Program offers financial boost for school improvement

Each fall, Hebrew teachers at Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma would mark off nearly three months in their calendars for review. But not any more.

A dedicated push for Hebrew reading fluency at the school is keeping the students up to speed almost year round.

Principal Daphne Shapiro insists the plan is "nothing magical."

Her plan consists of dedicating half of each class period to Hebrew reading. Sometimes students read aloud in groups, other times one on one with either a teacher, a tutor or Shapiro.

Shapiro hired an additional aide to help with the workload and began visiting the classrooms for extended time periods.

The result is "more competency earlier," Shapiro said. "We put all this energy into reading and it stuck. The kids are into their books much earlier in the fall.

"And I now feel comfortable sending all of our students to the b'nai mitzvah tutor when the time is ready. Their skills are good. Before, it was iffy."

Shapiro began the Hebrew fluency program independently in January of 1997. However, the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's School Improvement Program may enable her to expand it with additional funding.

Each year the BJE allocates nearly $115,000 to synagogue religious school programs in its region. In an effort to bolster their quality, the BJE created the School Improvement Program.

Ninety percent of the funds will be given away based on a formula of number of students and hours spent in school. However, this fall, an additional 10 percent will go to fund projects like Shapiro's Hebrew fluency program.

Grants will not be dispersed until 1998. However, all BJE-affiliated schools in the region were asked to submit a 500-word plan describing its goals and outcomes, a plan to achieve those goals, and an evaluation system to determine if goals are reached.

According to Robert Sherman, BJE executive director, the School Improvement Program offers a financial incentive for schools to be innovative.

It is also "a move away from a simple entitlement," he said.

The original allocations were also designed to promote school improvement. But now "we are asking schools on an annual basis to submit a plan and update it."

Debbie Findling, director of school services, added, "We are asking principals to think critically, to reflect upon themselves and see areas for change."

Among the plans submitted are the B'nai Israel program, a program to review and revise the curriculum at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, and a plan to create education requirements for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.

Like B'nai Israel, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco also started an independent program that was submitted to the School Improvement Program.

Responding to the large number of new students entering the school, all with different educational backgrounds, Emanu-El introduced a Hebrew-assessment process.

"The system of having a certain book for third graders-only breaks down when you have students entering a Hebrew-school classroom for the first time in sixth grade," said Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, education director.

Instead, a battery of diagnostic tests "allows us to match students with the right learning group and the right instructor," and look at their individual progress, Wolf-Prusan said.

Citing both practical and philosophical reasons, principals seem pleased with the School Improvement Program.

"The School Improvement Plan says that someone is watching and someone is interested. Instead of money simply being funneled by numbers of warm bodies in a chair, we are basically looking [at what are the] best practices," said Wolf-Prusan. "The goals are neither outlandish nor impossible."

Meanwhile, for Shapiro, the School Improvement Program makes striving toward excellence just a bit easier.

"The BJE money will pay for more people to come in and sit and read with the kids," she said. "It doesn't sound like much but already I see our fourth-graders reading Hebrew books they weren't [reading] until fifth grade."