Schools give Israeli students an edge in science and tech

Lagging math and science education is a big concern in the United States — but not in Israel.

Partially ensuring that is the Israel Sci-Tech School Network, an independent group of science and technology schools in Israel. Now there’s a North American fundraising arm that is devoted to helping those schools prosper.

“We’re empowering all the kids in the schools to choose technology,” Zvi Peleg, director general for Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, said during a recent fundraising visit to the Bay Area. “We motivate the children not to be afraid of science and technology.”

FISTS supports an entity that has grown over the past 59 years into the largest science and technology educational system in Israel. The Sci-Tech School Network helps create a work force of scientists, engineers, senior military personnel and high-tech entrepreneurs that form the backbone of Israel’s economic boom.

Sixty-seven percent of the Sci-Tech network students are on a technology track, compared to 37 percent of other Israeli students. The student body includes Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins.

“We know only one thing — to take the children and give them the future,” Peleg said of the network’s mission. The network manages more than 160 junior and senior high schools, industrial schools, and technical, engineering and academic colleges in Israel; it is the largest non-governmental school system in the country

“The impression of most Americans who have heard about it was that it’s vocational schools … but that’s only 10 schools or so. All the others are sci-tech,” said Perry Davis, senior adviser for resource development.

The network, established in Israel in 1949, currently enrolls 100,000 students (including one out of every 10 Israeli high school students) and has 7,000 employees, 500,000 alumni and an annual budget approaching $300 million.

But the constant demand from more towns wanting to get their schools into the network requires more funding, Peleg said. The network can take only two or three new schools each year, he added, due to the financial resources needed to get a program up and running, such as labs and teacher training. This has led to a current waiting list of 15 towns.

Peleg said mayors around Israel, “if they want to be re-elected,” do everything they can to get their schools into the program. “The population will vote for them because they bring in our institution,” Peleg added.

While some of the schools are in big cities, most of the network’s schools are in small municipalities. “Our mission is to go to the periphery to take students from lower economic levels and promote them into science and technology,” Peleg said. “We make such a revolution in Israel, because people understand that in order to go to our institute, you cannot be average.”

Such an atmosphere gives bright students the chance to take college level courses and potentially earn a degree before they enter the Israel Defense Forces after high school. The network currently has more than 800 students learning at a university level; Peleg hopes to see the number more than double in the next few years.

Another aspect of the network’s mission is community service, with students being released from their studies for one day every three weeks to volunteer. “If we are to strengthen society,” Peleg said, “everyone must give something back to the community.”

Volunteer programs include the Sunflower Project, in which students teach computer skills to kids with cancer; the Multi-Generation Connection, with students teaching the elderly to use computers and the Internet; and Eye-2-Israel, a project that prepares students to go online and respond to blogs or Web sites with anti-Semitic content.

Peleg said the goal of his organization, whose U.S. office is located in New York, is to get the word out so larger projects can be supported.

For more information on Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, call (212) 840-1166 or