David Shepard made his initial trip to Israel this summer, but what struck him most wasn't the history or the awe of being in the Jewish homeland for the first time. Rather, it was the schools he saw that made a lasting impression.
Indeed, Shepard returned from the trip with a keener understanding of the problems facing educational institutions both there and here, in addition to the many similarities they share.
The New Orleans native is a member of Teach for America, the national group that recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years or more in under-funded public schools. Thanks to sponsorship from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman and Samberg family foundations, Teach for America sent 40 of its members on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel in July, including two Jewish teachers in Philadelphia.
The program — known as "REALITY: The Renewal, Education, Action, Leadership and Inspiration for Teach for America Israel Experience" — was open to all Teach for America corps members, but was focused on adding Jewish context and values to the educators' work in the United States.
That was accomplished by working to build corps members' leadership skills and learning about Israel's education system, as well as the country's take on national and community service.
That combination of Judaism and social action proved a good fit for the trip, since organizers say that at least 10 percent of Teach for America's corps members self-identify as Jewish. More than 6,000 people participate in the nationwide service program. The two foundations that helped sponsor the trip are groups focused on Jewish education.
The time in Israel, explained Shepard, 23, who works at Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in West Philadelphia, served as "sort of a place for teachers to discover the values that motivate them to teach and pursue social justice."
Trip participants visited the traditional historic sites, but also met with political leaders, social-service organizations and even editors of Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. Yet what seemed to stick with many of them was what they learned about Israeli schools.
"There's a lot of similar problems" between the two nations' educational institutions, said Shepard. "Their classes are too big, and they have similar problems in low-income areas."
He even remarked that the Jewish state has its own variation on "separate, but equal" status, which plagued American schools for decades. Israel, he said, "has different tracks in the education system for Jewish and non-Jewish students."
Another educator on the trip, Ashley Novack, also 23, was struck by that same disparity.
"I hadn't realized that Arab schools were different from Jewish schools," said Novack, a math teacher at Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia. "In Arab schools, they still have curriculum set by the Israeli state, but they still have to learn Tanach, which surprised me."
She added that there's even a difference in languages.
Novack explained that in Israeli Arab schools, Arabic is the students' first language, followed by Hebrew and, if it can be worked into the curriculum, English. In Jewish schools, she said, the order is Hebrew, English and Arabic.
She also noted that American and Israeli teachers struggle with students who come from low-income families, leading to "students coming in with a whole host of issues, and it becomes very difficult to focus on educational content because of those issues."
While both teachers reported that they plan to take lessons from Israel back to their classrooms for the upcoming academic year, they also said that they hoped to implement them in larger arenas.
Novack said that she plans to stick around long enough to see her first batch of students graduate, but beyond that, she hopes to enter public policy, focusing on public health and violence prevention in Philadelphia.
As for Shepard, he said that he will return to the classroom to complete the last of his required two years in Teach for America. After that, he plans on heading to Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government to get a master's degree in public policy.
Shepard said that he believed he could make a greater impact by working in education policy, as opposed to the classroom.
But, he added: "I also realize that it's foolish for people to try to write education laws if they've never worked in the classroom" — and, for that matter, seeing how the other half learns.