Geniuses flourishing in Israels Open University program

Israelis were distressed to learn recently that eighth-graders in this country obtained only middling results in an international test measuring the proficiency in mathematics and science of youngsters from two dozen countries worldwide.

Some wondered whether the fact that Israeli kids were less proficient in science than kids in Thailand, New Zealand and Germany mean Jewish genius disappeared.

The answer, fortunately, is no. For while not every Jewish child in this country is a potential Einstein, there are plenty of bright young people in Israel, including the 512 presently enrolled in an Open University program that permits them to earn a university degree while they are still in high school.

Based on correspondence courses and televised lessons, the program is much more accessible to high-schoolers than are other institutions of higher learning.

Natanel Shimoni of Beersheva, a 10th grader on his way to earning an Open University degree in computer science, devotes only Shabbats to university courses. "This leaves the rest of the week free for other activities," he says.

Shimoni finds time to be an active member of a dance group,supervise a youth club and to spend an occasional fun evening with his pals at a popular Beersheva recreation center.

Heading the Open University program is Professor Yoram Kirsch, who points out that his institution initially did nothing to publicize it "for fear that those who signed up might find it difficult to bear the twin burdens of high school and university studies."

But after a trial at Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv, "we found that most participants — if they are sufficiently motivated — can stand the pressure."

Holding a college degree at 18 is an attractive prospect in any circumstance, but particularly in Israel. Because of compulsory military service, youngsters here have to overcome the effects of a prolonged break in formal study between finishing high school and entering university.

Herzliya High School principal Ron Huldai, one of the initiators of the scheme, looks forward to the day when every capable Israeli youngster can begin his or her university studies right after finishing elementary school.

"And that day," Huldai believes, "isn't too far away."