Zvi Peleg is director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, the country’s largest charter school network educating 100,000 students — about 10 percent of the country’s high school population. Formerly known as Israel ORT, it changed its name in 2009 and since has increased enrollment by about 20 percent. The network — which includes 237 middle and high schools, two-year colleges, education centers and vocational schools — has 8,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $600 million. The Jewish Week caught up with him during his recent swing through New York.
Jewish Week: What brings you to New York?
Peleg: To meet with our friends’ organization and explain our new projects, to meet with UJA-Federation to update them on some projects they are interested in — like our high school students who teach Holocaust survivors how to use computers — and discussing new partnership initiatives with MIT and other institutions to advance STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education.
What makes your schools special?
We motivate more and more children in our system to learn technology. About 45 percent of children in high schools in the country study scientific knowledge. In our system, the figure is higher than 65 percent. And we are the only network in Israel — and maybe the world — that has a research and development center that also develops the curricula for science and technology tracks. That is our expertise. We develop it first for our schools, and then the Ministry of Education implements the tracks in other schools all over the country. And we export the curricula to Europe, Asia and the United States.
Are students with high-tech expertise sought after in Israel?
Today it is very popular in Israel to be involved in high-tech startups. It was recently announced that one Israeli company was sold to a company abroad for $6.7 billion. The high-tech industry is recruiting students and the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] takes the most qualified to use the skills they acquired in our network. We have implemented cyber tracks in our schools for students who can serve in the cyber units of the army. About 40 percent of all soldiers in the army’s technological units are our graduates.
I understand 90 percent of your male graduates and 80 percent of the female graduates enlist in the IDF — about 20 percent higher than the national average.
We believe students need to understand that they have to give back to the country. If you educate this way, the students are ready to volunteer to serve in the army; they understand the importance of being involved in society.
What percentage of your students are Jewish?
We have 23 percent who are minorities — Arabs, Bedouins, Druze — which is similar to the population as a whole. All students receive the same quality education, no matter where they live. Each group has their own schools. And in the last six or seven years, the haredi or ultra-Orthodox have begun learning vocational skills. We are working with all the rabbis. We have a unique school inside a yeshiva in Jerusalem. The 3,000 students there spend half-a-day in the yeshiva and half-a-day learning STEM education. And we were asked to teach girls in B’nai B’rak to be practical engineers. This is a big change in the thinking of rabbis today.
What sort of collaborations or opportunities can Israel Sci-Tech offer the North American Jewish community?
The first thing we offer is our curricula. We are developing in our R&D center ISTEAM — innovation, science, technology, engineering arts and mathematics — education. This is an advancement of STEM education. We are looking at what is needed in the hi-tech industry. You need to cultivate multidisciplinary teams that develop innovative products. And to prepare students for this environment we developed the ISTEAM model and implemented it in our schools. We also offer the curriculum to other countries, especially Jewish high schools and other schools in the United States.
We are also negotiating with different organizations to develop teacher training in ISTEAM education. In addition, we are looking for those who want to be ISTEAM teachers in our schools because there is a shortage of teachers today in ISTEAM education.
Your schools have teamed up with the Peres Center for Peace to create Bridges for Peace. What is the objective?
The goal is to create integration and dialogue between Jewish students in our schools and minority students who are also in our schools. They are meeting together and discussing different subjects and doing social activities and joint projects in arts, technology and design. In Israel, students study in different schools — secular and Orthodox, Arabs, Druze and Bedouins. We create opportunities for all the students to meet together in one place and do social activities and even cook together to get to know each other’s heritage. These projects are supported by the Peres Center and Google in Israel.