Rabbi Netanel Gralla, head of Yeshivat He’Atid, has two things he wants everyone to know about his school.
First, teachers have not been replaced by computers. And second, while the tuition — $8,990 for kindergarten and first grade — is substantially lower than that of other area day schools, the students are hardly enduring a no-frills education.
“We have art, music and gym,” the 40-year-old father of seven points out to a visitor during a recent tour of the Bergenfield, N.J. elementary school. “We’re not cutting corners.”
With its dual approach of making Jewish education affordable and using “blended learning,” a mix of computerized and face-to-face instruction, He’Atid — the name means “Yeshiva of the Future” — has been open just two and a half months.
But already, the 116-student Orthodox school’s impact is being felt in the Jewish day school world; other Bergen County schools are lowering tuition in the younger grades and looking to incorporate more technology. Meanwhile, two new Orthodox schools following He’Atid’s model are on track to open next year: Westchester Torah Academy in New Rochelle and Tiferet Academy in Long Island’s Five Towns.
The two planned schools, along with He’Atid, have the financial backing of the New York-based Affordable Jewish Education (AJE), an ambitious nonprofit so new it is still awaiting 501(c)3 approval.
Established by 44-year-old hedge fund manager Mark Nordlicht (who, through an intermediary, declined to be interviewed) together with six anonymous donors, AJE’s goal is nothing less than solving the day school tuition crisis by creating a new breed of tech-savvy, lower-cost schools.
“This is an urgent problem, and we have a sense of urgency,” says Jeff Kiderman, AJE’s executive director. “We can’t take a wait-and-see approach; this is the time to act.”
The money from AJE is intended solely as a startup investment to get the schools “on their feet”; the goal is that eventually the schools will be financially self-sustaining.
“The point is not to redistribute who’s paying, but to change how much it actually costs,” says Kiderman.
The He’Atid approach, inspired in part by innovative charter schools like California’s RocketShip and Arizona’s Carpe Diem, is not without its critics. While it’s hard to object to lower tuition, some parents — and leaders of established day schools — are skeptical about blended learning, which has yet to be proven successful on a large scale or over the long term. Others wonder whether AJE and He’Atid’s budget projections are realistic — the school, currently spending over $11,000 per student, is supposed to break even financially in its third year — or if the model risks faltering as it expands (the target size is about 1,000 students in pre-K through eighth grade).
Not helping the matter is that He’Atid and AJE have refused to make public the details of the “model” they are using to project expenses, although they have revealed that cost savings will come from “efficiencies” like larger class sizes, fewer administrators and group purchasing.
“The ‘model’ is just our prediction of what we think will happen — what’s more important is what actually happens,” says Kiderman. “We are constantly tweaking the model as we learn more, and we are prepared to share it with any school who wishes to learn from it.
Says Gershon Distenfeld, He’Atid’s president: “We’re happy to go over it one on one, but with no context everything gets misinterpreted.”
While the “yeshiva of the future” name might conjure up images of a science-fiction film spaceship, with computers and flashing lights, He’Atid doesn’t look all that different from any other elementary school.
Its brightly painted classroom walls are decorated with student work and colorful educational posters. Bins are stocked with art supplies, books and other materials, and children sit on rugs and at tables — including semicircular “bean-shaped” tables where small groups of kids work directly with the teacher. Each classroom has a library area furnished with red child-sized IKEA chairs and loveseats. The only vaguely futuristic touch is the bank of about eight PCs, whose educational games and exercises provide teachers with ongoing data about what skills each child has mastered and where he or she needs more help.
The computer assessments allow He’Atid to run its classes on a “rotational” model, in which children spend much of the day working independently or in small groups, while the teachers rotate among them.
Rabbi Gralla, whose pre-He’Atid career was mostly in special education, says the rotational model allows all students to enjoy the benefits of the special-ed approach, where “everyone has individualized educational plans, and we talk about pace, modality and customization.”
Small class size — something many parents clamor for — is less important, Rabbi Gralla argues, than ensuring each child has an opportunity for “quality time” with the teacher. The idea is that it’s more beneficial for students to have short periods of focused one-on-one, or even five-on-one time, in which the teacher is addressing their particular needs and concerns, than to sit all day in a typical class.
Says Distenfeld, who works in finance: “It’s very important to understand that larger class size does not mean poorer interaction with the teacher. When the teacher is standing in front of the room and teaching to the middle of the group, is that quality time?”
