Promoting excellence in the periphery

As I write this, my son is taking the second stage of testing for joining the Israel team for the International Physics Olympics. The first stage was held at schools throughout the country, with several thousand eleventh graders taking part in the context of physics classes. About 400 students from 152 different schools from Eilat to Ma’alot passed the test and were invited to take the second test, which is being administered in 11 different centers from Be’er Sheva to Carmiel. The students from Eilat had to spend 3 hours in a bus before taking the test, and will return late tonight. Lucky for him, my son studies at a boarding school in Jerusalem, one of the testing locations. But then again, he has to take a 4-hour bus ride to school every other week.

The official directive of the Ministry of Education (“Hozer Mankal“) regarding gifted and talented education states that “equal opportunity in education means providing appropriate education according to the needs of each child, including the gifted and talented. Cultivation of the gifted and talented aids not only the students themselves, but the entire society, for as adults these students will be able to push society to new horizons in all walks of life.” (My translation.) The statement goes on to describe the different frameworks, recommending enrichment for younger children and separate G&T classes for high school. These classes can be opened only in districts with at least 450 children at each grade level. Students in districts without such a class can go to the nearest appropriate class, with travel paid by the Ministry of Education.

Between these noble goals and the reality of their implementation throughout the country lies a wide gulf. Just as there is no site for the Physics Olympics test south of Beer Sheva, there is also no gifted and talented class south of Beer Sheva. Most Israelis do not even understand that this is a problem. Beer Sheva is in the South, right? Well, actually it’s in the center. Take a map of Israel and fold it in half. (If you don’t have a paper map, go into Google Earth and find the midpoint between Eilat and Kiryat Shmona.) The line that cuts Israel at its center starts in the east between Ein Gedi and Massada, continues just north of Rahat and through Netivot, reaching Gaza between Be’eri and Re’im. Be’er Seva is about 15 km south of the central line, and nearly 200 km north of Eilat. Yes, the areas that come to mind when we think of “the South” are actually dead in the center of the country.

While 50% of the land mass in Israel lies from Be’er Sheva southward, the same is not true regarding the population.  If the G&T tests are fair and the population distribution is equal, there should be about 135 G&T high school students south of Be’er Sheva, spread out over hundreds of square kilometers. For such a scattered population, local classes are not the answer.

Keeping all this in mind, it was clear to us that sending our son to the Israel Arts and Sciences Academy (IASA) was the best option, and we have not regretted it for a moment. Unfortunately, it is also an expensive option – NIS 20,000 tuition + 15,000 room and board a year without scholarships. Not counting transportation. Considering that the Ministry of Education has stated clearly that this is the recommended educational framework for my son, we applied for a scholarship – and received about 20%. This helps, but still we have to pay a lot. Since the directive states that the Ministry of Education will pay for transportation, I requested funding for the bus between Samar and Jerusalem. But the “small print” says that for students at boarding schools, the dormitory is considered the child’s home, and therefore there are no transportation costs.

REALLY?!? Let’s say that I really do not want to see my son — the school closes every other weekend and every holiday. He cannot stay there! No, Ministry of Education, my son’s home is in my house at Kibbutz Samar, not in his dormitory.

So after the high words of the G&T education directive discussing the importance of fostering these students for their own sake and as a means to encourage progress in the larger society, we discover that this is not a priority for the periphery. Six students at IASA live south of Be’er Sheva – out of the potential 135. The remaining 129? Some of them are receiving a decent education at their local schools. But even then, if they want to go further – say, take part in the Physics Olympics — they have to travel hours at their own expense.Others are in different enrichment programs. Some have not been identified, and their potential is being wasted.

This is an important issue as we see headlines about failing industries in the South along with increasing population density in the center (well, actually north) of the country, and growing tensions with the Bedouin. If we want to develop the South as an attractive alternative for young families looking for affordable housing, if we want to raise the current populations of the South – both Jewish and Bedouin — to economic security, we must offer educational opportunities that will develop the most talented. Giving a full scholarship to a school like IASA for all the G&T students in the South will cost less than NIS 5 million a year. It sounds like a lot of money. Actually, it’s 0.7% of the NIS 630 million that Bennett was promised in the coalition agreement.

Who wants to bet that it won’t happen?

Let’s start with holding these exams all over the country and then paying for transportation for the kids who pass them.


About the Author
A member of Kibbutz Samar, Marjorie has lived in the Arava since 1987, working as a dairy farmer, treasurer, grant writer, and chief cat-herd. She currently directs the Southern Arava Agricultural Research and Development Center. Marjorie is married, with three children aged 12-22. She grew up in NJ and holds a BA from Cornell University and an MSc in agricultural economics from Hebrew University.