September 22, 2019

Parents’ loss leads to underachieving students’ gain through Israel’s unique Niot Project

When Roi Rose, a senior at Dror High School in Jerusalem, was in 10th grade, he seriously considered dropping out of school. 

“I had one foot out the door,” Rose admits today. “I was struggling with schoolwork and didn’t get a lot of help. It was hard.”

Rose’s life began to improve when Dror, a Modern Orthodox coeducational school under the auspices of the Society for Advancement of Education (SAE), joined the Niot Project, which provides educational support to underachieving students in eight Israeli high schools.    

Seated in Dror’s small library, Rose described the tutoring he has received through the program and the good grades he later earned on his matriculation exams. 

“The help was exactly what I needed,” he said, his face lighting up. 

Conceived three years ago, the Niot Project offers supplementary services to students with a variety of learning difficulties. It serves kids ages 13 through 18 in all eight high schools and boarding schools operated by SAE — several of which attract youth from disadvantaged communities — and also trains the school staff. Of the 2,000 youth learning on SAE campuses, about 600 have been identified as struggling with a learning difficulty or disability. 

SAE launched the project in partnership with the family of Niot Watzman, a Dror graduate with severe learning disabilities who, through his teachers’ encouragement, hard work and a great deal of help from costly private tutors, eventually succeeded in school. In April 2011, Watzman, then a soldier who had just completed the Golani Brigade’s tough training course, died in an off-duty scuba diving accident, and his grieving parents sought a way to help other families with learning-challenged teens.

“Dror and its teachers helped get Niot learning and motivated, but the school, for all its efforts to give him all he needed, simply didn’t have enough teaching hours and staff,” his father, Haim Watzman, told the Jewish Journal. The private tutors the family had to hire “cost us a huge amount of money. We’re not a well-off family, but helping Niot reach his potential was a priority for us.”

When Niot Watzman died, his family “saw it as a chance to use the educational methods that helped Niot to build a model program for kids with learning difficulties,” said his father, who would like to see the program widely adopted in schools around the country and paid for by the Ministry of Education. Currently, the project is supported by SAE and through money raised by Haim Watzman.

The Niot Project, which helps struggling Israeli teens succeed in school, was named after Niot Watzman, a soldier who died in 2011 at the age of 20. Photo courtesy of the family of Niot Watzman

The Niot Project’s goals are straightforward: to improve students academically and emotionally; to provide parents, schoolteachers and school staff, when applicable, with the educational tools and methods needed to effectively help their challenged students; to create an administrative framework in each school that will track students’ needs and progress; and “to honor the life and learning of Niot Watzman.” 

And that’s exactly what is happening. The program trains teachers and staffers in best practices, and it maps the student body to determine which kids need help and why.   

At Dror, once the students’ needs were determined, they began to receive hours of tutoring from their teachers, National Service volunteers and students from Jerusalem College of Technology — Machon Lev, who focus on math and science. The Machon Lev students, as well as university students taking part in the Yedidim tutoring program, receive scholarships in exchange for volunteer teaching hours. 

The project, which at Dror is known as the Niot Learning Center, also helps subsidize some of the expensive diagnostic tests students with learning disabilities must undergo in order to receive educational accommodations from the Education Ministry. The cost of the testing, which can run as high as $1,000, is traditionally borne by the parents, according to Eden Israeli, SAE’s learning disabilities coordinator and the education director of the Niot Project.

“A lot of the parents can’t afford the assessments, which makes it more difficult to deliver the proper services to the kids who need it,” she said. 

While formal assessments are an important diagnostic tool, Israeli said, it is ultimately the project’s school-based coordinators and teachers — not the testers — who determine which students receive help under the project. 

“We don’t need the tests to tell us a kid needs help. The mapping our coordinators do is based on what the teachers see in class, and that makes our program unique in the Israeli school system.” 

Because of a lack of funding, not every school has a full-time Niot Project coordinator, Israeli said. 

Ruchama Kook, Dror’s principal, said the Watzman family’s decision to channel their grief to help other kids is extremely noble and touching. 

“It has transformed the students,” she said.

Yehudit Shani, who commutes an hour each way to Dror from her home in the West Bank, said her studies have vastly improved since leaving her boarding school and coming to Dror. 

“Dror is so much better for me. I’m getting the help I need, especially in English. I feel more confident.”

The fact that the pace of learning at Dror is a little slower, and that the school is religious and at the same time co-ed, also are pluses, she said. 

Haim Watzman said that students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning problems feel “discouraged and frustrated, believing themselves to be unintelligent and unsuccessful. Many are on a path to failure in adult life and, in some cases, delinquency.” 

His son’s success, both in the school and the army, proved that “with the proper interventions, all that is preventable.”