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This next story is set in a high school on top of a steep mountain in Israel. It's in a Druze community. That's a religious minority that's often on the margins of mainstream Israel. The story is the next in our series 50 Great Teachers. Fifteen years ago, only 12 percent of seniors in this school passed the exams that are a prerequisite for higher education in Israel. Last year and the year before, each and every senior passed. NPR's Emily Harris introduces us to a man who graduated and taught at the school and now runs it.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: It's almost 11:00 a.m. on a sunny June day, time for a test at the town of Beit Jann's only high school.
ALI SHALALHA: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: Over the PA, Principal Ali Shalalha tells students to head to the exam room.
SHALALHA: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: Inside, it feels sort of like a basement bomb shelter. Today's test is on history, including of the Druze, a tiny Arab religious minority. Beit Jann is an Israeli-Druze town. The test is one of nearly two dozen that students must pass to earn a bagrut certificate. That's mandatory for college entrance in Israel.
SHALALHA: Bagrut is a ticket. If you have this ticket, you can go to better places.
HARRIS: Principal Ali Shalalha played a key role in moving from just 12 percent to all Beit Jann High School seniors earning the bagrut certificate. He says he first cracked down on cheating. He got resistance and his car vandalized but stuck with it. Then he focused on teachers.
SHALALHA: You need good teachers that work together. They love their students. They love our community. They take care of the students and work hard.
HARRIS: He hired graduates of the school when he could - he is one - as examples of success. He sought community backing for his ideas and got more government resources. Staff, as well as dozens of aides, are paid for extra tutoring hours. Eleventh-grader Mudar Shar'er says he is sometimes at school working with teachers until close to midnight. He likes the results.
SHAR'ER: (Through interpreter) I feel better about myself and about school. I've done well on tests, and I've gotten better grades. And I spend less time going out with my friends.
HARRIS: Shalalha, the principal, notes that he doesn't do this alone. Seven years ago, Beit Jann built on his work with a program for 10th-graders who have the worst records from previous years. In small classes, sometimes concentrating on just a few core subjects, student scores edged up. Nissim Cohen, head of Israel's Yeholot Association, created the program and the approach. He says the message to students is simple.
NISSIM COHEN: I tell them the truth, that they can succeed.
HARRIS: All program participants have failed many exams. But instead of shying away from more tests, they take exams every step of their learning and pass. Cohen says this gives the students encouraging evidence that they can succeed.
COHEN: The same tools that the school use to show them that they can now succeed, we use them in opposite way.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: Back at Beit Jann High School, physics teacher Marwa Kees credits Shalalha with instilling a sense of rigor and pride.
MARWA KEES: (Through interpreter) Ali is behind the discipline and the rules that guide the behavior of students in this school.
HARRIS: Thirty-seven years ago, Shalalha was among the first five students from this low-income Druze village to attend college. After earning his BA, he tried law school but changed his mind.
SHALALHA: To be a lawyer, earn money - not more. But to be a man of education, you can make a good community and be better than what we have.
HARRIS: First as a teacher, now as a principal, Shalalha believes he is not helping just individual students, but helping his impoverished Druze village develop with the students' success. Last year, Beit Jann ranked second in graduation exams for all of Israel. This year, Shalalha is hoping for first. Emily Harris, NPR News, Beit Jann, Israel.
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