into the air, and the sky is covered with white.
“It is one of our traditions. Every student writes on the balloon their wish for the upcoming year, and together we send them to the sky,” says Oded Hershko (41), the principal of Nirim Elementary School in Haifa’s Neve David neighborhood.
The school has experienced a sharp rise in its enrollment, growing by 125% in only three years under Hershko’s management.
At the opening ceremony for the new school year, Hershko, who knows every student personally, welcomed the newcomers.
Although he is now an educator, Hershko’s path to study medicine was obvious to everyone who knew him. “I come from that kind of home. My dad is a doctor, as are my uncle, my brother and three of my four cousins.”
Hershko’s father is Avram Hershko, the 2004 Nobel laureate in chemistry who discovered ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation. His uncle, Chaim, was the director of the internal medicine department in Shaare Zedek Medical Center for more than 20 years.
“There was a big push for excellence at home, and it seemed only natural that I would become a doctor,” he says.
“During my military service I held medical positions. I was a combat medic for two years and then an instructor in the IDF medic school. During my academic studies in medicine I always had the conviction that I want to be doctor. Ever since I was young I had this fantasy of going around and seeing patients, giving each of them my full attention.”
Yet at some point, the picture that Hershko portrayed to himself started to crack.
“I was excelling in all of the exams, but I felt that I would be a great doctor, but not an excellent one. There was one main event where I started understanding that medicine is not the field I wanted to dedicate my life to.
“One day, when I was still in medical school, a horrible car accident suddenly happened outside my house. At this point I was already qualified to assist the injured and that’s what I did. When the ambulance came to treat the wounded, I wiped the blood from my hands and continued as if nothing happened.
Then I realized that I lost empathy for people I work with, how the job that I am doing turns off my feelings,” he says.
“I started wondering, but I continued my studies as planned. I reflected on the memory of the first time that I felt more than just ‘very good,’ when I felt ‘excellent.’ That was when I was an instructor at the IDF medic school. I derived such satisfaction from standing in front of a class passing on knowledge.
I loved the feeling of being appreciated by my students,” Hershko recalls.
Indeed, Hershko has strong roots in education as well.
His grandfather, Moshe Hershko, was a teacher and the author of the Israeli math books for elementary school.
“While studying, the image of grandpa – the head of the family and the great educator – was always with me. The atmosphere at home was always more than just chasing after achievements. He wanted us – my dad and uncle and his grandchildren – to be excellent in what we do.
“When I finished medical school it hit me. I felt the lack of satisfaction keenly.
I contacted Ariella Bahlalul-Dimand, the Open School director in Haifa, and I started teaching a few hours a week, alongside my hospital work. Their method of teaching captivated me. It was nothing like the education system I knew as a student. She (Ariella) created a place where students come every morning with smiles on their faces.”
From a couple of hours a week, teaching became his primary occupation, and after five years as a teacher he was asked to be the director of Nirim School. The school is located in what is regarded as a tough neighborhood, a majority of whose residents are immigrants from former Soviet Union countries and Ethiopia.
“It’s a neighborhood with a bad image. They don’t have the money they have in other places, but it’s a wonderful neighborhood. There is a lot of love and warmness here. Everyone knows each other like in the ‘good old days,’ and it’s important to me to remind them of that and to reflect it in my work here,” he says.
Hershko says that applying here what he learned in the Open School has caused a revolution in the way students are treated.
“There are more ‘professional teachers’ here that teach only a certain subject. Everyone takes part in the educational process. I have initiated a system where every class has two educating teachers. It makes the connection between the staff and the children much more personal.”
He also changed the evaluation system.
“How are kids supposed to feel when they are told that they are ‘not enough’ [equivalent to an “F” in the United States]? We have adopted a system in which every student receives an evaluation notebook. In it, every teacher writes a full page of an honest evaluation. It takes a lot from the staff, but it is much more rewarding for the students.”
The most notable thing in the school is the animals.
“To be honest, it started as a small caprice of mine, when I brought my dogs here. It led to bringing here an aquarium and then it caught momentum. Now we have six petting zoos with roosters, ferrets, fish, reptiles, rodents and birds.
Even the Safari in Ramat Gan asks us for help sometimes,” Hershko noted during a tour between the petting zoos.
“What the animals are doing for the kids,” says Hershko with excitement, “is just amazing. It evokes compassion from them. The lack of judgment the animals have has a tremendous effect.
We tend to forget as adults that children always feel like they are being judged. A dog will never laugh at you for being bad at football, or yell at you for not doing your homework. At a certain point we made it an obligatory class – every kid meets the animals at least two hours a week,” he says.
The cultural component also plays an important role at Hershko’s school.
“You would have thought that because of the different ethnic origins there would be cliques and mutual hatred here, but there is none. We have created an atmosphere of togetherness; you don’t see racism here. We also started traditions in order to know each other’s heritage. For instance, we celebrate the Jewish-Ethiopian Sigd holiday here 50 days after Yom Kippur.”
Hershko looks ahead. “My next objective is to expand this co-existence outside of school. I wish to extend the animal element and create a bridge with other religions and ethnic groups. We live in a city with six different religions – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druse, Baha’i and Ahmadis; my next goal is to bring them here too.”