OFAKIM, Israel (JTA) — In 2008, Asher Nachmani wanted to buy a computerized blackboard for his classroom, but the elementary school where he teaches technology in this low-income town didn’t have the money.
So Nachmani built one himself.
He downloaded a free program from the Internet, bought a controller for a Nintendo Wii video game console and connected it to an infrared bulb taken from his television remote control.
Using a Bluetooth connection, Nachmani was able to project his computer screen onto a wall and draw on it.
The story is a typical one at the Ashalim Experimental Public School, the oldest elementary school in Ofakim. Chronically short on funds, Ashalim teachers are often forced to improvise, making do with supplies donated by neighbors or paid for from their own pockets.
In one classroom, a window divider was cut from a coffee table found by the principal. Teachers at times pay for lunches that poor children cannot afford, said Yael Segev, the school’s principal.
“The municipality can’t take the expenses,” said Segev, who says she donates about 10 percent of her salary back to the school as charity. “We approach this from a place of pride. We see this as our home and we care for it.”
As 2 million Israeli students begin the school year this month, they face some of the most unequal educational conditions in the Western world. According to a report this year by the Taub Center, Israel has the largest educational achievement gaps between rich and poor among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, an economic grouping of the world’s wealthiest nations.
The report also found that Israel performs second worst in international test scores, beating only Slovakia, and has above-average class sizes — 29 students per class compared to an OECD average of 20.
Israel’s Education Ministry has aimed to address these problems by providing more funding to poor districts starting this year, increasing the number of summer schools and enhancing school choice. But Nahum Blass, a senior education researcher at the Taub Center, said increased local education funding in rich towns, coupled with the hiring of private tutors by wealthier parents, cancel out the ministry’s efforts.
“What the system can give the weaker students is not enough to cover the gap between weak and strong,” Blass said. “A poor kid will get a little more from the Education Ministry, but what the [well-off] local authorities and the parents give can counteract that affirmative action and flip it.”
A number of educational nonprofits have launched efforts to address these issues.
Balanced Literacy, a program by the Israeli Center for Educational Innovation, runs programs at 18 schools with high concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants, beginning language classes with a half-hour of class reading time and up to three hours of language instruction daily. Another nongovernmental organization, Educating for Excellence, identifies the most talented students in low-income areas and provides them with enrichment, extracurricular activities and a quiet space to do homework for three hours several times a week.
But much of the burden still falls on teachers who take it upon themselves to give students in low-performing schools the extra attention they need to succeed.
Sarit Elmaliach, a first-grade teacher at the Saadya Gaon Religious Public School in the central Israeli town of Or Yehuda, has taken steps to make her lessons more relevant to the one-third of her students from Ethiopian families.
Like other Israeli minorities, Ethiopians come from less affluent families and struggle more in school. According to the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a government-funded think tank that studies Ethiopian Israelis, as of 2010 only one-quarter of Ethiopian high-school graduates were prepared for college, versus nearly half of Israeli Jews overall. Ethiopian college graduation rates also lag those of Israeli Jews.
Elmaliach reads to her students books with Ethiopian characters and focused one art class on an Ethiopian sculptor. When she visits the parents of her Ethiopian students at home, she takes care to abide by Ethiopian standards of politeness, even being mindful of things as simple as sitting down before drinking a cup of water. Before the school year starts, she learns the origins of her students’ Amharic names.
“You want to show them a little that you’re connected to them,” Elmaliach said. “Some kids would get embarrassed and want another name. I say, ‘You have nothing to be embarrassed about. That’s a respected name.’ ”
That sort of cultural sensitivity can only go so far toward compensating for the substantial funding gaps between rich and poor schools. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2012, Ofakim’s local government provided $1,629 of annual funding per student — a sum less than half the $3,613 per student provided by the wealthy town of Ramat Hasharon in suburban Tel Aviv.
The Education Ministry did not respond to JTA’s request for information about how much extra funding it gives to low-income schools.
Funding from NGOs also helps a bit. But at Ashalim, which doesn’t receive NGO funding, the school depends on the commitment and ingenuity of its teachers.
“When I came here, I fell in love,” said Segev, the Ashalim principal. “It’s very warm, very embracing, not like in the city. We all have the opportunity to move to other places, but it’s hard to leave this place.”