Thursday, June 6, 2013

Israeli High School Graduation

We attended our first high school graduation last night.  Our daughter graduated from Ostrosvky High School in Ra’anana, Israel.  Ostrovsky is a secular, public Israeli high school.  It is considered one of Israel’s best high schools with a matriculation (successful grade 12 graduation) rate close to 100%.  The school places a significant emphasis on academic excellence and features very strong specialized high school programs in math, physics, robotics and computers.  Ostrovsky is also the home of the best high school women’s basketball team in the country, which won the national championship once again this year for the fourth consecutive year.

This year’s high school graduation was held outdoors at Park Ra’anana, which is Ra’anana’s version of Central Park, a beautiful park that includes an amphitheatre, basketball court, roller hockey pad, mini-zoo, free outdoor exercise equipment and many other amenities.

The evening was divided into two parts, formal and informal.  The “informalities” began at about 6:30 p.m.  There were eight graduating classes, each with approximately 35 students.  The eight classes assembled in different areas of the park for the first part of the evening.  At these class ceremonies, the home room teachers presented awards to the students including excellence awards.  The home room teacher and some other teachers had the chance to speak to the students and some of the students made presentations and provided appreciation gifts to some of the teachers.

This part of the evening was very moving.  Teachers in Israel are on a first name basis with their students.  They connect via email and Facebook and take an active role in their students’ success.  Over the three years of high school, the students of each home room class remained together.  The class group went on trips together including trips across Israel and a trip to Poland to visit concentration and death camps and other sites.  The relationships between the teachers and the students – as well as the relationships among many of the parents and among the students themselves are often very close relationships – a tight knit community, if not a family. 

In our case, our daughter was fortunate to have had an outstanding home room teacher, whose sense of dedication to his students’ well-being was constantly evident.  He addressed the students and then provided them each with a few special gifts – a copy of his address, a small gift – and a DVD of all of the photos that he had assembled over the three years with the class group. 

The teachers did not all speak at this meeting.  However, one of the math teachers was the subject of a powerful presentation.  The teacher of the “5-unit” math course – the highest level of high school math in Israel – was called up for a presentation.  This math teacher, a PhD. in math, is known for being extremely demanding, rigorous and for running a highly disciplined class environment.  But his dedication to math and his commitment to excellence are contagious.  He pushed the students (including our daughter) for three years and produced tremendous results.  The students realized how fortunate they were to have this type of teacher and two of these students had special words to present.

After about two hours, we moved from the less formal part of the evening to the school-wide graduation ceremony with all of the students and their family members and friends in the Ra’anana Amphitheatre. 

The first part of this ceremony consisted of a number of speeches, which were probably similar to the speeches given at many different graduations around the world.  There were quite a number of speakers including the school principal, the guidance counselor, the mayor of Ra’anana, the head of the parent-teacher association and a few others.  In total, this went on for close to 1 ½ hours.

Some of the speeches were particularly poignant, especially the principal’s address.  A high school graduation in Israel is a very emotional evening.  Whereas in Canada or the U.S., or many other countries, most of the students are planning to continue their academic studies in September (or, perhaps, one year later), in Israel most of the students will be enlisted into the army (the Israel Defence Forces).  Since Ostrovsky has such a strong academic program, many of its students are recruited to serve in prestigious, high level units, including intelligence units, the air force, and some elite combat units.  A principal addressing these students knows that many of them may well face significant, dangerous challenges during their mandatory military service. 

The principal called upon these “students of the millennium generation” to continue to work to change society.  She highlighted the many positive ways that students have used technology in Israel (and worldwide) to help recruit more voters, to organize rallies and political campaigns and to push for social change.  She called on the students to take responsibility for helping make Israel a better place by working to reduce the gap between the wealthy and the poor in society, by working to support political candidates of their choice actively and peacefully (as so many did in Israel’s recent national election), by helping to promote tolerance in society, and by helping Israel to find a way to reach peace deals with its Arab neighbours. 

One of the speakers, I believe it was the head of the PTA, also had a very interesting message.  She recounted that when her son was young, he would climb up a neighbourhood tree and people would tell him to come down before he gets hurt.  Although he fell from the tree and was injured, it was not particularly serious.  She now urged him and the other students to “continue to climb as high you can, don’t be afraid of the heights and don’t let anyone tell you to come down from the tree.”  It is a message that resonates throughout Israeli society, in a country which must constantly cope with existential threats, even though the country may enjoy intermittent periods of relative quiet.

The school faculty then distributed awards of high excellence to students with averages exceeding 95%. Various other awards and certificates were handed out, recognizing a wide range of student volunteer activities and dedication to the school, the community and many different causes. 

Once the formal part of the evening was over – one and half hours later, the fun part of the evening began. The grade 12 graduating class presented a revue show entitled “Ostrovsky’s 51st graduating class in 60 minutes.”  The show included various dances, some with more than 80 students on the stage at the same time, short skits, video clips that the students had prepared, one or two video clips prepared by the faculty, and a number of songs.  It was entertaining and fun.  One of the comedic highlights was a group of males students, dressed in tutus, singing Carly-Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” – with accompanying dance moves and gestures.  In another skit, A group of teachers produced a video clip of a mock classroom scheme – in which the students are doing a whole bunch of inappropriate things in the class – wearing sunglasses, talking on their cell phones, texting each other, putting on nail polish – and my favourite – one “student” asks if he can eat a snack in class – he then pulls out a chopping board and starts cutting up a cucumber and tomato to make a salad…it was quite funny.

The finale featured most of the students dancing and singing on stage.  And the students all headed out to a post-grad party – which I know very little about…

Most students have not yet completed all of their grade 12 exams and may still be writing them until mid-July, depending on which courses they took.  So the year is not yet over for everyone.  But some students have completed their exams and may enter the army as soon as early July.

 Students planning to continue on with their education will need to complete Israel’s “psychometric exams” – an SAT-type standardized test.  But first, they will need to complete their mandatory military service, which could range from twenty months to just under three years.  Some will choose to become career military personnel and may continue with their education under the auspices of the IDF.  Others will attend university as soon as they are able to do so after completing their service. 

For now, the students still have more exams to write and an upcoming prom (which is becoming more and more of a tradition in Israel, of late).  Then, for most of them, it is off to the “real world” in a way that is quite different from what 18 and 19 year-olds around the world experience. 

We can only dream for a day when Israel will be at peace with its neighbours and universal, mandatory service will not be necessary.  But looking at events taking place in Syria, Egypt, Gaza, Iran, Turkey and Israel’s other neighbouring countries it is difficult to be optimistic that this will occur anytime soon. 

We wish the students of the 2013 graduating class of Ostrovsky (as well all the other graduating students in Israel) success in all they do.  May they serve proudly and return home safely.  To all the 18 and 19 year-olds we know in other countries, who will be entering university or college in September, we wish them the best of success.  They should constantly remember how fortunate they are to be living in countries that are not facing these types of existential threats and they should take full advantage of their opportunities.

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