Al Ahyla School, which literally means “the best” in Arabic, is a success story. Its students regularly score top marks on the national high school matriculation exam, often the highest average for any school in the country, says Samir Mahamid, the school’s principal and founder. The 46-year-old with a Ph.D. in genetics from Hebrew University has made the school a boot camp for Israel’s competitive university admissions, including intense preparation for the bagrut, something that is being emulated by his colleagues at Jewish schools. “Our school can be a solution,” says Mahamid, to Israel’s troubled education system. As a youth, Mahamid studied at a Jewish school because his parents hoped it would help him succeed in Israeli society. “But I think our students here learn more than I did,” he concludes. “Our school really is exceptional. We have book clubs, a leadership course, tutoring, lots of parent meetings and workshops.”
Established six years ago, Al Ahyla School is part of a network of Jewish and Arab schools known as Atid (“future” in Hebrew) schools that focus on science and technology. They are funded both by tuition—about $750 a year—and the education ministry. These schools have critics, however, who think the privatization of education does not solve the bigger problems that face the public education system.
The $5.8 million tab for the school’s construction was picked up by the Islamic Movement, which controls the Umm al-Fahm municipal council. The city is the headquarters of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, which has been criticized for its anti-state rhetoric. Some Jewish Israelis believe its strategy is similar to Hamas—which amassed power in part by providing social services to the underprivileged, who are neglected by authorities.
Atef Moadi, executive director of the Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education, the official voice on education in Israel’s Arab community, expresses concern for a different reason: “Our problem with these schools is that they are selective,” he says. “They take the good students out of other schools, posing a dilemma for us. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity for these students, who will go on to university, but it hurts public schools,” he says, echoing the debate over charter schools in the United States.
Schools like Al Ahyla are not the only alternative to public schools. There are now four bilingual schools known as Hand in Hand [Yad B’Yad in Hebrew]. The first two began in Jerusalem and the Galilee more than 10 years ago and recent additions are a nursery school in Beersheva and an elementary/middle school in Kfar Kara, an Arab village in northern Israel. Hand in Hand schools are run by co-principals, one an Arab the other a Jew, and each class is co-taught by Jewish and Arab teachers. Classes have an equal number of Jewish and Arab students who are expected to become fluent in both languages.
The Hand in Hand schools are known for becoming communities where children as well as parents bond. Students study and play side by side, becoming parts of one another’s lives—a rarity in Israel. “I say as a Zionist that it is essential to the Zionist idea that the Jewish state not be based on the concept of segregation,” says Sam Shube, executive director of Hand in Hand.