From the outside, the brown stucco exterior and flat architectural lines of the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv are uninspiring. The building blends in well with its impoverished gray surroundings, where row after row of stained concrete housing blocks eventually lead to the nearby crime- and drug-infested central bus station. Following security regulations in Israel, a dour female security guard is posted at the school’s entrance in front of glass doors with thick iron bars.
Outraged by the fact that no one informed her of my arrival, the churlish guard reluctantly led me inside after I had shown my identity card and signed the visitor’s roster. She fastidiously locked each door behind us, swinging her keys from a metal ring as we walked.
Inside, the similarities to a maximum security prison faded quickly. The walls were decorated with art exhibits, the paint looked fresh, the floors were clean and the classrooms were quiet. A square interior courtyard with an enormous white statue in one corner opens onto the cafeteria one level below. Outside the managerial offices, colorful self-portraits drawn by young students hang next to bright green trees with long, quivering leaves in honor of the recent Tu B’Shevat holiday.
It may not lay claim to the upscale luxuries of a private academy in the northern suburbs, but the school far exceeds expectations for one with such a problematic population. There are 750 students enrolled here with 48 different countries of origin, the vast majority of these students from the lowest socio-economic sectors of Israeli society.
“When the municipality decided to combine the decrepit Bialik lower school with the democratic Rogozin high school and put them all in this building in 2005, they told me it would be easy. I accepted the challenge to oversee the merger,” said Karen Tal, the director of the Bialik-Rogozin School for the last three years. “One minute after I walked into the school and saw the state it was in, I regretted it.”
The students were violent. The teachers were worn out. The building was filthy. There were no behavioral norms to follow or rules to respect. It was total anarchy. Yet, Tal decided to meet the challenge for three reasons. She saw love in the teachers’ eyes and knew that despite the hardships, they were committed to making a difference. The municipality agreed to stop threatening the school with constant closure, and she received critical financial backing from three sources: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (in cooperation with the Chais Family — since then badly hit by the Madoff Ponzi scheme — and the Rashi Foundations); an action committee headed by Rina Zamir that includes support from high-tech companies and business leaders like Yossi Vardi and Dov Lautman; and the Tel Aviv municipality and the Israeli government.
“When I arrived, eight teachers wanted to take a sabbatical. This year, no one wants to leave for a year,” Tal said. “This is an indication of our progress, but I am not doing this alone.”
Above her, a signed document showing support and recognition from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hangs on the wall. Last June on his visit to the school, he was impressed by its development and touched by the students, many of whom must overcome poverty, abuse and hunger to stay in school.
Already unusual by Israeli standards because it educates so many different ages under one roof (kindergarten through 12th grade), the Bialik-Rogozin Campus has several other unique tenets that Tal says have led to its overwhelming success. Rather than closing its doors at 1 p.m., the school is open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. in order to provide a safe, stable environment for students, as well as the opportunity to forge stronger relationships with parents.
“We want to be like a home, and a home doesn’t close at 1 in the afternoon,” said Tal. Thanks in part to the L.A. Federation, in its third year of giving $100,000 a year, the school also provides an evening ulpan for children and parents who don’t speak Hebrew, extracurricular music, art, sports and cultural activities for the students, educational testing and intervention, diagnostic testing for children in need and hot lunches. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation of Los Angeles funds breakfast for 165 kindergarten and first-grade students every day, and Los Angeles-based Jewish World Watch provides funding for the Sudanese refugees that includes nutrition and trauma counseling. “No one told us how to do this,” Tal explained. “It’s our model.”
Based on the numbers, it seems to be working. When Tal first arrived, 25 percent of the students served in the army after graduation. Today, the figures stand at 68 percent. The success rate on matriculation exams went from 24 percent to 46 percent in the three years since Tal started. And although 60 percent of the students come from single-parent homes and nearly all of them are from extremely poor families on the margins of Israeli society, including foreign workers from the Philippines, new immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, refugees from Sudan as well as third-generation Israelis and Israeli Arabs, the dropout rate is currently 5 percent. And Tal points out that most of the students in this category leave because their parents cannot obtain working permits, not because they are dropping out of school.
“We have clear goals to develop the potential of these at-risk students and give them skills for life and opportunities to become working members of the community who know how to give back, and we’re meeting them,” Tal said.
“Despite the low starting point of our students, we’re closing the gap.”
Last year, in an unexpected turn of events, the municipality suddenly requested that the school accept 21 new Sudanese refugees, about 90 percent of whom couldn’t read or write in any language. Many of them were traumatized after witnessing their parents’ massacre and their homes burned to the ground and subsequently being forced to flee Sudan, travel through Egypt and eventually find a safe haven in Israel.
“We’re friends with the kids from Darfur now,” said Maor, a well-spoken 11th-grade student at the Bialik-Rogozin School who plans to serve in the army and then attend university. “We play with them, study with them and help them with their Hebrew. That’s what’s beautiful about this school. You get to meet people from all over the world and see new faces.”
Currently the subject of an HBO documentary film focusing on the successful integration of such a diverse student body in Israel, including the 21 Sudanese refugees who arrived at the beginning of last year without any formal education and no Hebrew, the school has become a model for educating at-risk children around the country.
Although most of the Sudanese refugees do not show more signs of psychological difficulties than their peers and are eager to learn, Tal will soon have another hurdle to jump. The government recently decided to bar the Sudanese parents from working in Tel Aviv and its environs, which will force their children to move yet again.
“Where will they go now, after they’re just getting settled?” she asked. She explains that both the strict ethics code and the intensive focus on the staff’s continuing education and learning through weekly seminars are what make the difference when faced with the challenges of trying to unify such diverse sectors of the population who share neither cultural norms nor languages nor religions.
“We help develop the skills of our staff to make them better therapists and educators by dedicating time once a week to delving deeper into a discipline with a guest expert,” Tal said. “We need to always have our hand on the pulse and always be learning ourselves, in order to really be good teachers.”
In one kindergarten class, the diversity is immediately apparent. Russian, Ethiopian, Israeli, Israeli Arab, Filipino, Nigerian and Sudanese children formed a circle on the floor around the teacher, who was asking what they enjoy doing with their families.
“I like to ride on the bike with my father, but we don’t do it anymore,” said an eager Filipino boy.
“Why not?” asked the teacher.
“Because someone stole it.”
The teacher expressed her dismay and gave a mini-lecture about how wrong it is to steal before a blonde Russian girl raised her hand to tell her story. She loves to draw butterflies with her mother.
Despite the relative harmony on the surface, inevitable problems arise that Tal is constantly trying to combat with her most powerful weapon: education.
“We are teaching human rights now. We want our students to understand that there are no differences between foreign workers, Israelis, Arabs, Jews, Christians and Muslims,” she said. “We are all the same, and we all deserve the same rights. Even during the war with Gaza we didn’t have as many problems as I expected, because we’re getting through to them.”
With many of the philanthropic organizations deeply hurt by the Madoff scandal, Tal is fearful of losing critical funding for next year. Nevertheless, for now she’s optimistic. “If you’re not optimistic about education, you shouldn’t be here.”