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Lessons from Abroad

Friday, November 1, 1996

Americans across the political spectrum are talking about the value of boarding schools for poor children from broken families and violent neighborhoods. They say we need more residential schools like Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, Boys Town in Nebraska, and the Milton Hershey School, Girard College, and Scotland School for Veterans' Children in Pennsylvania. Despite their troubled families and neighborhoods, the vast majority of students from these schools graduate and go on to college, the military, or jobs.

          The major barriers to opening new residential schools are high costs and scarce funds. Annual per-student costs range from around $22,000 at Piney Woods, Girard, and the Job Corps, to $45,000 at others. The creators of a few residential charter schools on the drawing board anticipate annual costs of approximately $26,000 per student.

Instead of "experts" with degrees in counseling, Israeli youth villages hire positive role models for troubled teens

          Israel's network of 70 children and youth villages offers a model for successful and modestly priced residential schools. Residential education is more widely available in Israel than anywhere else: About 7 percent of Israeli youth attend these schools, at a cost of $6,500 to $9,000 per year. Israel's system comprises child-centered communities for "normal" children who have troubled home environments. The message to the students is, "What your family cannot provide you, the community will."

          Based on a hybrid of the European boarding schools and the "kibbutz" (communal settlement), Israel's residential education system began in 1933, when thousands of Jewish children were rescued from the Holocaust in Europe and brought to what would become the State of Israel. Special residential schools were created to care for these young, traumatized refugees. Since then, these schools have adapted to the changing demographics and needs of young Israelis who, for various reasons, lack sufficient support from their families. Many of Israel's top politicians (including Shimon Peres), artists, military heroes, and business executives are graduates of these schools. Roughly half the students today are neglected or abused Israelis born in Israel. The other half are new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

          Costs are lower in Israel than in America in part because staff salaries are approximately one-third of comparable U.S. salaries. But Israeli youth villages are less expensive also because they are burdened by fewer regulations than American schools. The typical residential student-to-staff ratio in Israel is 10:1; the ideal is 6:1. The norm for residential care in the United States is 4:1, though in some states and programs it is 1:1. Israeli youth villages tend not to have psychological counselors or social workers on staff, as is often required by state regulations in this country. They do not have to provide two adults during the night for every 12 youths, as required by many states. Nor must they hire registered nurses or residential supervisors with Licensed Social Worker degrees (LICSWs), unlike American facilities that wish to qualify for funding from programs such as Medicaid.

          "We use psychology, not psychologists; child development theory, not social workers," says Zvi Levy, the director of WIZO-Hadassim Youth Village, near Netanya, Israel. He focuses on developing a child's abilities, not offering therapy for her problems. Instead of "experts" with degrees in counseling, Levy likes to hire positive role models -- adults, usually married, who have served in the military, who have finished high school and usually college, who naturally relate well to the students.

          Levy's youth village has 45 residential staff for 500 students. "Too many staff means too much structure," he says. Students' input and assistance is therefore needed and encouraged. The village has two rules for both staff and students: Never hurt anyone, physically or emotionally, and attend school. Students otherwise have enormous freedom to plan their free time. Instead of devising programs specific to each student, the school sets goals and provides a simple, well-planned environment with strong community norms where students learn to navigate the setting at their own speed.

          Fewer regulations does not mean less accountability. The real measure of whether these programs are effective comes years later: Are graduates employed, taxpaying citizens? Have they formed healthy relationships and created strong families? Using these measures, a 25-year study by the University of Haifa concluded the villages were very effective.

          Israeli youth villages are largely funded by the equivalent of voucher programs. The Ministry of Education pays to a residential school what it would otherwise pay for a student's education elsewhere. The residential component is paid to the school by either the Ministry of Welfare or The Ministry of Immigration. Private funds supplement the public funds, adding 10 percent to 20 percent of the school budget. American residential schools could benefit from similar flexibility.

          Residential schools offer enormous potential for addressing the problems of America's troubled youth. We could have more of them if we applied the community and child development approach, and enjoyed the same flexibility in regulation and funding of Israel's villages.

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