Re: [Discuss-sudbury-model] The cradle of democracy -- the democratic schools movement in Israel

From: Karen Locke <>
Date: Sat Jul 31 13:44:00 2004

This is an interesting article. Have the Israeli schools connected with SVS at all? If so, how did it go? I've noticed that SVS isn't listed prominently in the IDEC conferences any more (I think they went to the first one). Is there some kind of conflict between them?

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Rovner
  Sent: Saturday, July 31, 2004 8:50 AM
  Subject: [Discuss-sudbury-model] The cradle of democracy -- the democratic schools movement in Israel

              The cradle of democracy
              By Tamar Rotem Photos by Adi Mazan
              With teachers that are called mentors, a parliament including students, educators and parents, and a lot of free choice, the Democratic School founded by Yaacov Hecht 17 years ago has become a symbol of a movement that is constantly growing - all over the world.
              In the early 1990s, Yaacov Hecht was invited to a convention in England about democratic education, which was attended by several hundred educators, teachers, principals and interested parties from many countries. When he opened the doors of the auditorium, Hecht immediately understood that he had found himself at the greatest surprise party of his life. A huge, spectacular poster left no room for doubt: "Hadera Convention," it proclaimed - after the city in which he had established the first democratic school.

              "I came in as I was, wearing sandals and jeans, with my broken English," recalls Hecht. "It was funny."

              For many of the other educators present, Hadera wasn't just a godforsaken place located between Netanya and Haifa. In 1987 Hecht founded an innovative school there, where the pupils were genuine participants in the facility's administration. Every decision in the school, large or small, was made in a joint forum of children, parents and teachers, each of whom had the right to vote. For the world democratic education movement, which today includes several hundred schools, the "Hadera democratic" facility became a symbol. It may have been less romantic than Summerhill, the school located among green fields in the English countryside that was described in the eponymous book written by its founder, Alexander Sutherland Neill. But what is more exotic than a parliament of children stuck somewhere among the citrus orchards of the Middle East?

              The Democratic School in Hadera has long since stopped being only a legend or a curiosity. Every week, parents who are highly motivated to follow his path come to meet Hecht. Today, with 25 schools that were established in Israel with his inspiration and assistance, and another six serious initiatives in the planning stages, the democratic education movement cannot be dismissed as the caprice of its founders. Those who set the tone in this movement are mainly middle-class parents, and that is why it is far less anarchic than it seems. Indeed, Hecht believes that it's the beginning of a revolution.

              And it isn't only an Israeli revolution. Hecht is also one of the architects of the international movement, which includes several hundred schools from many different countries. The movement is under the auspices of the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) - an incarnation of the Hadera Conference that Hecht first founded in Israel. The gathering, held once a year, is attended not only by delegates from the Western countries, but from Japan, Korea, Thailand, Brazil and Russia as well, mainly in order for them to meet like-minded people.

              It turns out that even in Nepal and in Latvia, there are schools that are happy to discover that they aren't alone in the world. They don't all define themselves as truly democratic, but they identify with the ideas of democratic education. At least half of them were established during the past decade. One-third of them were established in Japan, and they serve as a refuge for those opposed to the rigid Japanese education. In Moscow alone there is a network that includes dozens of democratic schools.

              The IDEC wanders all over the world, from country to country. This year the 12th annual conference will be held in India, which still doesn't have a single democratic school worthy of the name, but the initiative exists, labeled with the predictable slogan "Shanti in education." There are also many children who attend these conferences. Indeed, it is probably also the only such event in the world in which youngsters participate regularly, and which is sometimes even organized by teenagers.

              `Yaacov's journeys'

              Hecht is the central speaker at these conferences. Wherever he goes, they call him "Yaacov," with infectious Israeli familiarity. His English is still at a basic level, and he behaves with that same bear-like clumsiness that has become his trademark. Jerry Mintz, the editor of the online magazine of alternative and democratic education, testifies that in the community of democratic schools, Hecht is considered a brilliant orator. Inexplicably, he manages to capture the audience, from the moment of his abashed (and well-rehearsed) apology for his English ("I speak gibberish").

              During the past two years, he has also been in demand as an educational consultant in various countries. Those who work at his Institute for Democratic Education (IDE), some of whom have been with him since his early Hadera days, laugh at "Yaacov's journeys all over the world." He is best known in New York and in Christchurch, a beautiful city of lakes in New Zealand, which is particularly fond of unusual schools (for example, one that is located in a shopping mall, above the central bus station in the city, to which children come in the morning to consult with teachers about their independent projects, before embarking on their assignments all over the city). About a month ago, after returning from New Zealand, Hecht flew to Manhattan and stopped in Italy on the way, where he met with people from the education ministry and presented his ideas to them.

