If Israel is to remain the Start-Up Nation, it needs to make sure enough students are studying the science and math that are necessary for a career in computer engineering, cyber-security, virtual reality, and the other deep-tech areas in demand today, according to Karen Tal, who heads the Tovanot B’Chinuch program.
The country, she said, cannot afford to let any latent talent go to waste, even if the kids with that talent had the bad luck not to be born into middle-class and upper middle-class families.
“The best approach to encouraging kids to study science and math is to build a community in the context of junior high and high schools, where volunteers who are successful themselves can act as role models to kids and show them that there is a better way,” said Tal. “Unfortunately, this job is too great for the schools to take on themselves, so we intervene – with the cooperation of the school, the administration, and the Education Ministry – to develop a program that will inspire students to see themselves as being capable of success themselves.”
That there is a need for Tovanot is indisputable. Education Ministry statistics show that no more than 10% of Israeli high school students take on the full math course load (known as “five units” in Israeli high school jargon), which is generally required by universities for students who want to major in computer science and related subjects. In 2013, only 9,100 students studied math in depth, the statistics show.
Most of those students attend the country’s top high schools – the ones located in places like Kfar Shemaryahu, Herzliya Pituah, Ramat Aviv, and the tonier neighborhoods of Jerusalem – while many kids in the rest of Israel make do with the minimum math they need to take in order to get their matriculation certificates and graduate high school.
Among those less-favored districts is Holon, one of Israel’s largest cities and a stone’s throw from the Rothschild Boulevard tech district, an area bubbling over with high-tech firms large and small, from brand new start-ups to giants like Facebook and eBay. Three years ago, Tovanot began its program at Herzog High School in Holon, and in just that short period, said Dr. Dalia Guri, headmaster of the school, “I now have ten times more kids studying five math units than when they started – 78 instead of seven. And the more kids I have in five units, the more are inspired to join each subsequent year. The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous.”
Tovanot’s secret sauce is community involvement – and a total care program for kids who need extra help in order to concentrate on their studies.
“That could include feeding them lunch, because a lot of these kids do not get proper nutrition at home,” said Guri. “The Education Ministry provides meals only in elementary schools, and even there only in some of the schools. There is nothing for high schools.” Tovanot lined up donors who provide the school with sandwiches, removing at least one burden from their shoulders and enabling them to better concentrate on their work.
After seeing how the community responded, the Holon Municipality jumped in to fund the program.
“Government doesn’t always have the resources – or claims not to have the resources – to provide the services these schools need, but we have found that when people get involved, it motivates officials to get involved as well,” said Tal.
With that, she added, Tovanot does not get any support from the government, instead raising most of its money from Israelis.
“We are one of the few Israeli social service programs that gets almost all its funds from local resources,” she added. The program is also supported by many figures in the Israeli high-tech community, including Yossi Vardi, the “godfather” of Israeli high-tech.
The crown jewel of Tovanot’s community program is its mentoring/tutoring program, where high-tech workers, IDF soldiers, and professionals from the business world lend their time and skills to help kids study, and develop study habits. One of those professionals is Shimon Bart, who helps Tal and Guri with education policy, curriculum, finding help, and fundraising for the Herzog School program. Bart is the former CEO of Keter Plastics and ECI Telecom, both huge Israeli companies, leaders in their fields.
“The idea that a kid in a neighborhood like this would even want to go into high-tech is a miracle,” said Bart. “Most of them want to be trash collectors because that is considered a high-salary occupation in their circles.”
Despite its high-priced real estate and the attempts by city fathers to paint the town as a middle-class (even upper middle-class) suburb, Holon remains true to its working class roots, said Bart. “We may be very close to Tel Aviv, but the gap between people there and here is enormous. We want these kids to feel that they have a part in that world as well.”
One of Tovanot’s “customers” is 16-year-old Kfir, an eleventh grader studying computer engineering. Tovanot matched him with Tomer, an IDF soldier serving in one of the army’s high-tech units, and the two work together to help Tal understand the advanced math and science material.
“Many kids have a hard time keeping up. The class moves quickly because there is so much material to cover,” Kfir said. “Tomer not only helps me with the material, but he has helped me to develop better study habits.”
And from a tutorial relationship, a friendship has blossomed, said Kfir. “I enjoy spending time with Tomer – and when we study, it doesn’t feel like a chore.”
For Kfir, Tomer is more than a tutor, said Tal – he’s a role model.
“Kfir is very typical of the kids in this school,” she said. “His family is solidly working-class, and the idea of graduating from high school, much less going on to university, is definitely not a given. By developing a relationship with a successful role model like Tomer, Kfir can see life from a different perspective, and see himself as a part of that ‘other life.’”
Without Tovanot, Tal added, “it’s very unlikely that Kfir or many other kids like him would enroll in the five math units program. Even advanced students from families that value education need help from tutors, and Kfir’s family would be unable to afford that kind of help. But he gets it here, for free.”
Currently in about 20 schools in Israel, including three in the Arab sector – all of them in the geographical or social “periphery” – Tovanot has really made a difference at Herzog and the other schools, said Tal.
“A few years ago this school was at the bottom of all metrics, with barely half the kids getting their matriculation certificates, making them eligible to go to university. Today we are at over 70%, and chances are we will be over 80% this year or next. Ninety-eight percent of the kids now go to the army or national service, a tremendous increase over the previous numbers. We have similar statistics at the other schools we are involved with. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue and expand to even more schools.”