from Yaacov Hecht’s book “democratic education-a beginning of a story”

Mitzpe Ramon

A Town-wide Learning Community –

The year 2002 was the third year of my activity in Mitzpe Ramon. During the two previous years, I worked with various factors in the town: the head of the council, directors of various departments in the local authority, school principals, teachers, parents and many other residents. Gradually we created a fascinating educational program, directed towards the town’s unique needs and utilizing the special resources that are there in the area, offered to its guests. Although our activity in Mitzpe Ramon concluded, due to reasons which will be detailed later, I decided to tell about it. This is the fascinating story of a town taking responsibility for determining its life style, while implementing principles of democratic education. The story begins with many of the locals defining Mitzpe Ramon as a “train station”, a place people pass through, not one where they stay. I interviewed some of those leaving, and was surprised to discover that most of them still loved the town and felt they belonged there. The education system took second place in their reasons for leaving, right after employment. Since the population of the town is so varied, it contains a great variety of educational philosophies. This situation creates a “structured dissatisfaction” within the different populations in the town, in some cases leading to the dissatisfied family’s leaving. “Structured dissatisfaction” means that because it is a small town, the number of formal education systems is limited, and have difficulty meeting such a variety of needs. After a long period of meetings between different communities in the town, a vision for the town’s education system was set: Creating an innovative education system which sees Mitzpe Ramon as a town-wide learning community. Giving a response to all the different populations in the community. Utilizing and expanding the existing learning resources in town. Creating a model, on a national level, of a groundbreaking education system in the field of working with towns in the periphery, to make them a magnet for new residents.

The first challenge in this work was establishing a system which would enable every student to excel in his chosen area, by creating a personal learning program, focused on the areas of growth and of strength of each student. After some time, we realized that we would never succeed in this mission if we addressed only the frameworks of schools existing in the town. It was clear that the schools could not offer a response to all the unique needs of each and every student. Thus, the idea emerged of harnessing all the town’s resources for the purpose of expanding the school systems. At the time, Mitzpe Ramon had 44 artists’ workshops, an astronomy observatory, the “Hai Ramon” zoological garden, laboratories for the study of the desert that belonged to Ben-Gurion University, and many other regional learning resources. It was decided to create, in ordered fashion, learning programs to be operated in town-wide learning centers. Every student in the Mitzpe Ramon school system would have a school-based program (mandatory in accordance with the core program of the Ministry of Education) and a personal learning program (elective). In the framework of the “personal program”, the student could use the external systems existing in the town. The goal of the personal learning program was, as always to strengthen the student’s capability for learning through engagement in his personal areas of strength and growth. In order to support the “town centers”, it was decided to establish a branch of one of the academic teachers’ colleges in the town, with around 100 students who would assist in the initial operation of the centers. At this stage we could no longer avoid the question of funds. Students’ learning in the artists’ workshops, or in the other learning centers to be set up, would cost the local authorities money. How could it be done? How could the budget be enlarged? At this point we understood that the educational program had to be expanded and become a comprehensive economic plan, with a completely new angle. This was the idea: In Mitzpe Ramon there is an average of 1000 overnight lodgers per night, and there is a great potential to turn it into “the national capital of desert tourism” and perhaps even into an international center for this field. However, this potential has not been realized: there are few jobs, mostly because the tourists may stay over in the town but they operate in the desert. We hoped to make a change, so that the travelers would stay in the town and use the “learning centers” as a part of their vacation. Each center would provide subsidized services for the education system, and in return they would receive marketing services from the community, which would refer tourists to them. For example, an “open kitchen”, which would be a “learning center” for the residents of Mitzpe Ramon (students and adults), would also be an authentic restaurant for the travelers in the desert. I call this mode of action “mixing colors”. When one paints in red, the color remains red, even if one changes the painting technique (a change of more of the same). In order to create something new, one must mix different colors. Focusing only on education will leave the system in similar conditions as it is at present, or, at best, will cause a limited change. Similarly, focusing on employment alone will yield solutions that are similar to the existing conditions. “Mixing colors” means seeing the town as a single organic unit, and thus reaching groundbreaking solutions, which would be impossible to obtain with “one color” alone. Making the connections between education and all the other factors working in the town, such as employment, urban planning and building, welfare, etc., created a new and colorful picture. In 2004, the work of the Institute in Mitzpe Ramon was discontinued. The head of the council who had led the process was not re-elected (because of controversy which had nothing to do with the educational process), and the new one, who saw us as being under the previous head’s auspices, discontinued the process. To our surprise, the vision began to show independence. Educators in the town continued on their own to promote the ideas we had begun to develop in the program. We could say that we discovered that the vision can be greater than the sum of all its parts.

