The Jewish Day School Discussion: Take Two

Jewish Day School Education. It's very hard for me to continue this conversation, as I've been called upon to do recently (in response to my 2011 post because I am no longer "in the parsha" so to speak. My kids are not in Jewish day schools and my own religiosity remains a mystery to most of the outside world. I do believe in God, but I just don't know what type of yarmulkah he wears (knitted, velvet, cloth?), or if any. I admit to just having many questions unanswered when it comes to Judaism. That is as far as I'll go to categorize myself religiously because, as I often explain "I'm not in a category," and I don't identify with the labels that others use to depict themselves. I will say that I can write about Jewish day schools today as an outside observer and on the basis of interviews with people who send their children to Jewish day schools. Interestingly, they have all asked that their names be withheld because the topic does incite a lot of heated discussions.

Going back to my 2011 post, it's damn expensive to send multiple kids to Jewish day schools. It's expensive to send just one. Jews still feel like they are being priced out of their religion, but there's a sliver of hope -- schools that employ blended learning that charge $9,000 tuition per child as opposed to the standard $15,000-$18,000 that, to be specific, Northern New Jersey day schools charge. In the interim, the costlier schools have also incorporated some blended learning into their curricula given the recent hype attached. (And if you are going to charge a higher tuition, wouldn't you want to offer something that the new lower tuition schools offer?)

There is a lot that a child can learn via computer, but old school educators have written to me stating that it is detrimental to education to cut down on the ratio of staff per students because of online learning, flip models (when students are taught something in class and given a video to comment on for homework/some way to do the homework via the computer) and high tech ways to teach. One high school teacher wrote me a while back that the Socratic method of teaching (initializing a discussion and drawing the students out to deliberate among their peers and with the teacher) is the most effective way to learn, internalize for later analysis and essay writing, and philosophize or debate. These teachers (and I've spoken with a dozen of them over the past couple of years) do offer two hours per week of computer or iPad time that incorporates the curricula, but have made sure that the time is limited to those two hours. Their classes can be categorized by reading instruction, class discussion, hand-written homework assignments and hands on projects.

Not in Jewish day schools at present, my own kids' Jewish education has to be supplemented by Chabad and similar programs or independent tutoring. Yeshiva advocates are quick to say "it's not ideal" and I will not argue that point. However, we do receive a state sponsored individualized educational program (IEP) in public school for one of our children, which we would not have received in a Jewish day school, and we anticipate some of these state-funded services for another of our children. Other parents have made the decision about public school over Jewish day school for this reason alone, sometimes unwittingly, but knowing that choices in special education or enrichment are somewhat limited in private schools.

My kids receive an excellent secular education from what I observe. My kindergarteners (twins) are in a very academic environment. My older two (a third grader and a sixth grader) are worlds ahead in math than I ever was at their age (maybe that is a result of "the common core"). My third grader is doing algebra and subjects that I don't even remember learning, like "order of operations" (I'm sure I must have learned this too, but pardon me here as math was never my forte). We already know that Jewish day schools offer an excellent dual curriculum; half the day is spent on Jewish studies and the other half is spent on secular studies and with that half and half, many of these kids thrive and are known to go on to Ivy league and other reputable institutions. However, wouldn't it be ideal if we had an archdiocese-like advantage when it came to the cost of tuition? $9,000 too can be expensive for some families.

In the interest of full disclosure, I volunteered with two different Jewish day schools years ago, one with a tuition of approximately (not including building fees) $15,000 per year per child (we have four kids), and another, that was entirely new and in its launching phase. It was a Jewish day school that would offer a tuition of $9,000 and planned to cut costs by offering blended learning. At that point, the $9,000 school had not opened its doors and the people on the board were businessmen and business women who were operating on a business level but were working to get educators as consultants in addition to an outside consulting team -- that they eventually brought in -- that studied different educational models and could attest to the workings of a blended learning school (albeit, not a Jewish one -- not yet). This Jewish day school ended up becoming the first of its kind and because my only child that would be of age required an IEP, we found a school that was most ideal for us at that time, outside of the Jewish day school arena.

Many discussions had gone into launching the lower tuition Jewish day school, such as having one teacher in a classroom and then a roaming veteran teacher among the classes who would oversee that all was done correctly. This was to save costs on having two (or three) teachers per classroom. I understand from parents who I've spoken with that that particular $9,000 school (there are a limited few across the country now) has not really compromised much, and that donations have come into the school, through the board and private "big machers" (the Donald Trumps of the yeshiva elite who prioritize yeshiva education). There are questions about how this school will keep its tuition at $9,000 long term, but the school has assured parents it will do so.

One parent, who tells me she is elated with the education her children are receiving in a rotational model in the $9,000 Bergen County school (with the rotational model, it would go something like this: a teacher reads a book, kids go to computers, kids then go to art, kids go to a discussion with the teacher, kids go back to the computers for online participatory instruction, etc, and so it rotates) and who sees great benefits, relates that she does "not feel the cut backs" that this type of school must employ. Initially, there had been a rumor that the nurse would be a volunteer parent, another parent relates, but it seems the school discovered it was imperative or required to hire a full-fledged school nurse. This parent further elaborates, "In addition to a nurse, there is a part time gym teacher (Children also have the ability to play and run around outside where there is a small jungle gym area that they love!). The school plans on moving to a larger space next school year if all goes well. One of the teachers does art so they can have an assistant instead of another teacher."

Kids learn. And while blended learning is new and we do not have impressive enough statistics to attest to how well they do long term with instructional online learning, schools are able to keep score of how individual students perform with these programs. They are also able to assess how plugged in each student actually is, whether he/she is participating and has finished each computer-based assignment. The way that educators can keep track of assignments through online learning and track progress is actually quite impressive and enough to give veteran educators (the ones who oppose blended learning) pause -- or, at least, food for thought. Jenni Levy Esq, who is currently the Lower School Principal in General Studies at one of the older, more established Jewish day schools in Bergen County (with a tuition well above $9,000 but still among the lowest priced of the high-tuition schools), is an advocate of integrating computerized, online instruction with classroom learning as an asset to the overall educational experience. She has written extensively about the importance of teachers drawing the students in with thought-provoking discussions to enhance the modernized curriculum. On her blog, titled "Saving Socrates" (a name I had suggested to her when she began), she discusses this delicate balance and how to maximize new learning strategies with the old, tried and true methods.

While we can hopefully "Save Socrates", we may not have as much luck with yeshiva tuition since we have a ways to go before Jewish day schools across the country are affordable. However, in Israel, they are free. In fact, my own brother and his family moved to Israel to benefit from a free Jewish education there. Remember: the United States is where we can not bundle in religion (Church and state! Church and state!) with the secular curricula without paying a price. More affordable options are opening up stateside as I write this, but some say that the best move is to relocate to the Holy Land.