Boosting STEM

Zvi Peleg (left), director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, is pictured with students of the network's program in collaboration with the Israeli Air Force in Kfar Saba, Israel. (Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network)

Zvi Peleg (left), director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, is pictured with students of the network’s program in collaboration with the Israeli Air Force in Kfar Saba, Israel. (Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network)

In Israel, high school education is mandated by law, and the government grants each student an equal financial allocation for education. But a town such as Afula, with fewer residents than Tel Aviv, gets less government funding overall. This is also true for small villages of concentrated minorities.

With the backdrop of that challenge of getting enough outside funding for smaller communities, Zvi Peleg — director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, the largest independent network of science and technology educational institutions in Israel — wants to grant the same quality of education to every citizen in Israel.

“We are serving the secular [Jews], the religious, the Orthodox religious, the ultra-Orthodox religious, the Arabs, the Druze, all the populations in Israel,” explained Peleg.

On Feb. 25, Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization supporting the Israeli schools network, held a gala to honor five prominent supporters of the program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

“Our American Friends group plays a very important role in the success of our programs throughout Israel. There has never been a greater need to prepare our young people with state-of-the-art science and technology education to serve the growing need of industry in Israel,” Peleg said of the dinner, which honored Thomas E. McCorry of Lockheed Martin, Dr. Charlotte Frank, Dr. Lynne B. Harrison, Mark Levenfus and corporate sponsor Marks Paneth LLP.

The Sci-Tech network was first established in Israel in 1949 and today includes 206 junior and senior high schools, industrial schools, educational centers and technical, engineering and academic colleges throughout the Jewish state. The network’s schools focus on science and technology education and reach the peripheral regions of the country, including Israeli municipalities beyond the Green Line such as Maale Adumim and Ariel.

“We are not political at all,” said Peleg, himself a graduate of an Israel Sci-Tech school. “We are dealing only in education.”

A core goal of the school network is to motivate more students to focus on science and technology education. In the Sci-Tech schools, 60 percent of students choose this focus, compared with Israel’s national average of 30 percent.

This focus pays off in a country that has built itself an international reputation of being the “startup nation,” according to Shai Lewinsohn, director of resource development and external affairs for the program, who said the network’s 37 two-year colleges prepare students to be practical engineers.

The Israeli high-tech industry is built on three layers of workers. At the top is the research and development sector, mostly comprised of people with Ph.Ds. Below them are engineers, and below the engineers are practical engineers, the largest layer.

Practical engineers “are very needed in the high-tech industry,” said Lewinsohn, and about 40 percent of those in Israel are graduates of schools in the Sci-Tech program.

Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces depends on Sci-Tech schools because the army is moving toward high-tech equipment that needs the attention of many technologically trained people.

“Forty percent of the practical engineers who are serving today in the IDF are graduates of our colleges,” said Lewinsohn. “Currently in the IDF, we have three graduates who are major generals. … One of them is the chief of intelligence, Aviv Kochavi.”

In addition, Elisha Yanai, the last of president of Motorola Israel, is a graduate of the Singalowski Technical School in Tel Aviv, a Sci-Tech school and one of the oldest and largest high schools in Israel.

Another two graduates of the school network are heading to the Pitango Venture Capital fund.

“Pitango is one of the largest funds that invests in the high-tech industry in Israel. [Managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango] Chemi Peres is the son of [Israeli] President Shimon Peres. The other [managing general partner] is Aaron Mankovski,” who has headed the HighTech Industries Association, an organization representing the high-tech industry in Israel, said Lewinsohn.

Today, Israel Sci-Tech Schools is the largest education network in Israel, working with 100,000 students from all over the country. Some of the schools have been founded by the program, while in other cases, small municipalities or developing towns that have a lower overall education budget choose to affiliate their existing schools with the Sci-Tech program.

Often, “because the brand has become so well-known in Israel and the level and quality of education is so strong, Israel Sci-Tech schools are really sought after,” said Stan Steinreich, a spokesman for the school network.

The program “will help any kind of community in Israel that asks for help,” said Steinreich. Since Israel’s minority populations tend to concentrate in particular areas, Israel Sci-Tech schools in those areas tend to include predominently students from those communities simply for geographic and demographic reasons.

“In an Arab community the school will be an Arab school, or in a Druze village the school will be a Druze school,” he said.

An exception exists when it comes to the haredi Jewish community, which comprises an estimated 10 percent of Jewish Israelis. Due to that the community’s heavy focus on religious study and religous life, few in the community are able to work full time, and the salaries of those who do are significantly lower. About 60 percent of haredi families, which usually include many children, live in poverty. By 2050, haredim are expected to make up more than a quarter of the Israeli population.

“In order to get those kids to participate, there are sensitivities, and [we are] working with local rabbis to make that happen,” said Steinreich, explaining that Sci-Tech needs to set up special schools geared to the haredi community’s needs in order to work with that community.

At the same time, there is a “warming for the concept” of education in secular subjects in the haredi community, especially science and technology, which represents the core of what the Sci-Tech network does.

“It may not be as quick [as growth in other communities], but it’s certainly changing,” said Steinreich.

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