The Bat Yam Personal Education Model

During my work in Be’er Sheva I met a very special person, Albert Assaf, the former Deputy Mayor of Dimona and today a representative of the Sakta-Rashi Foundation. In the fall of 2003, Albert asked me to come with him to Bat Yam. “There’s a mayor there that you should meet. I think he is the mayor you’re looking for”, he said. Albert was right. At the first meeting in Shlomi Lahiani’s office, I saw a completely different picture than what I had known before. From my experience in meetings with mayors, the participants would quickly “close ranks” with whatever the mayor said, applaud and nod enthusiastically. In Lahiani’s office I saw young, energetic people (directors and assistant directors), disagreeing and even arguing with him. And Shlomi, with most charismatic leadership, navigated and created visions out of the many ideas emerging from completely open discussions. I sat there impressed and then he turned to me and asked me to tell them about myself, and about democratic education. When I had finished speaking, he said that he, too, believed that every child was bringing something unique to the world, and that it was the duty of the education system to give this uniqueness expression. Shlomi Lahiani asked me a question that no mayor had ever asked me: Could an education system be created in which success at surfing would be a legitimate achievement? I replied that this was exactly our work at the Institute for Democratic Education. At that same meeting we decided to set out on our way together. Bat Yam has 170,000 residents and about 20,000 students in its education system. We decided to work on an educational vision with the leading staff of the city. After several meetings devoted to vision, I realized that Bat Yam had set very high aspirations. At that time I read the articles coming out on “the small schools” revolution in the USA. And thus, within a short time, there we were, Shlomi Lahiani, Esther Firon (the head of the Education Department), Nurit Ramati (the secondary schools Inspector), Sigal Peretz (Assistant Director of Community Affairs), Erez Podamsky (Assistant Director of Development), Albert Assaf and myself on a plane to the USA, for a tour arranged for us by Prof. Michael and Susan Klonsky. The visit included the “MET” School in Providence, a meeting with Deborah Myer and David French at the “Pilot” schools in Boston, and a comprehensive tour of the small schools in Chicago. We saw various models of schools. Some worked well, others less so. Meanwhile, we got to know each other very well and became a real team. In the discourse that went on among us during the tour, we gradually shaped the basic principles of the picture of the future we wanted for the city of Bat Yam. The MET school and the meetings with Dennis Littky impressed us the most. When we arrived there on Monday morning, we were invited into a morning meeting of a small homeroom class. The group’s teacher-advisor for the past six years, who was accompanying us, turned to every student and also to us, to ask how our weekend had been. It was heartwarming to see the group dynamics and the support they gave each other. This was especially impressive for us, remembering our selves as children in the regular school system, who enter their school on the beginning of the week and go to one of the regular classes, math, English, etc., without anyone being interested or asking about their weekend. Later on we discovered that twice a week, the students study in the framework of professional specialization in one of the public or private institutions in the area of the school. Each student chooses an area of interest and contacts an appropriate organization or business, and reaches an agreement with them that he would intern there for two days a week, and would be guided by one of the workers there. During the three days he was at school (a campus of 600 students, divided into six groups of 100), each student has a personal learning program that reinforces him in his chosen area of specialization. The results for the MET school graduates are amazing. It operates in a community in which some 5% of the students continue on to higher education, and yet more than 90% of the MET students go on to college. When we returned to Bat Yam, we did not intend to translate the programs we had seen into Hebrew. We wanted to gain inspiration from them, and to create a citywide program that would be appropriate for Israel and for Bat Yam, and thus we developed the Bat Yam Personal Education Model, one of the only citywide programs I know which are actually in operation and not just written down. The model was designed with the participation of all the educational staff of the city, including all the Ministry of Education inspectors, headed by Tzila Sheffer, all the school principals, the municipal education staff and representatives of the Sakta-Rashi Foundation. The program is designed so that each class (in junior and senior high school) is divided into two homeroom groups of 15-18 students. Every group/class in town (elementary schools included) meets during the first hour of the morning for a “morning session”. Each group has an educator (someone in the field of education), who receives for this activity expanded hours (about a third of a position in junior and senior high school and extra hours in elementary school). In this way we created a new balance of working hours for the teacher (who previously focused only on his particular discipline), with the possibility to talk to and get to know the students there before him. We brought  education back to the field of teaching. The personal education program in Bat Yam realizes the perception that each student is a person with unique talents and needs. The goal of the program is to give a personal-familial response for every student in the town, to enable him to realize the unique potential within him. In the “morning session” each student builds his own personal learning program, in whose framework he sets himself goals in the learning, family and social areas, and in the field of excellence, a particular area in which the student has chosen to excel. This personal learning program sees the student as a part of the family and social surroundings in which he lives. For this there must be cooperative work between the education systems (formal and informal) and the welfare systems. The goal of this cooperation is to create a store of resources among all the services given to the student and his family by the city. In this way a circle of new solutions is created, to be presented continuously for every specific problem or subject that emerges during the work. An example of these solutions are the learning centers which support personal learning contracts, which began to operate in schools during the school day and continue after it, centers in which students can receive help in various areas mentioned in their personal contracts. Another example is the “Stars” program, created during our second year of activity, in which100 students were located in the city, who needed more intensive personal mentoring and aid in finding their areas of personal strength. These students were provided with personal advisors, besides the educators of the homeroom groups. Today, about three years after the beginning of our work, one can say that the program is fulfilling our expectations. Academic achievements have risen, mostly because the students’ motivation has increased. Violence in school has decreased by more than 70%. We learned that even the boys and girls, described as most violent, created strong ties with the educator, discovered their areas of strength and gave it expression in the framework of school activity. Their violent behavior disappeared. And what especially makes us happy, is that local pride has grown immeasurably. When we began, some two thirds of the students reported that they did not reveal in public where they live. Today 97% of the students report that they are proud to say they are from Bat Yam. At the beginning of 2008, the program “Bat Yam Model for Personal Education” won the National Education Prize, and the Minister of Education, Professor Yuli Tamir, adopted the model as part of her comprehensive educational reform “New Horizon” in junior high schools. The main question facing us today is whether the success in Bat Yam can be duplicated. Can these ideas of democratic education be carried out on a national level? I hope that in a few years I will be able to write a book answering this question. As to the question of how Bat Yam, Be’er Sheva, Mitzpe Ramon or Givat Olga will look in the future, my answer is clear and unequivocal- I don’t know. Every education system or other public system, whatever the ideas that guide it are, `depends chiefly on people, on their ability to lead others in change, to adjust to change or oppose it. The people who are leaders in those places in the future (see the case of Rogozin) will decide the fate of the processes of change (and sometimes the decision is to return to the conservative-traditional model of schooling). Therefore, what is presented here is limited by the time and space in which I write it. And yet, the stories of these places mark for me the possible directions to take in creating democratic culture in the communities in which we live.