A conversation with Levana Dabash, Principal of HaNassi Elementary in Bat Yam
The first time I came to meet with Levana, I noticed that she was distracted. People were going in and out of the principal's office as if it were the campaign headquarters of a presidential election, and the phone didn't stop ringing. Between the phone calls and her consulting with one of the teachers – Levana told me that an open house was scheduled to take place at the school the next day, and "I just heard on the radio that it's supposed to pour and that there's going to be a storm. I want the people to feel good and comfortable and have to make sure there are hot drinks for them. I only hope and pray that the rain won't prevent them from leaving the house."
That's how Levana is – she cares and pays attention to the smallest of details so that everything will run smoothly at her school.
We decided to postpone the interview that day. On my way out, I took a picture of the sandwich corner intended for children who 'forgot' to bring food to school, which I later posted on Tovanot B'Hinuch's Facebook page. Within less than a week, that photo went more than viral. HaNassi Elementary, which has been part of the Tovanot B'Hinuch initiative for four years, became the talk of the Web. "Do you know why that happened?" Levana asked me at our next meeting. "As you probably know, lots of schools have sandwich corners, but they’re not well maintained, the sandwich container isn't appealing, and there's no tablecloth on the table. The sandwiches are often strewn all over some dark room or the faculty lounge, and the children are ashamed to go in and take a sandwich. At my school, the corner is approachable and dignified, and for that reason the children like to go in and take sandwiches. People liked the photo because it conveys a sense of home."
Whether the sandwich corner, the pleasant corridors or the therapeutic garden – the essence of Levana's approach is caring for the children's emotional wellbeing. Apart from the welcoming external shell, Levana, the homeroom teachers, other faculty members, and the rest of the staff all know the children personally, respect their feelings and listen to what they want. They do so as a single, cohesive unit who will do nearly anything to give each student the feeling that they are wanted and loved.
"All that a child needs is that you have faith in him and reach the depths of his soul. I believe in an abundance of love and a warm and big hug in addition to setting boundaries. Those two things should complement one another and not be in place of one another. We see all the children – there are no transparent children here. If one of the teachers, guidance counselor or custodian passes by in the hallway and sees a child outside the classroom, they will go up and talk to him. And the children acknowledge and appreciate this personal treatment," Levana adds.
You said that, in your school, there are no transparent children. How is that actually manifested?
"It begins with a one-on-one conversation with the child. I don't only mean knowing what kind of extracurricular activity he signed up for, but rather what works for him, what makes him happy, what he dreams about, and how he feels now. The idea is that the faculty lounge is a therapy room. If we've decided that HaNassi Elementary is going to be an anchor for its students, then the entire staff must assume the task and be involved in the children's lives, and not only the psychologist or social worker."
And from the children's perspective?
"We provide the children with a stage by fostering their unique talents. For example, we have an 'artist's stage' where the child is expected to deliver a lesson in the classroom that's divided into theory and practice-related components. So, for instance, if a child is good at making Play-Doh sculptures, then during that lesson he will talk about the Play-Doh itself – what it's made of and what it’s used for, and after that deliver a hands-on lesson to the students in his class."
"When we were kids, if the teacher called our parents, it always meant big trouble. Our moms would immediately know that something bad had happened, and those who were used to talking to the teacher would usually ask: 'What did he do this time?' But, in our case, a call from the teacher goes like this: 'I just wanted to tell you that your son's behavior in Math class today was exemplary and that he took an active part. I enjoyed it and I had to share that enjoyment with you.'"
Apart from the friendly phone calls, Levana also makes sure to initiate unscheduled heart-to-heart talks with the students in her office. "They come into the principal's office not to be reprimanded, but rather to enable the principal to look them in the eye and ask how they're feeling, what they need and whether they're lacking something at school."
And are there results?
"In the external standardized test administered to them, 95% of the students reported that they're happy at school and like going there. The same children reported that they feel their teachers really care about them and believe in them. This is a huge improvement compared to what existed here four years ago. Before, the children wouldn't even bother coming to school, whereas today, when the school day is over, they don't want to go home. The success derives from the change in the social climate, which is my top priority because creating a good social and emotional foundation also leads to scholastic achievements."
"We don't give up on any of our students and take good care of all of them. Even though we can't change the reality the children live in, at least when they come to school I want them to feel good. We’ve had lots of moving stories at our school. A year ago, for example, a lovely child from a complex family came to us. You could say that the entire staff took upon itself to ensure that the child adjusts not only here at the school, but through hands-on and professional facilitation, we're also making efforts to ensure that his mother is able to cope with the situation. The child receives emotional support at our therapeutic garden as well. Last year, he also received emotional support at an animal therapy class. He takes part in a homework club and is given extra assistance with his studies. We have a social worker at the school, who is a resource that not many schools have. Thanks to the cluster of assistance we received from the Municipality, we also made sure to buy books and school supplies. This is the second year that the child has attended our school, and one can already see an improvement. The improvements may be minor, but from our perspective, every improvement is a huge step forward."
"Some of the students who came to the school knew no Hebrew at all. I asked myself how that was possible. After looking into the matter briefly, I understood that the children had been sent to a private kindergarten where only Russian is spoken because they could stay there from seven in the morning until seven in the evening. That way the parents could go to work without worrying. Therefore, rather than teach the children reading and writing, we first had to teach them how to speak. Fortunately, through Tovanot B'Hinuch, we made contact with Tel Aviv University and a speech therapist comes here to help us, together with her intern. Even though all the children are entitled to receive free treatments from a speech therapist until the age of 9, in our case there's no one who can take them to the therapy sessions. So that explains the great importance of making these resources available."
Following the interview, I took a tour of the well-maintained classrooms and corridors with Levana, where every wall is devoted to a different educational topic. When I went into a classroom to take some pictures, one of the students had the following to say which, in my opinion, encapsulates it all: "I love coming to school because it's good here, because here they really love me."