September 14, 2009, Updated September 14, 2012

A US system that is closing ethnically related social and economic gaps through schools at an unprecedented rate will soon be working its magic in Israel.

Work hard. Be nice. Sounds like the advice your mother might give you when you leave home. In fact, it’s the name of a book about the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) that has successfully narrowed educational and social gaps in the US and will hopefully be doing the same thing soon, in Israel.

Thanks to educators at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel is the first country outside of the US set to implement the new program. “KIPP is an amazing system,” Eran Dubovi, deputy director of the Leo Baeck Center and principal of Haifa’s WIZO-Leo Baeck High School for Arts and Design, tells ISRAEL21c.

“This network of college-focused public charter schools for under-resourced students is simply the best model we have ever seen for closing the social and educational gaps here in Israel,” he enthuses.

Aside from being written about in the book Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews, KIPP has also been endorsed by Oprah and by Bill Gates. The program also netted the 2009 Charles Bronfman Prize ($100,000) for its cofounders, 40-year-old Mike Feinberg and 39-year-old Dave Levin.

Israel first

Educators in the UK, Sweden and Chile are intrigued, but nowhere has the idea been taken further than in Israel, where Dubovi and his colleagues have announced their intention to open the first non-American KIPP-inspired school in the northern city of Nahariya in September, next year.

“To see it is to believe that it is possible to close the education gap, and to do so in a relatively short period of time,” says Dubovi, who spent the 2006 school year interning at KIPP’s flagship campus in Houston, Texas and thereafter participated in the KIPP Leadership Training Course, compulsory for all new KIPP principals (referred to as “school leaders” in the program) at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

The KIPP program features 60 percent more class time than in the public school system; smaller teacher-student ratios; a more disciplined teaching environment; high and measurable academic expectations; standardized tests and other objective measures of student performance; and perhaps most important, a formal promise, in the form of a written contract dubbed the “Commitment to Excellence”, signed by each parent, student and teacher, to make the student’s accomplishments Priority One.

And it works. Set to commence its 15th year, KIPP is growing fast and now comprises 66 schools across 19 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 17,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. KIPP graduates boast an unparalleled success rate, with 80% enrolling in college, compared to the typical 20% among students in KIPP’s target demographic.

Israel’s target demographic for KIPP is the 30% of Israeli students who never complete their high school matriculation exams. According to Dubovi, this socioeconomic group consists primarily of new immigrants from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union; kids whose families came from North African and Arab countries; and ultra-orthodox and Arab children.

In the US, KIPP’s target demographic is 90% African American and Latino.

Fixing a broken education system

According to Dubovi, the major ethnically related socioeconomic gaps in both Israel and the US are perpetuated by what he calls a “broken education system.” Like in the US, the Israeli government gives equal funding to public schools regardless of need, covering 70-75% of each school budget across the board (compared to some 85% covered by the average US state and municipal education boards).

“As a wise rabbi once said, ‘There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals,'” says Dubovi.

Parents are expected to pay to make up the difference. In less-affluent neighborhoods, where parents can’t afford to pay, the result is larger classes, lower teacher salaries, fewer class hours, an absence of extra-curricular options, an overburdened administrative bureaucracy and lower academic standards.

This “broken education system” means that like KIPP in the US, the Israeli version of the schools will also rely on donations to cover a significant portion of their operating budgets (15% in the US and 25-30% in Israel).

In addition to sharing similar social problems with the US, Dubovi believes that Israel shares a similar value system: “We both suffer from a lack of resources and the downsides of capitalism, but we also share the philosophy that we should help those who have been left behind.”

Dubovi estimates he will need an initial $700,000 in start-up funds to establish a KIPP-track in one of Israel’s teacher colleges, where principals and teachers will be recruited and trained.

Fixing the world

Because of these great financial needs, the Nahariya pilot has been delayed by a year. “If not for the global economic crisis, we would have been up and running already,” says Dubovi.

When the first KIPP-inspired school does open its doors in Nahariya’s Trumpeldor neighborhood, it will differ slightly from the US model.

Israel’s version will add nutritious meals, daily fitness activities to promote physical health, and a Jewish identity and values component, including “tikkun olam” (“fixing the world”) social and community training. It will also aim to meet a 25% acceptance rate of graduates into Israel Defense Force (IDF) officer training courses.

“Our intention is not to replicate KIPP in the US, but to adapt it to Israeli culture and mentality,” says Dubovi. “Love of your country, your people and your community will be a central aspect of our education program.”

In its first year, the pilot school will serve 175 students, chosen according to particular criterion set in conjunction with the municipality, from kindergarten to third grade. Each subsequent year, the school will add an additional grade.

If the pilot proves to be as successful as Dubovi anticipates, efforts will be made to extend the network and open KIPP-inspired schools in neighborhoods on Israel’s geographic and social periphery, including Jerusalem, Beersheba, Netanya, Tiberias and Afula.

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Jason Harris

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