From Desert to Desktop

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Three years after taking their first steps into an Israeli high school, 14 young Ethiopian immigrants at Boys Town Jerusalem have passed the true acid test for entry to Israeli student life: Like nearly every 10th grader in the country, they recently took the national, standardized bagrut matriculation exams. Yet unlike their Israeli counterparts, just three years ago these students had no background whatsoever in the math, English, technology and Jewish subjects covered on the exams-much less the ability to read the Hebrew in which the questions were written.

“Taking the bagrut is a major milestone in their education and in the curriculum we’ve created for them,” explained instructor Ehud Chamo, who heads the BTJ Ethiopian program. “For the first two years, we concentrated on giving the students strong Hebrew-language skills, alongside painstaking efforts to build their self-confidence and their identity. They haven’t had an easy time in life, in Ethiopia or in Israel-many are from single-parent families, some are orphans, and all face economic woes. But we are giving them every tool to insure a productive future.” For the first two years in Boys Town, the Ethiopians studied together, taught by top-level teachers who gave them a great deal of personal attention. This year the immigrant students were mainstreamed with the regular 10th grade English classes to study with their Israeli classmates.

Next year, says Ehud Chamo, the number of joint classes may rise. “Our students have always joined the Israelis for fieldtrips, sports events and other school-wide activities,” he stressed. “This year, when the Israelis went home for summer vacation, our students remained for several weeks of very intensive tutoring sessions, morning through night, for the bagrut. Like all ‘normal’ kids, they registered their complaints about the rigorous schedule, but the tutoring is what gave them a strong spurt at the finish line.” Although it’s too early to have received all the bagrut results for the Ethiopian students, the first scores have just come in for the technological exams.

“Every single student passed, which is a major triumph,” said veteran BTJ computer studies instructor Shlomo Seruk, who created a special curriculum for the young immigrants. “I’m extremely proud of them all, and I have great hopes for their future.” Adds Ehud Chamo, “I constantly tell the students how important it is to acquire the skills and knowledge that will let them guide their own futures. Considering the alarming rate of unemployment and delinquency among many Ethiopian immigrants, our students have the full potential to succeed in their careers and to build strong Jewish homes. I’m confident that they will make great contributions to Israeli society.”

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