With thousands of financially overextended parents enrolling their children in more than seven Jewish day schools, New Jersey’s Teaneck-Englewood area has been at the epicenter of the so-called “tuition crisis” — and efforts to address it — in recent years.
Among them: a failed effort to start a no-frills, “low-cost” yeshiva; Jewish Education for Future Generations (JEFG) and its Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools (NNJKids), which raises money for scholarships; and Shalom Academy, a Hebrew charter school that, until its opening was postponed at the last minute, many Orthodox families hoped would offer a free alternative.
This spring a group of Teaneck parents began planning Yeshivat He’Atid (The Yeshiva of the Future), a school that will use “blended” (a mix of face-to-face and computerized) learning — and which aims to open in 2012 with tuition between $8,500-$9,000, approximately 40 percent less than the going rate for Jewish elementary schools.
Gershon Distenfeld, an investment manager and father of three who is leading the effort, met with The Jewish Week in his Midtown office to discuss He’Atid, which has already raised over $250,000, much of it in donations from more than 50 families interested in enrolling their children.
Q: You’ve been involved with area day schools for some time, serving on the board of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, as treasurer of JEFG and chair of NNJKIDS. What spurred you to start Yeshivat He’Atid?
A: NNJKIDS has been important, because it’s sending the message that it should be the whole community, not just the parents, paying for Jewish education. … Through NNJKIDS, I had focused on the revenue side. I began to realize that alone was not enough to solve the problem, and I became more interested in the cost side. I still support the work of JFEG and NNJKIDS, but I wanted to get involved with something that has the potential for great impact, something that can be a model for communities around the country.
How is this effort different from the failed attempt a few years ago to start a low-cost yeshiva?
We’re describing this as “affordable” and not “low-cost.” The attempt a few years ago failed for a number of reasons, in part because it was marketed as “low-cost,” which made it sound like the education wouldn’t be as good. The more I started researching this and looking into what cutting-edge people said, I realized that by using blended learning, you don’t just reduce the cost but can actually increase the quality.
What exactly do you mean by “blended learning?”
This is a model where each kid can progress at his or her own pace. There are many different ways that you can implement blended learning. One example is that students do a preliminary lesson [on the computer] before they come to class, so the teacher already knows where they are. The teacher has access to a dashboard that indicates which students are having issues so the teacher can adapt the lesson for each child … the idea is not to use computers to replace the teacher, but to make the teacher more efficient.
Why not just implement these changes at an existing school?
Overall I would say that not all teachers can be trained to do this right, and it’s easier to implement this kind of change in a new school.
I understand that in addition to the blended learning, you plan to hire fewer administrators, relying instead on master teachers supervising newer teachers. How else do you plan to reduce costs?
We’ll be running full classes. Class size will be between 20-25, and we’ll wait-list kids until there are enough for a second class. We will have smaller scholarship needs, because our tuition will be lower — we’re not going to build scholarships into tuition, but are going to cover scholarships with fundraising. [In many schools, revenue from full-paying families subsidizes the cost of scholarships.]
Will competition from He’Atid hurt existing schools?
We don’t view ourselves as competing but as providing a different model for education at a lower price point for those who are interested.
To what extent was the momentum for He’Atid spurred by the potential arrival of a Hebrew charter school in Englewood?
This would have happened anyway. But community leaders may be more likely to support this because they saw day school families registering for Shalom Academy.
Will you be sending your own children to He’Atid?
My two oldest daughters are already past the age that He’Atid will be serving … At the same time, my wife and I are really excited that our youngest daughter (who is entering nursery school) will be able to attend Yeshivat He’Atid.