Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society

Re-calculating our expectations

Student choosing a book for independent reading from the classroom library. Fall, 2017 (Courtesy of ICEI).
Student choosing a book for independent reading from the classroom library. Fall, 2017 (Courtesy of ICEI).

So it’s time, most likely after too much ice cream and too much sun, to grudgingly get back to our routine. As we send our children back to school, organizing their calendars and filling their backpacks with supplies, it’s a good time to think about kids returning to classrooms all around the country. And even as we take pride in our own children’s successes, we can’t avoid fundamental questions about our education system: how much academic success is related to chance?

We see in Israel, as in other countries, that especially stubborn statistic – a direct link between socio-economic background and future academic and professional achievements. And for certain communities, such as the Ethiopian community in Israel, this unfortunate pattern has remained largely stuck in place for years.

Thankfully, though, there are lots of educators who won’t give up on this. They keep reminding us of that all-important adage: “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.” And they recognize that one of the first steps to giving opportunity is to equip children as early as possible with the basic skills – reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Young writers holding the recently published ‘Stories at the Center’ at Israel’s National Book Fair in Tel Aviv. They received awards at the annual ICEI writers competition and subsequently had their stories appear in ‘Stories at the Center’. Spring, 2019 (Courtesy of ICEI).

Educators like those at the nonprofit Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI) are all about equalizing opportunity, employing an educational approach that first gives children the freedom to fall in love with books on their own terms. ICEI has been quietly transforming elementary schools that were performing at the bottom of standardized tests, turning them into successful high-achieving schools. Their success has been dramatic, shaking up the widespread acceptance of low expectations. The data tells the story, showing significant improvement in the academic scores for Ethiopian-Israeli and thousands of other low income, at-risk children participating in ICEI programs.

This Fall, educators at ICEI will be even busier. Building on its ongoing partnership with the Ministry of Education, ICEI was one of the few organizations selected to participate in a new ‘Turnaround’ Program, called ‘Mahapach’, a nationwide effort to improve the outcomes of underachieving elementary schools. Now, after working in more than 25 schools in partnership with local municipalities- including, Ramle, Ashkelon, Rishon Lezion and Bnei Ayish- ICEI is expanding to Holon, Acco, Kazrin and Afula.

And just like when we teachers organize our checklists, ICEI comes prepared. Their principles for helping schools to undergo needed transformation include:

Invest heavily in elementary schools (catch up is much harder later).

Let children progress at their own pace (keeping their curiosity and confidence intact is key).

Continually track kids’ progress on reading and writing skills (no surprises needed at the end of the year).

Give teachers needed professional development, including an on-site literacy instructional coach (coaches helping in practice always beats in theory).

Support principals to carry out school wide change (real-life problem solving requires resources, mentors and a network).

Bring in parents and the local communities as partners (supporting children’s learning at home is a win-win).

And just one more major point-

Surround kids by books to spark their interest (no explanation required here, right?)

From this checklist, the last principle is one of the most visible changes. Each of the ICEI -affiliated schools transform its classrooms into mini libraries, with hundreds of books lining the walls, categorized by skill level and available for kids to explore. And this idea of creating classroom libraries is just one of the many ideas that has percolated from different directions over time.

In the classroom, designed to resemble a reading and writing workshop, students gather on the carpet for a mini-lesson in reading. Spring, 2017 (Courtesy of ICEI).

ICEI’s approach is a combination of experimentation, adaptation, and exposure to a variety of methods through years of partnerships both here and abroad. The initiative for ICEI started back in 2005, when the Moriah Fund, led by Mary Ann Stein in the US and Don Futterman in Israel, set out in search of a new way to break the cycle of low educational achievement among the Ethiopian-Israeli community and its link to poverty rates.

One of their first partners was the Ethiopian-Israeli-led Fidel Association, (“Fidel” means alphabet in Amharic) and together they built a community outreach component based on Fidel’s parent liaison program that is still used today. Reducing a sense of alienation with the school system, after a series of missteps, was a key piece in the puzzle.

Students from the Yavnieli School in Rehovot participate in Sigd holiday celebrations, as part of ICEI’s programs of engagement with local communities. November, 2018 (Courtesy of ICEI).

And they continued to do their homework, looking towards Don’s hometown of New York City and connecting to leaders in the field at the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), who had led dramatic success in previously underperforming public schools around the city.

And within a year, a last-minute opportunity arose to introduce then Minister of Education Yuli Tamir to these turnaround schools. A one-day site visit to various New York City public schools, particularly those located in low income communities and often with many immigrants or second language learners, turned out to be enough to make the case. Shortly thereafter, the Ministry gave a green light to ICEI for a pilot project.

Project of the ICEI’s ‘Atzmaut ‘(Independence) Plus program – which supports many of the Ethiopian-Israeli families whose children study in ICEI schools. It helps parents on topics related to employment, finances and family relations in an effort to boost the academic outcomes of their children (Courtesy of ICEI).

With their focus on using literacy to boost school improvement, ICEI then teamed up with The Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City (TCRWP), under the leadership of Prof. Lucy Calkins, who pioneered nationally recognized techniques for teaching writing and reading in the ‘workshop’ model of instruction.

Classroom libraries was just one of the ideas that helped inspire their work here. Other innovative ideas to make their way across the ocean included full time, on-site literacy coaches for teachers – a first in Israel – replacing periodic off-site trainings. Another example was enabling teachers to individualize their instruction, thereby allowing children to read at their own level as they gradually built their confidence and skills.

ICEI Board Member, Prof. Alice Shalvi, giving the 6th grade first place prize at ICEI’s Fifth Annual Young Writers Competition. February, 2018 (Courtesy of ICEI).

Partnership has continued to characterize ICEI’s work. Along with its ongoing relationship with the Ministry of Education, the Fidel Association and local municipalities, ICEI is part of the government’s New Way framework, which supports the integration of the Ethiopian community.

And dozens of foundations, Jewish community Federations and private and corporate donors are involved in supporting these efforts, helping ICEI to expand into new areas. Just as ICEI adapted their model to the instruction of Hebrew language, it will now adapt its approach to teach Arabic literacy in the Arab elementary schools in the upcoming years.

We have seen that elementary schools partnering with ICEI are helping kids to become readers and writers as a springboard to academic success. In doing so, they are both breaking expectations on statistical outcomes and raising expectations for what is possible.

And just like in class, should we now review our ‘takeaways’?

Invest in early education and measure progress. Check.

Encourage children’s innate curiosity and joy of reading. Check.

Support teachers, parents and school leadership. Check.

And let’s add one last one:

Keep reminding and showing everyone that talent is universal. Check.

ICEI students, staff members of Atzmaut Plus, and ICEI partners from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and Mary Ann Stein, Don Futterman, and Ephraim Sidon, 2019 ICEI winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to Hebrew Children’s Literature in the middle. February 2019, Tel Aviv (Courtesy of ICEI).
About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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