BETHLEHEM—In the heart of the city is a center that has been leveling the playing field for Palestinian students for the past five years, enabling them to excel in their academic work in ways many could not have imagined. 

The aptly named Reach Academic Center encourages its students of all ages to aim high, score high, get into college and pursue a good career. And it does so by providing supplementary study programs at affordable rates, even offering scholarships to teens in the West Bank and Jerusalem who take classes there.

“We provide plenty of programs to support students of all ages,” Tawfiq Rafidi said during a tour of the facility for ALL ARAB NEWS. “We have special programs for the tawjihi (matriculation exams) and extra programs to let the students engage with each other and to create opportunities to explore their knowledge and skills.”

For people outside of Arab society, it is difficult to understand the daunting pressures placed on students to perform well on the matriculation exam, which can make or break the future of a student. The tawjihi, the General Secondary Education Certificate Examination, is the last level of the Palestinian school education system. A student must pass the tawjihi for eligibility to enroll in universities and colleges and their score will determine what they can choose for a major.

The test itself is more rigorous than the American equivalent, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and a failing score can actually render your prior academic years irrelevant, dashing your hopes of college and a good career.

“Young Palestinians cram for weeks before the exam and often lose sleep trying to be as prepared as possible, learning by heart the information that might be on the test. The results determine whether a student will be admitted to medical school or qualifies to study engineering,” according to Al-Monitor. “Thus, the test has become a huge part of Palestinian life.”

Beyond the test itself is the enormous societal pressure of getting a good score, which is used as a bragging right among Arab parents who generally value academic achievement over sports and arts. The tawjihi scores used to be published in the local papers, which added to the stress. Now the results come in by phone to individual families at the same time on the same day, accompanied by fireworks in Arab cities and towns.

Rafidi had this and much more in mind when he founded Reach Academic Center in 2016. While working at a Catholic school in Jerusalem, Rafidi noticed that the students were struggling in their studies and many needed supplemental tutoring. Otherwise, they just weren’t able to succeed.

This bleak outlook can damage students’ hopes for success and a career early on, potentially condemning them to a life of questionable employment rather than a certain career. Reach Center tries to ease this communal stress for Palestinian high schoolers.

“We want to get them into a new mindset so they can use these tools and implement them,” Rafidi said.

This is the driving motivation of Rafidi, who is also a head coach for the De LaSalle basketball team in Jerusalem. Rafidi is constantly on the go, planning and organizing various humanitarian outreaches to disadvantaged Arab youth through the De LaSalle Cares Committee.

For Reach Center’s opening, Rafidi never needed to advertise. During the first week, 300 students signed up. Now, five years later, there are waiting lists. Rafidi estimated that some 500 children and teens pass through the building weekly to attend different classes and programs during the Center’s busiest season.

Educational programs run year-round for all ages including debate, chess, psychodrama for both teachers, parents and social workers plus language clubs. In the future, Rafidi plans to have vocational activities and team up with nonprofits that support these activities and programs.

Another after-school program welcomes kids everyday after school and a separate one is designed for children with learning difficulties.

“I didn’t want to turn anyone away,” Rafidi said. “Everybody has the right to come and learn.”

Rafidi, who manages Reach Center as a volunteer, decided to officially open it as a business rather than a nonprofit in order to steer clear of politics. Not that there is a profit to be made. Rafidi purposely keeps the prices affordable so that all students are able to participate and the teachers, he said, graciously agreed to receive lower salaries. The tuition pays the teachers and rent for the two-story building. 

There is no profit, but the benefits are priceless, Rafidi said. Not only are Reach graduates getting scholarships for medical schools and being accepted to universities abroad, Rafidi noted a decrease in violence among the youth and a marked increase in tolerance as Christian and Muslim Palestinians learn side by side.  

The cafe provides a modern and safe space for teens to study, borrow books from the on-site library, play some board games or just hang out.

We visited at the height of tawjihi preparation with classes packed with 475 eager students studying for the math, science and literature tracks. As one round of classes ended, students bustled out while more came in, mingling in the facility’s cafe on their way to classes. Several students spoke with ALL ARAB NEWS about their classes and how they are benefiting from the programs. Dylan Salem, 17, said with all the anxiety that comes with the test, these classes helped her have confidence that she would do well and get accepted into a good university.

Celine Jubran, also 17, represented the views of many students taking the tawjihi preparatory class who see this as their ticket to a better future. In her case, she’s hoping to go to Italy for higher learning

“I want to score high and get a scholarship to a university,” she said. “This is giving me the tools to live a better life.”

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