A darbuka class at the Neveh Elementary School in Dimona, one of the many activities offered by Lunch and Learn, a groundbreaking educational and social after-school program.
It's 2:30 pm, technically the end of the school day, and yet the halls of the Neveh Elementary School in Dimona are alive with music.
For just when school lets out, the Lunch & Learn Program begins. A groundbreaking educational and social after-school program, it gives youth at risk everything from a hot meal and academic support to extracurricular activities so that they have the tools they need to break out of the cycle of poverty and succeed in life.
One of the many programs included in the Partnership 2000 (P2K) framework, Lunch and Learn currently serves an estimated 430 youth (Grades 1-6) from 13 elementary schools in Dimona, located in Israel's Negev desert. The program runs from November 1 through the end of July and includes a summer camp. Lunch and Learn is an educational after-school program that was established in 2004 as a joint project by the Jewish Agency of Israel in partnership with The Network of Independent Communities of the Jewish Federations of North America.
"Lunch and Learn is a very meaningful and significant relationship for the Jewish Agency and we value our partnership with The Network and with the city of Dimona. We are making a huge effort to take an already outstanding program and make it even better," said Eitan Shaul, Director of Jewish Agency activities in the South of Israel.
Holistic in its approach, Lunch & Learn is endorsed by the mayor and municipality, overseen and regulated by a committee of professional educators, social workers and psychologists, and is run by a team of committed teachers and counselors who know each child – and the children's families – intimately. The parents of the children are intentionally brought into the process, including having access to parenting seminars.
It's a checks and balances system whose ultimate goal is the support and development of children who would otherwise be lost to poverty and unemployment.
"There is no question that Lunch and Learn is dramatically changing the lives of children here in Dimona," said Mayor Meir Cohen.
"The reason we have been so successful are in a large measure because of the donations we have received from The Network," added Mayor Cohen. "Their support is the fuel we need to keep this vital program going. I invite all donors to come and meet the children and see the program with their own eyes."
Dimona's Mayor Meir Cohen is a big advocate of the Lunch and Learn program, which falls under the Partnership 2000 (P2K) framework.
In his seven years as mayor, Cohen has made it his mission to help bridge the socio-economic gaps in an immigrant population that is living dangerously below the poverty line. Of Dimona's 40,000 residents, 25% are new immigrants, mostly from former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Dimona is also home to a community of Black Hebrew Israelites.
Despite the poverty, largely because of programs like Lunch and Learn, youth in Dimona are taking large strides towards academic success. If the national average on the high school matriculation exams is 50%, in Dimona, the average is 70%. Cohen credits the Lunch and Learn program as a major source for this success.
Starting this year, the program will launch a new, built-in evaluation system to track the children's progress.
But Lunch and Learn provides something else just as crucial as academic support – a hot meal. As shocking as it may sound, without the hot meal and light snack provided daily, many of these children would go hungry.
"A lot of our families cannot pay 740 shekel ($185) per year for a hot lunch for their children, so if Lunch and Learn did not provide them with this free lunch, they would just not have lunch. For some, this is the only hot meal they will have all day," said Dalia Perets, Principal of the Rabin elementary School, a Lunch and Learn school.
Lunch and Learn has also provided children with the school supplies and backpacks they need for the start of the school year. Beyond that, the program offers something else: The framework and supportive environment that is sorely lacking from many of their homes.
"Most of the kids who participate in this program don’t have the kind of framework at home that is necessary to succeed in school and in life," said Peretz. "Some of their parents are drug addicts, some are single parents who do not have time for their kids. If they did not come here, their fate would be different. They would hang out outside after school and they would suffer, especially during the summer when they have no physical place to go."
Lunch and Learn, however, embraces these youth and offers them the warm and supportive atmosphere needed for them to thrive. "The kids love it. There is no stigma," said Perets. A large reason for that is that the program is not strictly for youth at risk. While 80% of the participating youth are considered youth at risk, 20% brought into the mix are not.
And while the children who participate stay in school until 5 pm, no one complains – mostly because it is fun. Each school tailor makes a program for its students, but a typical Lunch and Learn begins by offering homework help and one-on-one tutorials. The enrichment program funded by the municipality pays for teachers to stay after school to offer extra support for the children who need it. After that, the children go to the extra-curriculars that appeal to them, from computers, language, music or art, to name but a few options.
Currently, 12% of all public school elementary-aged children participate in Lunch and Learn, according to Moshe Nachum, the Director of the Education and Welfare Department of the Municipality of Dimona.
While that number is already high, according to Nachum, the need is much higher. The obstacle is there is not enough funding to support all the children who would benefit from Lunch and Learn. "Our population really relies on this. We really hope we are able to ensure that more children will be able to participate," said Nachum.
In the meantime, Lunch and Learn continues its important work.
"I have no doubt that the Network of Independent Communities - together with the Jewish Agency - have made a major impact on the quality of the lives of thousands of children in Dimona, and in the process, brings peace of mind to their parents,” said Shaul of P2K. “We are creating a ripple effect in Dimona: When we impact kids positively, we also impact their families and the schools. This is certainly something we can all take pride in.”