              Hecht tends to say that if one respects the children, by giving them choices, support and love, they will preserve their natural inquisitiveness and will learn of their own free will. Because learning is natural for children. That is the main philosophy of democratic education. Hecht improved on this theory, and today he also talks about "areas of strength and growth": "Every child has a least one area in which he is strong," he says. "The moment you identify this area, and the child has enabling experiences, his self-image will change and then the other areas will improve automatically. [Israel's] Dovrat Commission report ostensibly speaks my language. It speaks about exploiting the potential of the student. But it refers to only one area: the matriculation exam. But most of the students don't take the exam, and even among the 30 percent who do, there are very few who feel that this is their area of interest."

              The tension between innovation and openness on the one hand, and conservatism in the educational system on the other, has reached a peak today, says Hecht. As in a pendulum swing, when the system feels that it has failed, there is always a return to conservative values, a return to the "basics," and therefore they suggest bringing back parental authority and corporal punishment, or bringing back standard tests, which other places in the world have already eliminated.

              He also questions the assertion by the Dovrat Commission - named after businessman Aharon Dovrat, who recently submitted a report to the minister of education, calling for reform of the system - that compensation for teachers is a condition for retaining high-caliber educators. That's important, but Hecht says he has managed to attract the best students to the IDE program at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv. This program is "the hothouse for educational initiative." It has 130 students with impressive credentials, all of them with a record of social activism and a great deal of enthusiasm and initiative. That's the condition. The overwhelming majority of the students, by the way, are men. In the program they create a learning community and discuss personal growth. It is nearly impossible for a bad teacher to emerge from such a program.

              Hecht isn't overly concerned about the Dovrat report, which pointed out very serious educational problems in Israel. "In historical perspective, I think that the status of the child, like the status of women, is better than ever," he says. "That's why I think that even if we fail in a big way, and our schools fall apart, the idea of giving freedom of choice to children will win out - even in the most conservative school system in the world."

              What happens doesn't depend on any report, he promises. "The world is undergoing rapid changes, mainly technological, and children have a great advantage. Today everywhere they are developing an independent identity. That's why it's not that democratic education is succeeding, but that there's a growing need for approaches that suit the changes in the world."

              Hecht's dyslexia

              What was the founder of democratic education like as a child? The childhood of 47-year-old Yaacov Hecht is still the source of his great pain, which seems to propel him forward constantly. He was a dyslexic child. "They thought I was retarded," he says. "The kindergarten teacher had a strong voice," he says in understatement, "and if I did something she used to lock me in the bathroom and tell me to think. And that's what I did. I very soon found myself thinking that there was something wrong with the kindergarten teacher. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and that's why I forgave her and thought she was from `there.'"

              During his early years, Yaacov encountered many people who have to be forgiven. In school there was a store-room where the weak pupils studied, and when he was unable to learn to read in first grade, and later on in second grade, he was transferred there. He went through the following grades in constant fear that they would send him back. Only in the seventh grade did he teach himself to read, with great effort. Until then he managed to fool everyone and to stand out thanks to his excellence at sports. His art teacher was the only ray of light in his life. "He understood me and allowed me to express myself. I spent hours in his room, the other teachers had given up on me anyway."

              He grew up in a ma'abara (a transit camp for new immigrants) in Givat Olga. When his parents became financially established, they moved to the nearby town of Hadera. As an adolescent, he spent a lot of time wandering through the Hadera forest, and studying the network of swamps and drainage in the region. His father was an inventor. He created radios, and was a great expert in electrical circuits and frequencies, an advantage in provincial Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. And he was financially successful. He had a factory for radios, although he never became rich. The advent of transistors, which were manufactured in huge quantities in the Far East, dealt a death blow to his business. He opened a store for electrical appliances, but didn't manage to sell anything.

              His father never really became integrated into Israeli life, says Hecht. He was always an outsider. Something like Hecht himself. His father missed the romance of the years of the ma'abara, the hardships along with the solidarity and heroism of those days.

              "Whenever I came to Dad's shop, he would be sitting with new immigrants and listening to their stories. He would feel sorry for them and give them radios for free. Mother was always angry at him."

              In high school, ORT Netanya, Hecht didn't study at all. "I had keys for the teachers' room, and that's how we were prepared in advance for exams." On a daily basis he used to lie about his exploits, but he paid a price for that. "I was always afraid that they would find me out. I constantly had to remember what I had said to whom. It was terrible." Thanks to his apparent success in his studies, he was accepted to the most popular track in the high school: electronics. Not that it interested him. The principal also sent Hecht, the outstanding student, to teach new immigrants.

