While Arizona high school students have to take a test called AIMS, Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, Israeli students need to face bagrut matriculation exams in at least eight subjects to finish high school with a degree recognized by the Israeli university system and used by the army and employers as an important criterion for selection into elite units or jobs. The exams are difficult, standardized and administered by Israel’s Ministry of Education. Unfortunately only about 50 percent of the country’s 12th grade students actually pass these all-important exams. Many students are not even eligible to take the exams if they received a grade lower than 39 in any required subject or 44 or lower in Hebrew grammar or composition.
In Kiryat Malachi, Tucson’s Partnership2Gether sister city, over 60 students every year are helped to pass their matriculation exams by a program supported by grants from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. The program, Tafnit (meaning change in direction in Hebrew), was created in 2001 by the Rashi Foundation as a way to help the weakest 20 percent of the class close educational gaps. Tucson has supported Tafnit’s “Last Hurdle” program, which helps students who have consistently failed one or more subjects. The program is based on the concept that all students can succeed. The students need to experience success and do so in numerous quizzes on the material covered in classes that take place after regular school hours. These afternoon classes are supplemented by marathons held during school vacations. Teachers are specially trained and supervised by the Tafnit program and the results have been truly impressive — over 95 percent of the students in the program pass their matriculation exams.
“This program has dramatically improved the percentage of students that pass their bagrut exams,” says Shimon Amar, the head of the Kiryat Malachi Education Department. “Tafnit has also improved the teachers in the program, providing them with vital skills that enhance their teaching ability and enable them to make real progress with the weaker students.”
The program also helps improve the students’ self-image, says Rabbi Yoel, head of Tafnit at the Amit State Religious High School in Kiryat Malachi. “Before entering the program most of these students don’t believe that they even have a chance to sit for the matriculation exams. They have either failed or barely passed most of their courses. They have never been strong students, are afraid to participate in class discussions, often disrupt the class, and have given up on themselves. They don’t expect to achieve any kind of success in their lives. Their own self-image in all aspects of life, not just in the academic area, is minimal. Suddenly, in Tafnit, they begin to taste success in small doses and then in greater and greater measures.”
Shira Hemou, a 12th grade student at Amit, validates Yoel’s claims. “I had been a very weak student and had been failing Hebrew language, both grammar and composition. This year, I am in the Tafnit program and took the Hebrew language matriculation exam last month and feel that I really knew the material. Before entering, I was worried about Tafnit and all the extra hours and work that it entailed, but the teachers were so encouraging and they gave me a feeling that I could succeed. Before Tafnit I didn’t want to try to take the matriculation exams, but I now feel that I can pass everything. I see how hard work, the marathons, and the good atmosphere really pay off.”
Tafnit is now the source of great excitement among Israeli educators and the Knesset education committee. Last year, Beit Jann, a Druze town in the Galil using Tafnit, rose to the third highest matriculation ranking in the country. The results for 2013, which will be released soon, will show that 100 percent of its students were eligible and passed the matriculation examinations. In 1999, Beit Jann had only 13 percent of its students taking the exams.
What Beit Jann accomplished can be also be achieved by other towns and Kiryat Malachi is definitely interested in adopting the full Tafnit program. Until now Tucson has helped pay for the “Last Hurdle” piece, but Tafnit also includes a larger scale program called “Start,” which begins at the end of ninth grade with students who are failing and about to drop out of school. “Start” puts these at-risk students into a separate class with studies taking place during school hours as well as after school and during part of the vacations. By changing the pace and structure of study, providing individual attention and assistance, building pupils’ motivation and dealing with the emotional roots of underachievement, the cycle of failure is broken. The program makes a deep impact on the entire school when the lowest achievers are led to success and a change in their own self-image.
The Ministry of Education, which pays most of the teaching cost for “Start,” requires a partner. Tucson, which has helped so many Kiryat Malachi students by its support of Tafnit, is being asked to help again. For Kiryat Malachi, which has finally been allowed to expand its geographic boundaries, enabling the building of new housing units, this is a huge opportunity. To attract strong young families with children, the town needs to demonstrate a successful school system. The mayor and city council look at Tafnit as a way to bring about this dramatic improvement. Having Tucson as a partner to leverage the Ministry of Education’s participation can bring about that change and make a lasting impact on Kiryat Malachi.
Ira Kerem is the TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) Partnership2Gether representative in Kiryat Malachi.