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Tamkin Joint Venture to increase Arab literacy in Arab-Israeli schools

Iraq al-Shabaab, classified as one of the lowest-performing “red” elementary schools in Israel based on Education Ministry evaluations, is implementing the Tamkin Joint Venture, a promising new educational collaboration expected to mark a potential shift in elementary education.

Of the 400 Arab elementary schools in the country, like Iraq al-Shabaab, half are “red” or “chronically failing” elementary schools in Israel. Arab students are twice as likely as their Jewish peers to leave school prematurely and score notably lower on OECD international assessments. The Tamkin system hopes to boost Rema’s reading confidence and address the persistent underperformance of schools like Iraq al-Shabaab, marking a potential shift in Arab elementary education across Israel.

Arab elementary schools are disproportionately lacking resources. To address this, the Education Ministry is investing NIS 33 million in the Tamkin Joint Venture to increase Arab literacy in low-income district Arab-Israeli schools. The word “tamkin” means “foundation” or “empowerment” in Arabic.

The initiative comes at a time when, because of the war, Arab-Israeli relationships are strained, and educational budgets were cut by NIS 300m. The Education Ministry in schools oversees the curricula for all schools throughout Israel proper, Jewish schools in Judea and Samaria, and in 18% of schools in east Jerusalem. But east Jerusalem has unique problems, according to Amal Ayoub, who established the first school in east Jerusalem to incorporate the bagrut (matriculation). 15 years ago.

Most Arab schools in east Jerusalem are overseen by the Palestinian Authority. Unifying the school system in east Jerusalem has been a battle for years and is more controversial now than ever before.

“I was very happy in education and made a lot of changes,” explained Ayoub. “I felt that I could have changed people’s lives. But the orders we got from the Education Ministry weren’t tailored to my population. I spent a lot of time trying to change the minds of the parents and students, but the bureaucracy finally made me give up.”

“The schools take money per student from the Education Ministry, using it to pay the rent, teachers, books, and then they get grants from NGOs as well. In most of the Arab schools, boys are segregated from girls. In Arab schools, they don’t teach Hebrew. By high school, they don’t even know a few Hebrew words.

“After giving 15 years to this system, I was so disappointed,” Ayoub said. She was hoping to spark a trend, incorporating Israeli education in traditional Arab schools. “Social issues and education both must be addressed. When a student was finishing school, I encouraged them to go to university or college, but their society encourages the boys to go to work and the girls get married. It’s not enough just to teach them. I had some brilliant students. But I watched the boys become cleaners and the girls immediately got married. The only Jews they ever saw were the soldiers at the checkpoint. Unless they have the same hopes, dreams, and communication – like in Jaffa or central Israel, it is very frustrating.”

Differences in education and youth

Unlike the east Jerusalem youth, the Arab children in the Tamkin program tend to be more integrated with their Jewish counterparts, although some of the cultural and socioeconomic aspects are similar.

With Arab students twice as likely to drop out of school than their Jewish peers, the matriculation rate in the Arab school system falling well below the equivalent rate in the Jewish education system, and Arab pupils scoring significantly lower in reading scores than Jewish pupils, improving Arab elementary schools has been one of the national priorities for the Education Ministry and the Social Justice Ministry.

Don Futterman, executive director and founder of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI), pointed out that while Arab-Israeli children speak Arabic it is not unusual for those from lower economic sectors to have basic literacy challenges mastering Arabic, reflecting the complexities of the differences in spoken and written Arabic language. Additionally, many, even in mixed schools, never learn to communicate in Hebrew. This leaves them at a disadvantage when it comes to pursuing academic studies and white-collar employment later in life.

The pilot program began five years ago, administered by staff based in both Kfar Saba and Nazareth. The Tamkin Joint Venture targets the needs of Arab elementary schools, where so many children are underperforming. Since the beginning of this year, it has been operating in 23 schools. They provide a literacy coach to each school and have former principals mentor the principals of the participating schools. A family coordinator reaches out to parents. Each classroom is provided with a robust library to encourage reading, which can be embedded with reading comprehension questions if the teacher chooses to do so.

“If elementary and middle school students do not get the basics of reading, writing, and dialogic education, they can fall behind for the rest of their lives,” explains Futterman. The collaboration will expand the joint venture to an additional 15 elementary schools in communities including Umm el-Fahm, Jisr e-Zarka, Kafr Kanna, and Be’ene, uniting diverse regions with a common vision for educational excellence.

Abeer Awawdi, principal of Alrouad Elementary School in Kafr Kana, has been using the Tamkin program since the beginning of 2024. He says the Tamkin approach, because it is centered on targeted teaching and learning strategies, has empowered teachers to create a conducive learning environment where students are curious, engaged, and eager to learn.

“There has been a remarkable improvement in students’ academic achievements in Arabic language studies,” explains Awawdi, who says more students are reaching higher levels of proficiency. “Additionally, we’ve observed a narrowing of academic gaps among students, indicating a more equitable learning environment.”

He also noted, “Teacher collaboration has been enhanced, fostering a culture of teamwork, shared lesson planning, and knowledge exchange.”

Futterman, a social worker with degrees in community organization and literature, developed the Moriah Fund 15 years ago to address the struggles of the Ethiopian community.

“People were giving up on these children,” he recalls. “We built a program to help the schools raise achievement levels while being cognizant of the need not to separate these children out. Pulling them out of the classroom stigmatizes the children. The model served 12 schools of Ethiopian concentration in the South and Center of the country.”

He said the model not only helped children but also reinforced teachers’ sense of competence. He went on to establish ICEI. The ICEI program has also taught Hebrew in schools in Ramle after Arab schools were shut down and non-speaking Arab students were suddenly integrated into regular state schools.

“Sometimes more than half the first-graders didn’t speak Hebrew,” Futterman said. “We had to get them up to speed fast. We are more agile than a larger bureaucratic system and within a few weeks, we put together a program that was focused on reading. It was not an ulpan [but] the kids were able to acquire basic Hebrew skills very quickly.”

Hana Laloush, director of the Department of Elementary Education at the Education Ministry, shared her vision for Tamkin. 

“The goal is to tailor a program to precisely meet the needs of every school, encouraging social mobility, and breaking the correlation between socioeconomic status and achievement levels. The decision to embark on this joint venture expresses the Education Ministry’s belief that it is possible to break through the glass ceiling in participating schools. The Department of Elementary Education sees Tamkin as an opportunity to create fairness and equal opportunities for students, particularly for disadvantaged populations.”

Judith Segaloff