              The Yom Kippur War in 1973 saved him from the tangle of lies. That was the best period in his life. Teenagers, including him, ran the city. He worked in the bakery and the post office, and helped out in the elementary school. When the war ended, he understood that he wasn't going back to the school system. "At first I tried, but the teacher asked where I had disappeared to. I understood that in school they had gone through the war as though nothing had happened. And that in spite of what I had done, they wouldn't be willing to depend on me. I felt that I couldn't go back there."

              He began to work as a counselor in the Scouts, started and led a Scouts troop in Givat Olga, and in his free time began to devour books, mainly on philosophy and education. In the army he served as an educational counselor in the navy, a period that he doesn't like to talk about. After his discharge, he went to Summerhill instead of on a trek to the Far East. He already knew that he would work in education.

              "I was preoccupied by the question of whether childhood could be a happy time," he says. "At Summerhill, for the first time in my life, I saw children who, when given the chance to go to the swimming pool, to participate in a math lesson and to climb trees, chose math because that's what really interested them."

              He is still connected to Summerhill heart and soul, and carries on a regular dialogue with Neill's daughter and successor, Zoe Readhead. However, he has reservations about the fact that Summerhill is a boarding school.

              The secret of success

              Although he didn't have a matriculation certificate, Hecht studied for a bachelor's degree in education and psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, and afterward went on to study clinical psychology at Bar-Ilan University. He specialized in child psychology. For a while he dreamed of opening a clinic using a new method of treatment that he would develop, but he decided to work in education.

              He is married to Shirli, whom he met in the Scouts when she was 17 and he would lecture to her about his ideas. Since then they have been together. They have four children: 12-year-old Yaniv and 10-year-old Sagi (who study, of course, at the Democratic School in Hadera), and three-year-old twins Ori and Tal. Shirli is an opera singer who performed with various orchestras and with the New Israeli Opera, and taught singing. But when the twins were born and she had to choose between pursuing a career abroad and motherhood, she chose the latter. Now she writes books for teenagers, and says that she doesn't miss singing.

              They live in Hadera. Hecht's local patriotism is well known. He lives in a modest home in Neveh Oved, a neighborhood of narrow streets and low-rise buildings, with new immigrants living alongside veterans, and ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent). An old-fashioned neighborhood. He is not an impressive-looking person at first glance. Nobody can actually pinpoint the secret of his success. His friends and those who work with him say he is charismatic, that he has the traits of a real entrepreneur: He is both a dreamer and a doer.

              Talking is not easy for him. The words fight him, they flow with difficulty, but he has turned being tongue-tied into a trademark. He mentions this often, apologizes that he doesn't remember last names, and allows others to complete long words for him.

              Democratization, for example. His wife Shirli claims that his most outstanding trait is that he is not aggressive. There is something unthreatening about him, and that's how he succeeds in overcoming crises. He is an expert at creating ties between people for the purpose of a new enterprise.

              In recent years he has felt that he has nothing more to offer in the area of schools. The Ministry of Education - which, during the tenure of minister Amnon Rubinstein, encouraged him and enabled him to bring his ideas (from the possibility of offering choice in studies to implementing his method of conflict resolution) into 200 regular schools - has turned its back on him and began to rein him in. He looked for a new arena for his ideas: introducing processes of change into the local school systems. Hecht claims that his product can be used for mass distribution, and speaks of building a new, democratic culture.

              In the municipal arena, his work is also characterized by breaking accepted practices. He works with the Pardes Hannah council, which is trying to bring out the strong points in its schools, and with the Upper Galilee and Mevo'ot Hermon regional councils, which merged and closed superfluous schools, in a process that included streamlining the teaching staffs. Now his most ambitious project is with the Be'er Sheva Municipality, which is about to implement a revolutionary change in its school system, and to become "a place that plays a democratic game, that enables its 34,000 students to grow."

              Every high school in Be'er Sheva will choose an area of specialization - for example, art, nature, science or sports - and the students in the city will wander among them according to their choice. Their school week will be divided between their "home" school and the others they have chosen. That is a breaking of the consensus that requires the municipality, the principals and mainly the parents' committees to have an open mind.

              About two weeks ago, at a conference at which the municipality presented the program to the principals for the first time, there was a tense atmosphere. The principals claimed that it wasn't democratic to impose such a program on them. One principal burst into tears. But the next day, after Hecht allowed her to air her grievances, she was appointed the head of the principals' committee that will lead the change.

