Odelia Shpitalni ... decided it was time to give back to society
Like most things in Israel, education is complicated. There are various streams: state schools cater for the majority of pupils; state-religious schools provide more tradition and observance, and have a stricter dress-code. Then there are the ultra-orthodox halls of learning, where math is mostly a dirty word, and English words are rarely heard. The Arab sector has its own schools, focusing on Arab history, religion and culture, taught in Arabic.
But whatever your affiliation, one thing is constant: excellent pupils have the most fun. Good students usually sail through school, coping with tests, shining in class, handing over their report cards to parents with a smile. Good pupils mostly graduate to good positions in the army, university degrees and interesting jobs with decent salaries. Given the choice, most pupils would choose to be good pupils. And even for less accomplished pupils, a school-leaving certificate is the key to an easier life ahead.
Studies from the Taub Institute show that some 80% of Israeli children study for school-leaving certificates; of these around 40% graduate with above the minimum requirements for college entrance. When Haredi and East Jerusalem Arab pupils are not factored into the statistics, then almost 100% of 17-18 year olds are in some sort of school system; of those just under half are eligible to enter university. The correlation between higher education and better wages and standard of living is well documented and obvious: according to the "State of the Nation" report of 2009 by Dan Ben-David, the average monthly income for 40-44 year olds with 11 years or less of schooling was NIS 5,339, compared to an average of NIS 7,036 for those who completed 12 years, and NIS 14,235 for academic degree holders (see http://taubcenter.org.il)
Education in Israel is largely free; pupils are encouraged to stay in the system until they have their bagrut. In theory this is encouraging; in practice it's not so simple. "Free" education comes with a price; trips and cultural activities are not covered by the schools, books need to be bought as well as some sort of uniform. But the killer hidden cost is extra lessons, and these individual sessions are what often make the difference between passing well and struggling to keep up. Classes in Israel are big; up to 40 pupils can study together. Teachers are overworked and often harried; without extra help pupils sometimes 'fall through the cracks'.
A touch of class ... Odelia Shpitalni giving guidance to one of her pupils
Odelia Shpitalni was one of those kids who couldn't afford private lessons. Her Holocaust survivor mother had had minimal education and her father, too, had never studied much. Odelia grew up without much money, but her parents instilled in her the dream that with education, anyone can succeed. And succeed she did, graduating as a lawyer and going on to do her Master's in Public Administration at Harvard University in 2001.
"By that time I was living in Savyon with my lawyer husband," Odelia explains, "and we had managed to give our three daughters as many extra lessons as they needed. In the big classes of today even good students can always use an extra push. My kids were grown up, and I decided it was time to give back a bit to society." So Odelia gathered five friends and started to volunteer with pupils, teaching English in a school in Or Yehuda, adjacent to her home. At the end of the year, the grateful principal reported back that not only had the kids improved their English grades, but their overall achievements had rocketed up. She asked Odelia to continue, and to bring more volunteers for English, as well as for Math.
Odelia, who is stylish and attractive with a galvanizing warmth that touches everyone in her orbit, swung into action. She put up signs in the Savyon post office, butcher, and manicurist. She approached people at gym lessons in the morning, figuring that if they had time for Pilates at 11am, they could probably spare an hour to mentor a kid. The response was overwhelming.
"Within a few days I couldn’t go into the supermarket without people coming up to me and asking for pupils," she says. PUSH was born.
Today, PUSH has grown into a nation-wide outreach program with volunteers from stable, privileged backgrounds helping to give a 'push' to less advantaged pupils by tutoring them within the framework of the public school system. Anyone can sign up; there is no need to be a teacher or even to have any prior educational experience. PUSH pairs mentors with pupils, gives them the basic tools to help (seminars and lectures) and the magic begins.
"It is astonishing how gratifying it is to help a pupil succeed," explains Odelia. "We have high-powered executives on our team and very senior army officers. They tell us that on Friday nights, their favorite topic of conversation is their pupils and the progress they are making." According to Odelia, some PUSH volunteers enjoy their hours with the pupils so much that they actually end up studying to become teachers.
Mentors do more than teach tenses and arithmetic. Men and women who know a thing or two about life explain to pupils the importance of eye contact and a good handshake and personal hygiene. Some develop friendships with their charges, having regular breakfast meetings with them for years after graduation. One young boy who had lost his own dad was paired up with a volunteer pilot; the child received a precious father-figure as well as extra lessons in math. An astute volunteer discovered that the foreign-worker granny of his pupil had been arrested when her permit to live in Israel ran out; the child was coming home to an empty apartment and no food. The volunteer contacted the authorities and managed to help. Another identified his pupil's father as a drug addict and organized for the kid to be put into boarding school; the pupil now comes to the mentor's home for chagim.
Odelia, who has given up work to concentrate fully on PUSH, now heads an organization of almost 1,500 volunteers who work in 230 schools in 34 towns around the country, reaching over 3,000 pupils. Volunteers work for at least one and a half hours each week. In addition, PUSH pays remedial teachers to teach literacy to very disadvantaged children who are seriously at risk.
PUSH works out of an office provided by the Savyon municipality; every day Odelia liaises with 5 coordinators at headquarters and 50 in the field. Although many administrators work for free, Odelia dreams of setting up branches in every town in Israel, and this takes money. Twelve thousand shekel a month facilitates a PUSH center, covering administration and office fees. The Ministry of Education now contributes 70,000 shekel of the total annual budget, which runs to about NIS one and a half million shekel a year.
If you have one and a half hours to spare a week, and are looking for a challenge and some fun, sign up for PUSH today. Monetary donations are tax deductible. For more information please call 03 535 4965 or visit www.pushedu.org