A Breakthrough Model For Day Schools?


Nearly 400 young parents attended an open house this week for a Modern Orthodox yeshiva, planning to open in Bergenfield, N.J., next fall, that will not only offer a bargain-rate tuition but promises to be a model for Jewish education in the 21st century.

And the still-to-be-opened school, called Yeshivat He’atid (Hebrew for “Yeshiva of the Future”) has apparently already inspired one still-anonymous donor, representing several wealthy businessmen interested in the effort, to form AJE, Affordable Jewish Education, a fund with the goal of starting schools like Yeshivat He’Atid around the country.

Gershon Distenfeld, He’atid’s executive vice president (a lay position) told the enthusiastic, overflow audience at the Teaneck shul hosting the open house, “We are not here to discuss the tuition crisis; we’re here to talk about the solution.”

The school, which is expected to open with up to 150 children in pre-kindergarten through second grades, will offer a “blended learning” model, featuring individualized, “project-based” education that combines computers and face-to-face instruction.

He’atid’s model comes as many schools, public and private, are stepping up their use of technology in the classroom, both as a cost-cutting measure and a way of individualizing instruction.

A new low-cost and high-tech Jewish day high school, the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey, just opened this fall in East Brunswick, with 20 students and a $5,000 tuition. That school, which like He’atid has received funding from the Avi Chai Foundation, combines online classes with face-to-face instruction, in-person mentoring and courses taught via videoconference.

However, some observers have noted there is only minimal evidence so far demonstrating the effectiveness of new, high-tech approaches, and have expressed reservations about small children spending too much time in front of a computer screen.

Having already achieved more than half of its planned enrollment, He’atid is offering a $7,990 tuition for pre-K, and $8,990 for K-2, with none of the additional charges like registration fee, building fund or dinner obligation, that are common in other day schools.

Rabbi Netanel Gralla, the newly hired principal of the school, told The Jewish Week that “savings come from the efficiencies of the educational model,” where teachers will have some administrational responsibilities, and will deal with remediation and enrichment in the classroom.

“Our educational model can personalize and customize so that students can learn at their own pace,” said Rabbi Gralla, who is currently director of special services at a yeshiva high school for boys in Woodmere, L.I. He also served as head counselor this past summer at Camp Kaylie in Woodsboro, N.Y., said to be “the first integrated camp with equal numbers of typical campers and those with developmental disabilities,” according to his bio on the He’atid website.

He emphasized that his operative word is “achdut,” or unity.

The new principal said he was excited by the prospects of putting into practice a new model school that can make full use of the fast-paced advances in technology and educational content.

“The key point is that we are not offering a no-frills institution,” Rabbi Gralla said. “We are not cutting corners. Our goal is to create analytical thinkers while maintaining a sense of community and personal responsibility.”

Distenfeld said there was “a sizable amount of money” set aside for the Bergenfield school, which will rent space in an existing school with a playground, and will have a separate scholarship fund so that those parents paying tuition will not be burdened by extra dollars to subsidize those in financial need.

He said students would be fluent in Hebrew by the end of the eighth grade.

A small group of young professionals are the backbone of the new school, volunteering their services in recent months to plan the educational and financial components necessary to launch. One member of the board said small meetings with young Bergen County families concerned about the high, and sometimes prohibitive cost of Jewish day schools, created interest in the new model.

More than $100,000 was raised from “typical” families over the summer, enough to convince a wealthy, anonymous donor that there was a real interest and need for an affordable but high-quality day school.

Distenfeld said that while he and the board initially thought the strongest asset of the new school would be its affordable rates, they now believe it is, instead, the blended learning model of combining face-to-face learning and interactive technology.

“We discovered that you can have your cake and eat it, too,” he said, asserting that the new model of education offered the added benefit of significant cost saving.

With the help of a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation, a proponent of incorporating new technology advances in day schools, Yeshivat He’Atid commissioned Rebecca Tomasini, CEO of The Alvo Institute, active in the education reform movement, and Randolph Ross, general studies principal of the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, as educational consultants.

The Alvo Institute is a think tank specializing in individualized learning.

One innovation for the new school is to have key data collected and analyzed so that each child can be given individualized assignments to strengthen skills needing extra attention.

Acknowledging that other day schools in the area have expressed concern about competition from the new yeshiva, Distenfeld said, “our goal is not to hurt any of the existing schools. We’d be happy” if they all followed the new model.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “if we as a community can’t lower tuition, community growth will slow. There will be fewer children in day schools,” and families will be having “fewer children.”

Associate Editor Julie Wiener contributed to this report.