He’Atid’s classes, while smaller than those at public schools, are on the large side for a private school. This year’s first-grade classes each have 24 students (and two teachers); Rabbi Gralla anticipates the ideal size being more like 26, but emphasizes this is “an academic, not financial decision.”
AJE’s Kiderman says the current plan is to have larger classes in grades 6-8, but “none of this is set in stone … Class size and student-teacher ratio will always be in line with what the educators on the ground think is feasible.”
To enable the “rotational” classroom to run smoothly, children are trained the first week of school first to try answering questions on their own, then to consult a classmate before asking the teacher; each classroom displays a poster reminding them of this policy. In addition, a three-“zone” system alerts the children how much noise is allowed: silence when the teacher is making announcements or the class is walking through the hallways, medium volume during group projects and loud for playing outside.
Amanda Pransky, one of the first-grade teachers, says she was “a little skeptical” at first that “you could tell the kids the plan for the next hour and they could follow through,” she says. “I’ve been happily surprised.”
Pransky, who came to He’Atid from Manhattan’s Ramaz, says teaching at the new school is “a lot of work,” but the technology — particularly assessment software, and online exercises and quizzes that eliminate the need for photocopying and manual grading — enables her to “do the work efficiently.”
So far, parents seem happy. Benjamin Kohn, the father of a first grader, says he has been pleased with the caliber of teachers, the level of communication with parents and the fact that his son comes home excited about school.
Distenfeld, who is a former board member of Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, says he has encouraged parents to give feedback and has been pleasantly surprised by how few complaints he’s fielded so far.
“I don’t want to jinx us, but it’s gone very smoothly,” he says.
While lower tuition is a major attraction of the school, Kohn, who works in finance, emphasizes that money was not his primary consideration.
“My wife and I are looking to provide our children a different education than how we remember it,” he says, noting that most schools have been slower than the rest of society to change and evolve.
“I don’t want my child to be the one who suffers from the slow evolution,” he says.
Parents working to start the new schools in Westchester and Long Island voice similar concerns.
Avi Muchnick, a founding board member of Long Island’s Tiferet, is the CEO of a company that develops photo-editing software for mobile devices. He says that with his three children he’s seen how much “exposure to technology” can “boost a child’s learning capability” and, along with many of his peers, He has been frustrated to see established Jewish day schools “offering the same education they’ve offered for the last 50 years. Maybe they have added SmartBoards, but it’s the same model of one teacher lecturing to 20-something kids and everyone moving at the same pace.”
Like many of his peers, he sees established day schools, and their tuition, as financially unsustainable.
So far, almost 200 families have expressed interest in Tiferet, which just hired a head of school, Rabbi Avraham Sacks, but is still looking for a location somewhere in the Five Towns. Tuition will range from $6,990 for pre-K to $9,290 for first grade and up.
“Our hope is not just to create a school but to be part of a growing movement that sweeps across the community,” Muchnick says.
Kevin Shacknofsky, a founding board member of Westchester Torah Academy, which will be located in New Rochelle and will charge $9,750, says the school will add needed competition to the county’s day school market. Currently, most Orthodox families in Westchester send their children to Riverdale’s SAR Academy or Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck.
“The problem with established schools is they’re very risk-averse, very institutional; they move slowly,” Shacknofsky, a mutual funds manager who used to work in venture capital, says, adding, “Sometimes innovation is better in a startup environment, just like in the corporate world.”
Westchester Day School, which has 400 students in nursery through eighth grade, seems to be taking note of the changing environment; the school recently lowered tuition for early childhood, kindergarten and first grade (kindergarten tuition, currently $17,750, will be $13,500 next year). However, officials say the tuition reduction is part of a long-term strategy and not influenced by the new rival.
“Going back to 2009, during the height of the financial crisis, we embarked on a campaign to stem the rising costs of tuition, with the goal of actually reducing tuition,” says Daniel Kosowsky, Westchester Day’s president.
“The goal is for this to be a multiyear effort,” he adds. “We’ve begun strategically from the lower grades because that is the best way to provide relief for the parent body and attract new families to the school.”
Westchester Day has also been experimenting with blended learning, including a pilot project last year funded by AJE. Kosowsky says results were “mixed,” although “we’re very excited by technology generally and what it can bring to enhance our educational product.”
Asked if he is concerned about competition from upstart Westchester Torah Academy, Kosowsky says, “Our focus is on making Westchester Day School the best school it can be for Jewish families in Westchester County. That’s our mission, our sole focus. I don’t want to make assumptions about what their product is.”