March 4, 2009

Education Initiative is Leveling the Playing Field for Disadvantaged Children in Israel

Naomi was just two years old when her family emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel, eventually settling in Bat Yam, a coastal town close to Tel Aviv. In many ways she and her family have faced experiences common among Ethiopian-Israeli immigrants: the family is economically disadvantaged, Naomi’s parents struggle with speaking Hebrew, and she had a hard time relating to other kids.

When Naomi first joined JDC’s Weitzman-Albert Education Initiative, she was afraid to speak and spent much of her time alone. Emotional problems hampered her studies; she would define every animal, no matter what color or kind, as a rabbit.

The Initiative, pioneered by JDC together with Jane and Stuart Weitzman and Ruth Albert, provides a highly enriched and supportive school environment to help at-risk children overcome their disadvantage, including socioeconomic, language, and other barriers to success. The Initiative is currently being piloted among 175 first through third grade students at Bat Yam’s Harel School.

As a result of small class sizes; a variety of academic, social, cultural, and developmental enrichment activities such as science instruction, music, and tennis lessons; and the availability of therapies to meet specific needs, today children like Naomi are thriving.

Thanks to an extended school day of 2.5 hours of extracurricular instruction and activities five days a week, these children—many of whom live with single parents who are not home to receive or feed them after school, or are immigrants whose parents do not have the Hebrew skills to help them with their school work—benefit from a nurturing environment that encourages their growth and development. They also get extra literacy support, such as vocabulary building, and individual attention from additional teaching staff that work with small groups of students, often through drama and theater.

In Naomi’s case, the Initiative’s speech therapist helped her increase her vocabulary and learn how to better express herself. But it was only when Naomi began to participate in the Initiative’s Tennis Excellence Program—spearheaded by the manager at the Bat Yam Tennis Center—that she really began to progress developmentally.

Since beginning the tennis program in early 2008, Naomi’s confidence has skyrocketed. Her peers refer to her as “one of the fastest runners ever.” This support and encouragement, combined with being one of 10 students selected to participate in the Tennis Excellence Program twice a week, gave Naomi the acknowledgment she needed to feel comfortable expressing herself for the first time in her young life. Naomi even started speaking about her passion for tennis with her classmates and parents using the vocabulary she learned in her speech therapy sessions.

Through the dedicated resources and efforts of JDC’s Weitzman-Albert Education Initiative, achievements that once seemed unattainable for Naomi have become a reality. She has learned to identify most animals by their names and express her thoughts in class; she smiles constantly.

Thrilled with her daughter’s progress, Naomi’s mom said, “I am willing to do anything in order to ensure Naomi’s success!” So is the Education Initiative, which received a boost of encouragement when the Harel School was recently awarded a Ministry of Education Prize for Educational Excellence.

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