‘Feels like home’: Israeli school for migrant kids wins by bridging worlds
The second-graders have their pencil cases out and their notebooks open as they write down the words to a classic Hebrew song made famous by an icon of Israeli music.
Most of the children were born in Israel. But their mothers and fathers came here as asylum-seekers or foreign workers.
A visitor asks what countries their parents came from. “Eritrea!” shouts out one girl. “The Philippines,” chimes in another. “Nigeria,” answers a smiling boy in a bright red jacket.
On the walls are letters of the Hebrew alphabet, cardboard cupcakes connoting students’ birthdays coming up, and drawings the children made of trees to mark the recent holiday of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish version of Arbor Day.
The children are students at the Bialik-Rogozin School, which was opened by the city of Tel Aviv 15 years ago with the goal of helping migrant children, most of them undocumented and economically disadvantaged, thrive educationally and emotionally. It is supported by donations.
“Here we have kids from so many different places. I have friends from Nigeria, Malta, Sudan, Eritrea, and Turkey.… It feels like home here, and for now Israel is home,” says Ariella, 12, who was born here to Filipino parents. “When we have troubles, we have teachers we can go to for help.”
Ariella’s mother works as a live-in nanny for a family outside of Tel Aviv, and she sees her on her days off. Ariella, who lives with a family friend, plays basketball and soccer through the school and recently started playing guitar in an all-girl band directed by a young Israeli woman volunteer.
School officials say their model of teaching students about Israeli society while honoring students’ home cultures can serve as a model for other schools around the world with large migrant student populations. The school, which offers long school days, seeks to pinpoint and cultivate individual students’ strengths, provides emotional support, and taps into a network of volunteers to lead extracurricular courses and engage in private tutoring. Its approach has achieved great success.
Mayors of several major European cities are among the many that have come to visit the school, which first drew international attention when a short documentary about its innovative approach, Strangers No More, won an Oscar in 2011.
In the ensuing years, Israel has absorbed what has become an unprecedented surge of foreign workers and asylum-seekers. The country was founded as a safe haven for Jews around the world just three years after the last of 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, but the puzzle of what to do with these non-Jewish newcomers and the children many of them arrive with or have once in the country remains unsolved.
About half of Bialik-Rogozin’s students are the children of African asylum-seekers, who today number some 38,000 people. Government plans early last year for a mass deportation were met with a public outcry and legal obstacles and remain on hold. But asylum-seeker families have been left in a painful and economically costly state of uncertainty, as a portion of their income is withheld to encourage them to leave voluntarily.
In the wake of the government’s announced plans, the school redoubled its mission to help children and their families emotionally and practically. Eli Nechama, the principal, says the school was heartened by the outpouring of public support for its work and for the asylum-seeker community in general.
“The government has been less than great, but the people have been wonderful,” he says, pointing out a framed soccer jersey hanging in his office. It is from one of Tel Aviv’s major soccer teams and was made last spring while the government was threatening deportations. Under the school’s name, a slogan reads “One of us.”
From its early days the school has looked to the larger community to help fulfill its vision. That has included drafting business leaders to help raise funds from individuals and companies to help cover the annual $500,000 cost of the “extras” it provides its students. A roster of 140 volunteers now provides the backbone of enrichment and extra support for the students, from teaching classes in painting and photography and drafting high-tech companies to donate classroom technology to serving as personal mentors and tutors.
With the help of Karen Tal, the school’s first principal, Bialik-Rogozin has already become a model for dozens of schools serving underprivileged students in Israel, including several in Arab villages and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Ms. Tal formed a nonprofit organization called Tovanot B’Hinuch (Educational Insights) to help the other Israeli schools replicate its success.
At 7:30 every weekday morning, the first of Bialik-Rogozin’s 1,150 first-grade through 12th-grade students start arriving. Many will stay till 5:30 in the evening, kept busy long after the school day ends – and while their parents work – with classes in art, sports, music, cooking, and robotics.
Recently, as the reality of the threat of deportations has set in, lessons in the languages of their parents’ home countries have been added, including Tigrinya (spoken primarily in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea), Arabic, Spanish, and English.
In the evenings, the school hosts classes in Hebrew and parenting skills for the parents.
“We don’t know if they will stay here or one day return to home countries, and either way they need to know their mother tongue,” says Mr. Nechama. He is standing in the school’s lobby in front of a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the students under the school logo – “We are all the children of life,” taken from the lyrics of a song – written in Hebrew and several of the other languages spoken at the school, where 51 countries are represented. A few steps away in a courtyard hang the flags of each of those countries.
The school is located at the intersection of streets whose names, translated from Hebrew, mean Homeland Road and Immigrant Lane, a reminder that the modern state of Israel was founded on immigration.
But it was the immigration of Jews from around the world that the state was built around, not of East Africans fleeing wars and dictatorships or of host workers from Asia and South America whose children study at the school.
Nechama, a successful theater actor who made the transition to teaching, defended the decision to educate migrant children in separate schools. Since Bialik-Rogozin’s founding, two other schools for migrant children have opened in Tel Aviv. Nechama said this should not be viewed as segregation. All of the schools are in south Tel Aviv, the poorest part of the city and where most migrants live.
“They have special needs,” he says of the children. “It’s not special education, but they do have particular needs because of the objective gaps they have and because it is not clear where they are going to be tomorrow.”
One of the new Tel Aviv schools, the Yarden School, is fundraising to build a therapeutic center within the school to assist children who have experienced trauma and need extra emotional support.
Nechama adds, “For those who say they think this looks racist, I say change how you are looking at this situation. The choice here is of a school that takes on the underdog and turns them into a star, with all doors open to them. This is better than the other options. And look at the results: We are succeeding.”
Bialik-Rogozin is among the top-performing schools in the country, with 96 percent of its students passing the matriculation exams that are a prerequisite for university entrance in Israel. Its boys basketball team has won national championships and represented Israel abroad, and students have won top prizes in national robotics contests.
In a music room decorated with the images of musical greats, including Bach and Bob Marley, Ariella’s all-girl band practices. The three fellow seventh-graders include a singer, a drummer, and a pianist. She’s on the guitar.
“I come here because it’s fun,” she says of the only school she has ever attended. “I’ve hardly missed even a day.”