Israeli schools are respected for their high academic standards, and a great deal is expected from students. But with overcrowded classrooms and budgets spread thin, part of the Israeli student body simply can’t keep up. From weak academic skills to economic hardship at home, these pupils are in need of extra support.

This is where the Tafnit program comes in, helping nearly 10% of the current student population in Israel. Since it was founded in 2001 working with less than 2,500 students at 54 schools, Tafnit has stretched its wings to over 200 schools, and more than 20,000 students.

Tafnit (Hebrew for turnaround) takes failing students and brings most of them back to the level of their fellow students. The result is that one-time dropouts not only make it through school to receive their matriculation certificates, but also go on to higher education.

Tafnit’s main goals, according to their literature, are to “reduce educational gaps in elementary, junior-high and high schools; help teenagers leave school with a matriculation diploma, and give principals and teachers tools for helping weaker pupils fulfill their potential.”

Established by one of Israel’s largest private funds, the Rashi Foundation, and supported by the Education Ministry, Tafnit does something very simple, but very effective. The program’s director, Nissim Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that it enables students to catch up with peers by placing them in fast-paced, outside-the-classroom learning sessions in which they study the class material faster and sometimes more comprehensively than in regular class.

In high schools all over the country, Tafnit employs two programs. The ‘Last Hurdle’ targets 11th and 12th graders in danger of failing one or two particular subjects, and ‘Start’ caters to students who are (according to the faculty) in danger of failing almost all of their matriculation exams. These subject-specific examinations, referred to as bagrut in Hebrew, are comparable to the Advanced Placement exams in the US and require rigorous study.

According to Iris Hazut, 37, the coordinator of Tafnit at the Makif Amal Ofakim High School outside Beersheva, the 27 students who began the program last year are broken down into smaller groups, meet four days a week, and sometimes remain in the classroom as late as 10 pm.

“It’s a very difficult program,” Hazut told ISRAEL21c. “It requires so much discipline and motivation for a student who was already having difficulties in the regular system. At the same time, the extra attention is very good for a student who wasn’t succeeding in the everyday classroom.”

And the results of the first-year test drive?

Hazut smiles. “They all passed.”

At Mikvah Yisrael school in Holon, there is a similar sense of satisfaction with Tafnit. There are currently 90 students (from both the 11th and 12th grades) enrolled in the program, which covers bagrut preparation in mathematics, English, and history.

“If these students were not enrolled in this program, they would not have had a chance to get their bagrut,” principal Ezra David told ISRAEL21c.

According to the Education Ministry, the grade average on the exams taken by last year’s Tafnit students at Mikvah Yisrael was very good, with a final grade average of 80%. Unfortunately, nearly 20% of the students did not pass their exams, and those students will continue studying in smaller groups in hopes of passing the wintertime examinations.

David stresses that no matter what happens, these students are not held back in high school. Keeping them back with a younger group of students could be damaging to the struggling student’s self-esteem.

Tafnit’s success in the Israeli school system is credited to the fact that the program integrates diverse components into its methodology, as opposed to following one specific model. According to a recent study conducted at Ben Gurion University, “internal control” and the unique process of “following up achievement” are the program’s key strengths. The fact that teachers are made to feel an integral part of the program also adds to its effectiveness.

“Training to be part of the Tafnit program gave me new skills which forced me to modify the methods I had depended on for years in the regular classroom,” said Sira Delano, an English teacher at Makif Alef in Beersheva for the past 12 years. “Even if I didn’t originally believe in some of the methods introduced, I eventually saw how well they worked. It changed my basic thinking about teaching. There were different ways to interact with the students that I hadn’t thought about before.”

Sustaining student attention during Tafnit’s extra hours can be trying, and Delano says that sometimes the teachers need emotional support as much as the students do.

“There is a whole network of encouragement here. Because I have the support of the principal and the Education Ministry, the students have this support, too,” she said.

At the Kfar Galim High School in Haifa, Vered Gur, 51, is in charge of the Tafnit program. She doesn’t teach in the classroom, but is responsible for the logistics, bureaucracy, and discipline within the program. Gur also determines which students in the high school should take part in Tafnit.

“We are always checking and talking, checking and talking,” Gur explains. “I’m meeting with the students to check their progress. I’m meeting with the parents to talk about their children. Once a week, all of the teachers meet to discuss the overall progress. We are making mistakes, too. The feedback we get from each other is how we make improvements. A Tafnit representative is checking us as well, teaching us new things.”

Rahamim Cohen, the school’s principal, says that there are no specific criteria that a teacher must meet in order to be part of Tafnit, which requires additional training. However, he prefers to recruit more experienced teachers who he feels are already very professional in their approach. “The teacher should have lots of faith that he or she can help the student succeed. It’s important that the student feels that sense of faith from the teacher,” says Cohen.

In addition to intensive study, the program also aims to help students plan for the future. Studies conducted by the Rashi Foundation reveal a high correlation between scholastic achievement and family income. A family struggling financially is more likely to produce a student who will struggle in school. This will lead to a cycle of unemployment, poverty, and social marginalization.

With this in mind, Tafnit keeps a special eye on students from low-income families. The organization believes that a solid education is the ticket to a better life – and a better Israel. As a result, the program pushes students to change their outlook on the future so that they can realize their full potential.

Mikvah Yisrael’s principal David supports this ideology 100 percent. “You are always in a dialogue with the student, making him see his future in a different way,” he explained. “It’s important to have a goal to work for. Even if he doesn’t go to university in the end, he will still have the skills from the program in his adult life.”

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