Head Start — And More — For Ethiopian Kids
01/08/2008 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Rehovot, Israel — Seated in tiny chairs organized in the shape of a horseshoe, 32 kindergarteners watch attentively as their teacher, Vered Reinstein, asks them how to spell the word “Shalom” in Hebrew.  Eager hands wave as Reinstein chooses a boy to pluck the letter “shin” off a felt board, a girl to find the “vav,” until the four-letter word is completed.

Then the children form small groups around rectangular tables, where they engage in quiet activities. While most are asked to draw or paste or cut, one group, made up almost entirely of children of Ethiopian descent, work with a teacher specially hired to help them improve their math and pre-reading skills four hours a week.

Obviously excited by the lesson on rhyming, the six Ethiopian children and one non-Ethiopian child in need of extra assistance moved closer and closer to their teacher, their heads almost touching.

These children are benefiting from the Birth to Bagrut program, which provides educational enrichment to 96 percent of all Ethiopian children in this mid-sized city south of Tel Aviv. (The bagrut is the exam Israeli students take to get a high school diploma.) It is an outgrowth of the Parents and Children Together program (PACT), which was first conceived by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in the late 1990s and supported by major Jewish federations, foundations and donors.

The 1998-’99 PACT pilot program in Beersheva, which was funded by the Cleveland federation, was so successful in raising the level of education and involvement in the Ethiopian community for ages 0 to 6, that it is now assisting 11,000 Ethiopian children in 14 municipalities.

Determined to support and expand on the successes of the PACT program beyond the first grade, the UJA-Federation of New York helped launch Birth to Bagrut in 2002. Unlike other PACT programs, the Rehovot model provides enrichment to Ethiopian children aged 0 to 18, till they graduate from high school.

The Rehovot program — which is working to close the gap between Ethiopian youth and their veteran Israeli peers by providing extra teaching hours, teacher training, subsidies for day care and after-school activities, adult literacy courses and other types of outreach to Ethiopian parents in 30 locations around the city — is a joint project of the New York federation, the JDC and the city of Rehovot.

During a tour of Birth to Bagrut facilities here, Russell Wolkind, international relations associate for the JDC, said PACT was created after it became clear that Ethiopian children are at an educational disadvantage long before they enter a classroom.

“We realized Ethiopian kids were coming to first grade with huge gaps. They were coming to school with very poor Hebrew language skills either because they spoke Amharic at home or spoke Hebrew with parents whose Hebrew skills were poor.”

Whereas most immigrant preschoolers receive a good foundation in Hebrew in preschool, Wolkind said, the “vast majority” of Ethiopian children do not attend preschool.

“First, the preschool concept didn’t exist in Ethiopia, where the extended family cared for the children, and second, preschool is something many Ethiopian parents just can’t afford.”

Compounding the problem was the fact that 65 to 75 percent of Ethiopian parents arrived in Israel illiterate in Amharic, “and if you’re illiterate in your native language, it’s almost impossible to learn to read Hebrew as an adult. Consequently, people don’t have books at home,” Wolkind said.

Ziva Sagiv, local coordinator of the Birth to Bagrut program, said Israeli authorities are often slow to spot health problems in Ethiopian babies and toddlers because their parents are intimidated by the country’s Tipat Chalav (well-baby) clinics, where nurses rarely speak Amharic.

The same problems apply to the school system, Sagiv said. “Before Birth to Bagrut, there was almost no communication between teachers and parents. Parents had no understanding of the educational system and the system had no understanding of the Ethiopian community’s needs.

One of the program’s cornerstones is outreach to parents, and it hires young educated Ethiopians to act as liaisons.

One such liaison, 30-year-old Sarit Tabaje, who moved to Israel at the age of 13, works in a number of schools and preschools.

“I come to this kindergarten twice a week, work with the children and interface with the parents. Working with the teacher, I tell the parents what’s going on in the school, with their child, and how wonderful their child is. We bring Ethiopian culture into the classroom, to let the children know it’s good to be Ethiopian. At first the kids were shocked to be making Ethiopian bread in front of the other students. They said, “I thought we only eat this, do this at home, talk about this at home.’ They stopped being ashamed of being different and began to appreciate their heritage.”

Tabaje translates teachers’ notes into Amharic when necessary, and personally invites parents to play an active role in the school.

“My own kids are benefiting from the program,” Tabaje noted. “I couldn’t afford to send them to after-school programs, but they’re attending thanks to a Birth to a Bagrut subsidy.”

Ilana Ganor, principal of the ORT school in Rehovot, said the program gives the school’s Ethiopian students the chance to catch up with their peers.

“We have 550 students in the school and 35 to 40 percent of them are Ethiopian,” Ganor said. “With 40 kids in a class, it was impossible to provide the personalized attention the Ethiopians needed. Birth to Bagrut teaches them English, math, Hebrew in small groups. We’d be lost without it.”

Fourteen-year-old Yitzhak Syon admitted that when he entered junior high school, “I didn’t know much of anything. I totally lost direction. I thought of dropping out.”

Having made great strides in his English, which he is still perfecting, Syon said the program gave him the skills and motivation to stay in school.

“I’m a much better student now. I feel I have potential.”

Though most students in the program need help catching up, Birth to Bagrut also includes a tract for gifted tract for Ethiopian students.

“At first I didn’t think I was so smart,” admitted Yisraela Takeke, a shy 14-year-old in the gifted program.

Asked whether she has plans to attend college, Takeke flashed a confident smile.

“Why not?” she replied.

Ruti Inbar, who works in the Mayor’s Office of the Rehovot Municipality, said the PACT/Birth to Bagrut program has required “unprecedented cooperation between various ministries and agencies. Not everyone, even in the city, is used to listening to citizens’ needs and that’s really changed.”

And although most of the financing for the program comes from American donors, Inbar said, “we’re required to make efforts to raise matching funds. This fact has pushed the needs of the Ethiopian community to the top of our priority list.

“We’re talking about a real partnership.”