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Local School Leaders Visit Israeli 'Village' Devoted to At-Risk Youth

January 26, 2012 By:
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Gabriel Kuriloff and Autumn Graves (second and third from left) met with high school students during a visit to the Yemin Orde Youth Village.

As leaders of two Philadelphia schools for kids who struggle with poverty or foster care, Gabriel Kuriloff and Autumn Graves face extra obstacles as educators.

Beyond academics, they aim to make a lasting impact on students who often have been impoverished, abused or neglected.

To that end, the pair recently traveled to Israel to see how the Yemin Orde Youth Village had made breakthroughs with teenagers dealing with similar traumas and displacement.

Founded outside Haifa in 1953 as a haven for Holocaust orphans, Yemin Orde has since welcomed refugees and immigrants from Iran, North Africa, India, Eastern Europe and other countries. Today, about 500 at-risk high schoolers and a few dozen younger children, many from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Brazil, live and study there.

The village fell into the global spotlight about a year ago, after a massive wildfire in the Carmel Forest temporarily displaced the children and left an estimated $21 million worth of damages.

The fire sparked an international fundraising campaign, but the village's connection to this area dates back about 25 years, when Gladwyne philanthropist Mark Solomon happened to read about the community and decided to see it for himself during a trip to the Jewish state. He rented a car, knocked on the director's door and "it changed my life," he recalled.

The village was "light years ahead of anything else in this country," Solomon said, recalling how staff acted like family members of their displaced charges, simultaneously celebrating their cultures and introducing them to Israeli life. Children studied in their native languages until they were fluent in Hebrew and volunteered both in and outside the village.

Back home, Solomon formed a fundraising group and later co-founded an effort to spread the village philosophy and best practices to other parts of Israel and the world. Through his advocacy work for at-risk youth in Philadelphia, he personally engineered and funded the visit for Graves and Kuriloff.

It was the first trip to Israel for Graves, who heads up the 161-year-old Girard College, a free, independent boarding school funded by private philanthro- py. It was the third visit for Kuriloff, the CEO of Arise Academy Charter School, whose last trip was years ago on a Jewish youth group tour.

Over the six-day trip, the two educators met with staff members to learn about their approach and spoke to current and former students. The challenge now, they said, will be figuring out how to carry out some of the successful tactics they observed in a way that works for their schools.

It was striking to see how the village had profoundly lessened some of the basic pressures of school by "de-institutionalizing the institution," Kuriloff said.

"They don't talk about themselves as being a school," Kuriloff continued. "Everything about it, from the view to the way space is arranged on the campus, it feels like summer camp."

While learning is front and center in a U.S. school, he said, Yemin Orde emphasizes understanding the children.

Every adult who works there -- not just social workers, but teachers and even kitchen staff -- is trained in the "village way," Graves added. The philosophy is to help the kids expunge all the rejection they'd ever experienced while holding them accountable, she said. Key to that is never giving up on them, even when they act out. Rather than immediately reproaching or dismissing students, staff go through a one-on-one "tikkun," or repair, process. For example, teacher and student might sit down together to fill out a worksheet analyzing what happened, then negotiate what needs to be done to heal.

Even in extreme cases, where students have to be sent away for residential therapy because they pose harm to others, they would eventually come back to the village.

"It's very much what you would do if the children were your own," Graves said.

Graves, who is Christian, noted that the village had the advantage of using Judaism as a springboard for spiritual and moral development, which American public schools can't do.

Like Yemin Orde, Girard has residential facilities in North Philadelphia but the 475 students in grades 1 through 12 go home over the weekend, usually to a single parent or relative.

"It's not an instant quick-fix microwavable meal," Graves said. "What you're talking about is a cultural shift in how the school thinks about behavior norms."

That might be a bit easier for Kuriloff since his Center City school just opened two-and-a-half years ago for 170 high school students who've been bounced around the foster care and human service system.

Kuriloff has already sent copies of some of the Yemin Orde conflict-resolution worksheets to his board members to discuss whether they could incorporate similar tools in dealing with students who curse, threaten, steal and otherwise misbehave.

"It's very hard in the American context to make that switch," he said. "Everybody is expecting if you do something wrong, you get your detention; if you don't serve your detention, you get suspension."

But, he said, if American schools truly want to reach the most challenging students, they'll have to find ways to help them heal and "create a community that is so powerful that the students want to do what they need to do."

"You can't just be a school that kicks out a kid at the first opportunity," he said. "We have to be in the business of dealing with the person first."

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