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Struggling to Make the Grade Foundation Funds Enriched School Day for Israel’s Impoverished Schoolch

December 23, 2005
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Rinat Tzur leans over the shoulder of her third-grade student’s homework, correcting his grammar while gently explaining that he must do a better job of focusing the plot in an essay about a treasure hunt. Three times a week, Tzur is paid extra to stay late and help her students with homework, giving them the individual attention often lacking during the regular school day.

"I can sit one-on-one with the children where I can strengthen them individually," Tzur says. "It gives me time to deepen my connection with them."

The extended school day at the Yarden School in Tel Aviv’s working-class Shukhnat Ha’Tikva neighborhood is possible because of a 3-year grant by the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, based in Ben Shemen, Israel.

In addition to the study sessions with their teachers, students are treated to extracurricular activities ranging from juggling to art design and chess. They also receive hot lunches, which for some may be their only substantial meal all day.

Started by a family of French philanthropists, the foundation assists Israel’s underprivileged, focusing mostly on schoolchildren and special-needs populations, including substance abusers, the disabled and victims of domestic violence.

The foundation’s main focus is education, and the extended school day — or "enriched" day, as it’s known — is one of its flagship programs.

Some 60,000 students from kindergarten through high school take part in the program in 100 schools, mostly in outlying, poor areas or inner city neighborhoods like Shukhnat Ha’Tikva. Many of the schools are in small, poor towns in the southern and northern reaches of the country, where students tend to perform at a lower level academically than their counterparts in the center of Israel.

The situation in these areas has grown more dire in wake of recent budget cuts that hamper education and welfare services in parts of the country that need it most. Among children of Western countries, Israel’s fall victim to some of the highest rates of poverty.

Hubert Leven, president of Sacta-Rashi since its founding in 1984, said the foundation’s goal is to invest as much and as efficiently as possible to create the largest possible impact.

"Our objective is social mobility — to try to decrease the gaps between haves and have-nots," says Leven, a Paris businessman who has served as the CEO of a major French brokerage firm and an executive of Source Perrier.

Leven’s family has long been involved in educationally focused Jewish philanthropy. His great-grandfather was among the founders of the Alliance school system, which served Jews in French-speaking countries.

Leven wants to see students whom his foundation helps make it all the way to university. The idea is to continue to push for excellence and let students and their families know that education offers a way out of poverty.

The fund runs several other educational programs in addition to the enriched school day program. One is called Tafnit, Hebrew for "turnaround," which provides intensive tutoring in math, Hebrew and English, to the lowest-achieving students, including potential high school drop-outs.

Sacta-Rashi does not shoulder the entire budget for its programs; the Education Ministry and local authorities also contribute.

The exact percentage each contributes depends on the program, but in the case of the extended school day program the ministry pays 50 percent. The remaining 50 percent is divided between the municipality and parents — who together contribute about two thirds — while Sacta-Rashi and its partners pay the remaining third.

In the case of the Yarden School, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation also contributes money.

In the past the foundation has run a rather discreet operation and didn’t advertise its involvement. But now it is searching for additional philanthropic partners and is launching matching-grant initiatives.

The foundation recently partnered with the New York-based Jewish Funders Network on a matching-grant initiative. That initiative raised more than $2 million in new gifts for Israel, according to Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network.

Sacta-Rashi also runs a science and technology enrichment program in the South, which provides tutoring, extra classes and computer and lab equipment for nearly 300 schools.

It also runs a scholarship program that pays college and university tuition and living expenses for Druse, Ethiopian and other immigrant students.

At the Yarden School, instead of going home in the early afternoon — often to homes where there is no adult supervision, only the pull of the television set or the streets — the students stay until 5:00 p.m.

The longer day "helps us with our homework," says Anna, 9. "Our parents are at work and cannot help us. Being here we learn more."

Other children say they’re grateful for the extracurricular activities. Most of them come from homes where their parents couldn’t afford such activities on their own.

"There are great activities. I love basketball, young veterinarian" — a program where they learn about animals — "and singing and dancing," says Mali, 10.

The Yarden School is bright and airy. Red construction-paper hearts dangle from the ceiling, with words and phrases written on them such as "politeness" and "respecting others."

Compounding the school’s challenge of serving underprivileged children, 40 percent of the students are children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There also are many students whose parents are foreign workers, mostly from West Africa.

The principal, Tsipi Avrahami, says Sacta-Rashi’s support has made a huge difference. She’s especially thankful for the extra funding for drama and art-therapy classes, which have helped build students’ confidence.

"You see dramatic changes in the children," she says.

Parents also are a partner to the process. The school now hosts parent groups where professionals instruct the parents on how to motivate their children and explain the importance of reading.

Some families that are especially disadvantaged receive home visits from teachers, who sit with parents and children and show them how to interact through playing and reading. Many of the parents were raised in homes where they weren’t read to as children, and they don’t realize how important it can be to their children’s educational development.

Nuriel Izenger, a special education teacher at Yarden whose salary is funded by Sacta-Rashi, says the extra help is essential for students.

"As teachers, every extra hour helps us to push the child higher, to give the child more," she says. "It’s like water in the desert — we need it desperately."

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