ORTs Smart Classrooms paying off in war-torn Israeli schools

Call it the miracle in the desert.

In an against-the-odds educational success story, the middle schoolers from the Sha’ar HaNegev School, whose building is located less than two miles from the Gaza border, are seeing their test scores, and their enthusiasm for learning, rise.

Much of their newfound success, says their principal, Einat Haimi, can be traced to the high-tech equipment that is now an integral part of the students’ educational experience.

And while interactive whiteboards and laptop computers are staples in many classroom, few students benefiting from the technology that is transforming education likely do so in thick-walled bomb shelters fortified against rocket attacks from Hamas into southern Israel.

ORT’s Kadima Mada (Science Journey) program has inspired students to participate in robotics programs.

The technology — which includes interactive whiteboards linked to the students’ laptops, projectors, hand-held electronic voting kits (the high-tech version of raising your hand to answer a question), and mobile labs with Internet access — has been outfitted by ORT as part of its Kadima Mada (Science Journey) program; the program is designed to improve science and math instruction in Israeli schools.

Now in its fourth year at Sha’ar HaNegev, which has 600 middle schoolers and 500 high schoolers in grades seven through 12, the high-tech equipment is paying off.

“In the past several years, we noticed amazing interactions started happening in the classroom,” Haimi says. “All of a sudden, students who were never interested in sciences and math started excelling. They participated in robotics programs and entered teams in the National Science Day. All subjects began participating in this initiative, and I can now teach Bible, an ancient subject, with 21st-century tools.”

In fact, students in ORT schools that use Smart Classroom technology receive a

75 percent pass rate on the national matriculation exam; the national average is 56 percent.

Sha’ar HaNegev, a thriving, green oasis in Israel’s Negev desert, is located in the northwestern Negev, midway between Beersheva and Ashkelon, near the town of Sderot. The region’s population is about 6,000. Before ORT’s intervention, Sha’ar HaNegev had only basic and, in many cases, obsolete equipment in its laboratories.

The school is situated in an economically depressed part of Israel, where education funding has to compete with high spending on security and infrastructure.

Living within striking distance of Hamas’ Kassam rockets, thousands of which have fallen in the region in the last decade, hasn’t been easy for the students or teachers at Sha’ar HaNegev. “It is tough,” Haimi admits, though she is quick to add that since Israel’s recent war with Hamas in Gaza things have generally been quieter. “These kids have to deal with so much stress.”

All of the middle schoolers at Sha’ar HaNegev learn in 15 reinforced concrete mobile classrooms no bigger than a small conference room, where the windows are sealed against incoming rockets. The classrooms hold 30 to 32 students.

But even the mobile classrooms are wired, and that has made a big difference for the students. “The technology is making the whole process of learning much more interesting for us,” says 10th-grader Yahel Kfir. “Our generation is used to the equipment. Putting it in front of us has made things more fun.

“We take a theme like ‘conflict,’ and find examples of it in the Torah and use the Internet to research conflicts in geography, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Kfir continues. “And in science we research the conflicts about the environment and about recycling.”

The high-tech equipment has helped Sha’ar HaNegev teachers better manage their classrooms, and the 127 hours of training provided by ORT has given their careers a shot in the arm, Haimi says.

The equipment also enables teachers to track students’ progress in real time, which has helped level the academic playing field in a school where students come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and work at very different speeds.

“The stronger kids can work on their own with the computers, and the ones who are not as strong can get the help they need,” Haimi says.

Every teacher participating in the Kadima Mada program goes through intensive training for the Smart Classrooms and Intelligent Laboratories.

In addition, ORT America supports the installation of Teacher Empowerment Centers, which provide teachers with the latest educational technologies and teach them how to incorporate the most up-to-date educational methodologies into their daily classroom activities. These individual “think tanks” provide computers, digital cameras, video processing software and more to assist hard-pressed teachers prepare compelling lesson plans and course work.

Since 2007, the Kadima Mada program has helped vastly improve science and technology education for more than 45,000 students in 87 schools across Israel. ORT’s goal is to install 209 Smart Classrooms and train more than 700 teachers, benefiting an estimated 7,500 additional students by 2013. The program was prompted by alarming reports that ranked Israeli students 33rd among Western nations in math and science.

The Kadima Mada program has helped attract more students to Sha’ar HaNegev, which had seen its attendance decline in the years prior to 2007. And next year, both teachers and the growing student body will be able to leave the mobile labs behind and move to a new building that is being constructed with reinforced classrooms.

Haimi is proud of her students’ achievements, with the help of the new classroom technology. “ORT has been a good friend to us and really stood behind us,” she says.

Last year, one eighth-grade class garnered the highest score ever for the school in the national science exam. “Our students are winning national competitions,” Haimi says. “They pass matriculation exams with better grades. They get excited by math and science.”

But Haimi is proud of something else about her students, something that can’t be measured by an exam or with an interactive whiteboard. In the midst of a war zone — two days before ORT began installing the high-tech equipment in 2007, a rocket tore through an empty Sha’ar HaNegev classroom — she is trying to raise “humanistic kids, ones who will be good people. We talk about moral issues and values all the time.”

The moral lessons appear to be paying off.

Kfir knows there’s an enemy out there, just over the Gaza border. “But we’re not bitter,” she says. She just wants her classmates, and herself, to have a shot at a good, productive life.