by Jim Fletcher
Don Wentroth is exactly the kind of ambassador Israel relishes. An American educator with a true passion for seeing students achieve, he is also a keen observer of both the similarities and differences between the two countries.
The retired principal from Bethany High School (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) is doing anything but slowing down. His deep ties with the America-Israel Friendship League’s YASE program continue. And at home, he is running for the Oklahoma House of Representatives as a Democrat. Oh, he’s also involved with “OKIE” (Oklahoma-Israeli Exchange), a non-profit that helps coordinate the student exchange program.
With a doctorate from Oklahoma State University, Wentroth taught and coached for 13 years, was a counselor for a year, then served as assistant principal for four years, followed by two decades as principal. He is a man with comprehensive understanding of the unique needs of both students and teachers. The recent teacher walkouts in Oklahoma produce an edge in the voice of this personable man who is, in every sense of the word, principled.
“People are very angry about the actions and the priorities of the legislature that has been working with these issues. They’ve not been very sensitive to the needs of the people who put them in office. They are sensitive to the people who write the big checks and the lobbyists. Too many are in it for the career and not for the regular folks. There was a lot of arrogance during the walkout, in terms of being available.
“They [legislators] would just recess. And the conflict is everywhere: churches, schools, various organizations. Ignoring the conflict or recessing is not the way healthy groups operate.
“The answer to these problems is not found on the far right or far left, but in the middle somewhere. People have to be willing to sit down and talk. I’ve had a lot of experience in dealing with conflict. I think I’ve got the right training.”
As for YASE, he is greatly looking forward to the future, and many more years of involvement.
“It’s a significant program and we were very blessed to be a part of it,” says Wentroth. “We are putting together our sixth group to have an exchange program with a school in Israel.”
“It was such a strong program that the way it was implemented in Oklahoma allowed the program to be shared with other high schools in the state. It was such an important program for us that we decided we’d just go ahead and do the program on our own. So last year was our first year to do the Bethany High Exchange Program and allow another high school in Oklahoma to participate in YASE. Our delegation consisted of 21 students!”
As Wentroth grapples with the needs of both teachers and students in Oklahoma, he is also fully engaged with the Oklahoma Israel Exchange (OKIE).
“As education director, I recruited the other high schools to participate in the exchange and this coming fall the other school will send 10 students; we are sending 14 students.
As the principal I was never able to participate in the exchange, but last year when I retired I did.”
Wentroth has also visited Israel as part of a church tour group some years before and was hosted by the International Programs Director of the Israeli school.
“It was wonderful. And, get this: one of the chaperones in 2018 was chaperone for our first trip six years ago! The friendships we made have lasted. If the program’s mission was to establish a meaningful appreciation of the cultures to see how similar we are and see the differences are smaller and few in numbers compared to our similarities, it has been very successful.”
He is beyond impressed with Israeli schools and teachers and fellow administrators, because the innovation stands out and the feeling is mutual
“There are things that are done in Israel that are really exciting…and then Israeli kids and principals and teachers come over here and fall in love with certain things the way we educate kids and say we need to try some of this. Exactly the same with us when we go over.”
Wentroth noticed right away the community spirit that Israeli students have, which of course leads to their success in the military.
“There are a variety of activities over there. The school we’re matched up with is a magnet school, attracting students from districts across Israel. One student commuted from the Golan Heights. Every freshman at this school in Israel worked for the school in some capacity. Cafeteria, feeding animals, finding endangered plant life, etc.”
He draws on his own personal experiences in looking to the future.
“As a person of faith, if you don’t have hope, that’s not a good place to be. There was a point when I was in college I felt hopeless and it was a dark place to be. I don’t like being in that place and so I choose to be hopeful and my faith kind of flows along that same path so there is hope for the future. Through education you can sometimes break the pattern of behavior. We tend to fear things we don’t know or understand. To try and educate people about what is really going on in Israel is a beginning step in that process.”