Landmark graduation day for Jewish school in Bulgaria


20 June 2008 Landmark graduation day for Jewish school in Bulgaria Sofia’s Jewish community is celebrating the superb matriculation results of the city’s only Jewish school, its first grade 12 graduates since it became a high school with the help of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and World ORT. ‘We’re all very, very happy,’ said ORT Bulgaria Chairman and member of World ORT’s Board of Trustees Dr Emil Kalo. ‘It has been a long and complicated struggle to change the Dimcho Debeljanov school from being a primary to a high school. Now, finally, we have our first graduating classes and they have done very well.’ This year also happens to be the first time in some 15 years that Bulgaria’s high school students have sat a standardised matriculation exam. The school’s 47 graduating students scored an average 5.12 (out of a maximum score of six) for Bulgarian language and literature, including 15 who passed with distinction scoring more than 5.5, three of them with perfect sixes. The national average in this subject was less than four. In addition, the Jewish school’s high school students scored an average 5.19 for English, 5.76 in philosophy, and 5.27 in biology. ‘We’re very happy with the results,’ said the Director of the Bulgaria office of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, Becca Lazarova. ‘We’re far above the national average but we have some work to do to bring the school into the top echelon. But no-one expected to be the best in only our first year; this has been a transition period.’ Jewish children automatically have the right to attend the school and constitute approximately 30 per cent of the 800-strong student roll. Competition among non-Jews for the remaining places is intense, with as many as six children trying for each place. Dr Kalo, who stepped down as Head of the Jewish community last year after serving three consecutive terms, said significant problems had to be overcome in order to provide high school education. These problems included: instituting a basic Hebrew programme for new students (including non-Jews) who had attended other elementary schools; preparing a timetable that allowed for the teaching of Hebrew while allowing the necessary time to teach other subjects to a high standard; acquiring space for extra classrooms. ‘We acquired the space we needed from the neighbouring kindergarten, which was a near impossible task,’ Dr Kalo said. ‘But we succeeded. And now we provide a full day of classes and give the children lunch, which many other schools do not do.’ He said that the development of a high school was vital to the continuity of the Bulgarian Jewish community, half of which lives in Sofia. ‘We were losing children,’ he said. ‘Without a high school, the children left after elementary studies to attend general schools and we were losing them. Since it became a high school in 2003 the community has already become stronger. Having most of our children in one school it’s much easier to involve them in different Jewish projects.’ Having achieved so much and with the exam results promising even more for the future, Dr Kalo expressed concern that higher oil prices may prove to be a serious obstacle to maintaining the school’s Jewish identity. ‘More and more families are struggling to meet the cost of the buses which we contract to collect children from around the city,’ he said. ‘We’re trying to keep prices down but the transport companies are forced to raise their prices and this is resulting in some of our children being put into local schools. This is a critical problem for the school and I don’t have any solution at the moment.’ The Head of World ORT’s Coordination Department, Vladimir Dribinskiy, paid tribute to the skill and commitment of World ORT’s partners at the school, The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Jewish community of Bulgaria, as well as the generosity and vision of the donors, notably the Foundation and World ORT President Emeritus Sir Maurice Hatter. ‘As an educator with some 25 years’ experience I know what it means, how difficult it is, to build a school and make it a success,’ Mr Dribinskiy said. ‘Such dynamic progress as we have seen in Sofia shows that all involved have done a tremendous job. The result is a beacon for other Jewish schools in the region to follow.’