              Middle-class rebels

              When he was 27 years old, long before his eldest Yaniv was born, Hecht initiated the establishment of the Democratic School in Hadera, which after two years opened in the city's wretched community center; a few months later it moved to its permanent home, on the outskirts of the city. The first years were full of battles, until the institution was recognized as a Ministry of Education experimental school.

              "Yaacov lived at the school," recalls Shirli, who was involved only as a bystander. "He did everything there - not only was he the principal, and in charge of construction and wages, he even cleaned the bathrooms because he was in the group that took responsibility for cleaning."

              For years there was no principal's office in the school, because Hecht never sat in one place.

              Just when Yaniv was about to begin first grade (all the democratic schools have kindergarten classes as well), Hecht retired as principal. He had had enough. The school was then at its peak, with 300 students and a waiting list of 2,000. Some people thought that its best years were behind it, and that it was stagnating.

              Hecht says that he sometimes thinks that parents who send their children to regular schools are to a certain extent healthier than he, because they are less anxious. "Even before I had children, I knew that I simply couldn't send them to the regular school system, like that in which I studied. Now I know that even in the regular schools there are good educators who understand children. But they break down in confrontation with the system."

              Dr. Yoram Harpaz, who heads the Mandel School for Educational Leadership in Jerusalem, is a sharp critic of democratic education. He describes it simply as a movement of parents, who, like Hecht, want to protect their children. "There is no question," he says, "that the middle class hates school. The first time, parents take their children to school with a prayer in their hearts that it won't harm their child. The middle class dares to rebel against the concept of school, because it has self-confidence. It knows that everything begins and ends with the family."

              Harpaz says that democratic education has totally neglected the intellectual element that is the basis for learning. "Hecht made life easy for himself when he abandoned the game and decided that matriculation isn't necessary. I think that it's not a tragedy for children from middle-class families. But what about other, less fortunate children?"

              Harpaz also developed an educational method that is admired in Israel and in other countries, and is called "thinking communities." Like Hecht, he also hops between Christchurch in New Zealand, Europe and the United States. But first he established the Branco Weiss school in Beit Shemesh, outside of Jerusalem, which operates according to his method and has introduced its principles to about 20 schools all over the country.

              "It's self-evident that the original, factory-type model of schools, in which we put all the students into one study program and they come out uniform, like potato chips, isn't relevant today," says Harpaz. "The second model was during the 1960s with Summerhill, and Yaacov Hecht in its wake. During the years of rebellion, they threw out the curriculum and placed the child in the center. But the paradigm that asserts that if you give the child the proper conditions and love him, he will open up to learning, doesn't work. Underlying open education is a profound disdain for intellectual activity. I, on the other hand, believe - and Yaacov will be angry at me - that one has to pressure children so that they'll use their brains. With all due respect to his climbing wall in the school in Hadera, there is a standard of academic work that one has to teach. So instead of teaching math, which is a totally superfluous subject, I'll ask children, `Why is the sky blue?' - a question from the field of physics. And, `What is the connection between love and sex?'- a question from the field of biology. And, `Why do animals become extinct?'"

              But Harpaz confirms that he failed, because he tried to do the impossible: offer both matriculation and challenging, "pressured" study, as he puts it. These were two opposites, and it didn't work in the field. His schools abandoned the method.

              "Too often," says Hecht in response, "we confuse democratic schools with open schools, most of which didn't last after the 1960s, because they were too anarchic. In the democratic schools we draw the boundaries - and redefine them every day."

              The test of success

              Yael Schwartzberg, an educational consultant and former school principal who works closely with Hecht, says that the secret of their success is that the democratic schools have government-style institutions, including a parliament and sometimes even a constitution (depending on the school). In other words, a clear and visible structure. And in spite of the fact that most of them allow for free choice and have no mandatory curriculum, they are able to keep track of their students, and of their degree of satisfaction and their achievements, with a system of mentors - teachers who are personally responsible for the progress of a group of students. But there are several other advantages: These schools are like families, the teachers are enthusiastic and the attitude is warm and personal. And when there is no alienation, there is no violence.

              Roni Aviram, an educational theorist from Ben-Gurion University, says that Hecht's greatest contribution lies in the fact that he demonstrated that there is a way out of the traditional school system. "The school system, the one based on theoretical disciplines, has reached a dead end. Many people have despaired of it, and that's why they're leaving it for [those run by] parents' associations. The democratic schools are pleasant, and are based on an approach that doesn't consider content as a central element. Overall I like the theory, although I have an argument with it. But above all, we have to admit that it isn't esoteric."

