Kids Need PUSH

Abandoned by the State: what can we do to help those who cannot afford but greatly benefit from private tutoring.

Proficiency in English as a second language is essential for all Israelis who graduate our school system. In today’s global economy, English became the LINGUA FRANCA, the main language of most information and knowledge resources, as well as the main highway for online international correspondence. This is especially true for a small but aspiring economy like Israel’s, but we are not alone. Explaining why Denmark, for example, preferred English to German despite the proximity of Germany’s huge economy, Danish minister of education simply said: we are a small nation in a vast economic world. However, throughout my career, I found out time and again that, though we are surrounded by English-language media and culture, many Israelis, including brilliant professionals, politicians, senior officials, and army officers, refrain from reading, let alone writing, in English and communicate embarrassingly poorly when they have to use English.

I was lucky. A daughter of holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, I was not exposed to English in my early childhood. However, my English teachers in Hareali School in Haifa had constantly stressed and focused on grammar, giving us never-ending exercises of tenses, syntax and idiomatic forms, as well as unending reading assignments. English was the only language allowed in English classes, as well as using only English-English dictionaries.  Some of our mythological teachers were famous for their scary and chilling effect on students, but I will always be grateful to them and to the system that pushed us up relentlessly. This basis in English helped me later in life to expand my vocabulary on my own and to avoid grammatical errors.

To be sure, there are those brightest Sabras of our start-up nation who are fluent in English and can read and write easily using rich vocabulary.  They never miss an opportunity to chat with English native-speakers. Still, many go through high school with the help of costly private tutors in English and math; they will later attend college, avoiding English reading as much as they can, limiting their sources to Hebrew summaries of English materials, which had always been hot merchandize on the campus. Eventually, they will manage somehow, but some will have to work on their language skills throughout their professional career.

Those who can have parental or familial assistance are not the focus of these lines. Our main concern is those who are most in need, mainly because their parents cannot afford private tutors. In most cases, the authorities provide no personal assistance to individual students. To be sure, politicians will always highlight their commitment to education before the election, claiming haughtily that education is an important aspect of our national strength.  Nevertheless, once elected, they will hardly do anything about it. Classes will remain overcrowded, and kids in need of individual attention will still be lost.

Last summer I was introduced to PUSH, a nonprofit organization of volunteers who focus on students in need of particular guidance. Founded in 2002 by Odelia Shpitlani, PUSH operates all over Israel, from Katzrin in the north to Eilat in the south, covering some 400 public schools and tutoring about 4,000 students from first to twelfth grades. Its main mission is to curtail the educational gap, giving students from all religions and genders equal opportunity by tutoring them in core subjects such as Math, English, and Hebrew. School staff who point out these students will factor-in both academic and socio-economic data. The 1,900 PUSH volunteers come from all walks of life and age groups. Their commitment is usually to coach one or two students in a weekly personal 90-minute meeting. Since most volunteers have no experience in education, the organization organizes enrichment lectures given by professionals on teaching in specific subjects; these events provide an opportunity to share ideas with other volunteers as well.

When I started, I did not know what to expect. I anticipated huge gaps, slow learning, and frustration. In fact, I met quite well-behaved two teenagers who knew very little English (though it was their fourth year of studying English) but their difficulty lay somewhere else. They were very insecure at school and had low self-esteem. They never dared to speak in class, convinced that they could not cope with the challenge of English. Other volunteers shared with me similar insights, saying also that more than the actual tutoring the personal touch with these kids and gaining their trust was more satisfying than any improvement of their actual grades.

At the end of the school year, I am not sure that my trainees have reached the level of English I was hoping for on my first week. They made progress but still have a long way to go. I hope I gave them a Push and, most importantly, that they gained self-confidence, knowing that they are capable of moving on and coping.

However, many more kids throughout Israel still need a push. Readers interested in helping out are invited to call +97235354965 or send a mail to push@pushedu.org

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has just been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after of full career of analysis and evaluation. She currently resides in Kfar Sava, Israel following a four-year stint in Copenhagen, where she joined her husband who served as Israel’s ambassador to Denmark.
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