Israel is often referred to as the startup nation, so it’s no surprise that science and technology schools are a popular choice in the Holy Land.
Israel Sci-Tech Schools, a nonprofit network that educates 100,000 students in 206 schools — many of them in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas — not long ago added another focus to its curriculum: coexistence.
For the last two years, coexistence programs for Jewish, Arab and Druze students have become a central part of the organization’s mission.
Two projects — “Hanging Out for Peace” and “Living Together” — are held at a number of the network’s schools in mixed Israeli communities. “Students from Arab and Jewish schools come together, meet, talk and do projects together,” explained Shai Lewinsohn, director of external affairs. He spoke at a luncheon last month in San Francisco sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues and the American Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools.
Because many of the students attend different schools and live in separate neighborhoods, opportunities to interact can be limited, Lewinsohn said.
The participating schools operate primarily on Israel’s “social periphery,” in cities that are generally lower on the socioeconomic scale, such as Akko, Ma’alot, Ramla and Lod.
“Our vision is to offer equal education to every student in the country regardless of their background,” said Lewinsohn.
Before students in the coexistence program come together, organizers make sure the teens have learned about their own history and background. “We don’t bring two groups together before they know about themselves and have pride about their own culture,” he said.
The biggest challenge, he said, is simply in getting started. “People often have preconceptions of who an Arab is, who a Jew is,” but after the first two or three interactions, the students relax and socialize much like any other teenagers.
Students choose to get involved together in projects with a common goal, such as tutoring physics, mentoring younger students, community gardening or volunteering to raise the spirits of patients at local hospitals.
“The students are very enthusiastic, even though they have some apprehension at first,” Lewinsohn said, adding that participants quickly find they have much in common and often share the same interests.
How does the organization measure the success of its coexistence programs?
Lewinsohn pointed to a high number of students who repeat the program. But mainly, he said, it can be seen in the way participants relax and become more open to each other as the program progresses; a questionnaire they fill out before and after the program supports this observation.
“You can see a decrease of resentment,” he said.
Israel Sci-Tech Schools — which operate similar to charter schools in the United States — has been around since 1948, and for many years the focus was on trade and vocational subjects. The shift in the last decade to science and technology has boosted enrollment and turned out graduates with technical skills that outpace their peers at other high schools, according to the Friends of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools website.
The network, funded primarily by the government, includes middle and high schools, vocational schools and two-year colleges, located in both rural and urban areas.
Sixty percent of the students are on science and technology tracks, twice as many as in Israel’s mainstream schools, said Lewinsohn, who also noted that the organization piloted a nano-tech curriculum for high school students.
For information about Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, visit www.israel-scitech-schools.org.