Calif. school chief Eastin derives inspiration from a visit to Israel

When they first envisioned the Hemda school — a Tel Aviv magnet school serving exemplary math and science students — Israeli business people looked to California educational standards for inspiration. Now Delaine Eastin, the California superintendent of public instruction, is looking to the Hemda school for guidance.

"It's probably the most sophisticated high school I've seen in my life," Eastin said.

Twice each week, for half of the day, the best and brightest science and math students from 15 surrounding schools attend Hemda. The students are privy to the highest level of training, technology and equipment.

"You couldn't get this level of education in 15 separate schools. You just couldn't get the horsepower," Eastin said, noting Hemda's effective use of financial and technological resources.

Eastin and nearly two dozen other educators from across the United States visited Hemda and a number of other Israeli schools last month. Their 10-day tour, sponsored by Partners for Global Education Committee of the American-Israel Friendship League and the Council of the Great City Schools, also included meetings with Israeli education leaders and government representatives.

Eastin contends Israeli education standards surpass those in this country and on the whole, Israeli children are better educated than their American counterparts. She credits the success of the Israeli school system to enormous government spending and dedication to education that cuts across party lines.

Eastin noted that the education budget in Israel has increased 73 percent over the last four years.

"The national budget for education in Israel is almost as high as the budget for defense. That's pretty extraordinary," Eastin said. "As happy as I am to have $2 billion extra dollars this year, it's nothing like this."

Eastin recalled sitting in on a Knesset debate on education and watching politicians "put their money where their mouths were.

"The minister of education threatened to quit if they cut the education budget. Can you imagine Reagan's secretary of education quitting if the budget was cut?" Eastin said. "And then the minister of commerce stood on the floor and offered to cut his budget deeper so the education budget would not be touched. I was blown away."

Although Eastin was impressed by government commitment to education, she was equally thrilled to note the role of Israeli businesses in education.

She recalled her visit to a high school and post-secondary training school established by an Israeli telecommunications company. The company found students out of the army weren't sufficiently trained in technology, so it set up its own school.

Similarly, one school in the Galilee established by a business entrepreneur specializes in special learning needs.

"Not all kids learn well in a dry academic setting with chairs in rows. They need hands-on. And one businessman understood that," Eastin said.

Other schools focused their attentions to specific needs. One is known for its afterschool programming, another for its training seminars for principals and teachers, and a third caters to strengthening relationships between Christian Arabs and Jews.

Some schools, like Hemda, topped educators' lists as model education environments. However, even lesser-funded, more traditional institutes — like a Baptist school in Nazareth — impressed the group of educators.

"Whether the schools are Arab or Jewish or Baptist, all the students are learning Hebrew, Arabic and English — at a minimum," Eastin said. "Children pick up language better at an earlier age. We know this. We just don't practice what we preach."

Eastin did comment that the school day is shorter in Israel than in the United States. Students leave school by 2 p.m. Many parents pay for after-school classes and say they believe the school day should be longer.

Nonetheless, Eastin contends Israel should be a model for education commitment, funding and alternatives.

"I do believe we've been just a tiny bit hide-bound. We feel everyone is going to learn from the United States, from California," Eastin said. "We're not Israel or Japan or Denmark, but we can learn from them as they have learned from us.

"I think a picture is worth a thousand words. And I saw pictures of initiatives I thought California could take. The challenge now is to learn from our wise friends."