              One of the secrets of Hecht's success was his ability to maintain a dialogue with the establishment. But after the golden age of democratic education, which coincided with the Oslo period, and an overall atmosphere of openness, the gates were closed. In recent years, the Ministry of Education has been fighting every initiative of parents to start a school, with the excuse that these are private facilities that charge a high monthly tuition - but when it comes down to it, the ministry regularly fails in the legal arena. Two years ago, five schools were opened, in the Sharon area, in Shoham and in Zichron Yaakov. During the past six months, says Efrat Ben Zvi of the IDE, there has been an awakening of groups of parents interested in such educational frameworks that is hard to explain. Six new groups of this kind are in various stages of organizing to establish new democratic schools, from Eilat to Tel Aviv.

              The criticism of democratic schools has always been focused on the fact that they undermine integration, and apparently they will always be suspected of elitism. But with democratic schools such as Jesse Cohen in Holon, Rogozin High School in South Tel Aviv, and initiatives in Be'er Sheva, Eilat and Ofakim, it is difficult to justify this argument any longer. Hecht claims that all the real revolutions began with the "established" classes, and that they deserve good education, too. There are serious groups of parents and educators who meet regularly and study the principles of democratic education.

              Most of the parents turn to the IDE after they have despaired of the system and have conducted extensive personal discussions. Ben Zvi, who is responsible for supervising such groups (the institute does this voluntarily), predicts that at least three of them will start schools during the coming school year or the year after that. Democratic education has managed to spread and to arouse the interest of more and more parents, but it still hasn't confronted the test of results. That is the big question: Do its graduates succeed? Do they function in society?

              It is surprising to discover that studies on democratic education, and on alternative education in general, are rare. Maybe in the universities nobody wants to deal with the truth, says Hecht. Because of the dearth of research, Inbar Avital, principal of the Keshet school in Zichron Yaakov, decided to write her master's dissertation in the sociology of education at Tel Aviv University, on democratic schools. Although she herself feels ambivalent about the concept of success as it relates to matriculation exams, she examined the results of 100 students, most of them from the Democratic School in Hadera, as well as from the Kanaf democratic school in the Golan Heights and a school in Jaffa.

              The findings didn't surprise her. Forty percent of the graduates from the democratic schools received a matriculation certificate, similar to the national average, but because the students she examined were from a high socioeconomic class, the number could have been expected to be 70 percent. However, in the exams themselves, the graduates of the democratic schools were more successful (by an average of five points) than the ordinary students.

              "These children can't look back in anger," says Yael Boneh-Levi, principal of the Democratic School in Kfar Sava. "They have no excuses. They were given every opportunity, support, love and trust. In addition, they know that what they did is theirs, without mediation. We have always claimed that they are responsible for their lives, but that we, the adults, are here to help them. I think that they understand that. That they accept it. And that's how it will be in life. They are responsible."

              Apparently the students understood from this message that they have to do their matriculation. The first class of graduates from the Democratic School in Kfar Sava, which finished this year, is composed of 20 students, most of whom took the exams.

              "It's not that we're disappointed," says Boneh. "We understand what environment they live in. I have a matriculation certificate, so can I tell them what to do? I only hope that we have succeeded in making it clear to them that their fate and their happiness doesn't depend on it."

              Competitive sports

              Twice a week, when he's in Israel, Yaacov Hecht takes his son Yaniv to practice on a climbing wall in Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael. Yaniv is a professional, the youth champion in wall climbing. It's unbelievable, but this is already an organized sport. Yaniv began his career by climbing on the wall in the Hadera school, which children built by themselves. It's important to Hecht that Yaniv takes it seriously, that he enters competitions.

              "I'm achievement oriented," he says, "but not competitive." Maybe it's related to his love of sports, which has continued since his school days. In general, when Hecht tries to describe his children's strong points, in his opinion, he always returns to sports.

              The Hecht home was quiet on a Friday two weeks ago. The twins were in kindergarten, eagerly awaiting their birthday party. In the kitchen Shirli was decorating two twin chocolate cakes, and the two big boys, who share a bunk bed, a computer and a small room, were folding blankets.

              "I'm pleased with them," says Yaacov Hecht. "I'm not a happy man in general. But they're happy children, despite the fact that they also have challenges in life. I know that they're growing up differently from me."
              Yaacov Hecht at Hadera's Democratic School. Despite his very basic English, he is often keynote speaker at the international incarnation of the Hadera Conference, which he initiated.

  ~ David Rovner, Haifa, Israel.
Received on Sat Jul 31 2004 - 13:43:50 EDT

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