Alone In Its Class

Alone In Its Class

With low tuition, small classes and customized learning, Suffolk’s only day school is competing in a tough environment.

ith a large fish tank and piles of toys in the office, an indoor playground decorated to look like a rainforest and hallway walls covered in student art — including a little house with a working doorbell — the Jewish Academy in East Northport, L.I., is an inviting place for children and their parents.

It has to be.

Situated in a county where the Jewish population is mostly unaffiliated, the public schools generally well regarded and, in recent years, where several other day schools have gone belly-up, leaders of the small nursery/elementary school know that to survive and grow, the Jewish Academy has to be not just good, but excellent.

“Our long-term goal is for the community to look at The Jewish Academy as the source of the finest education their child can get from anywhere,” said Arthur Katz, the school’s president.

Last year the school hired Rabbi Michael Druin, a charismatic and experienced head of school who mentors other Jewish day school heads through the RAVSAK Jewish Community Day School Network. Rabbi Druin, 44, has sought to make the school, now Suffolk’s only Jewish day school, a model of “21st-century learning,” with small classes, computers in each room and teachers, who meet individually each week with him, trained to offer “differentiated” learning customized to each student’s needs.

While it has to compete with free public schools, the Jewish Academy has remarkably low tuition: at just under $11,000, with no additional fees, it is well below that of other New York-area Jewish day schools, and “among the lowest in the country,” according to Rabbi Druin.

While in many day schools, full tuition subsidizes the cost of scholarships, at The Jewish Academy it covers only the cost of educating one child, he said. All scholarship money — and approximately 50 percent of the students receive some form of financial aid, determined by an outside company with which the school contracts — comes from fundraising.

“Our philosophy is it’s not halachic to build tuition assistance into full tuition,” Rabbi Druin said, adding that “you should get a tax-deductible receipt” for any money given to the school for scholarships.

So far, things are on the upswing. Rabbi Druin notes that student performance on Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress, computerized adaptive assessment tests — administered three times a year — are “excellent.” This year, 64.7 percent of students were above the national average in their growth rate in reading and 88.3 percent were above the national average in their math growth rate. In addition, 100 percent of the fourth graders passed math “with distinction.” The assessments give the teachers “an X-ray into the academic mind of the child,” Rabbi Druin said, adding that they can “use the results to refocus what they’re doing.”

Enrollment, while still quite small, is growing, with a new grade added each year. Sixty-five students are expected for the 2011-12 year, compared to last year’s 50. Forty-five of this year’s students are in grades k-5, with the rest in the nursery grades.

There are no plans to add a middle school or high school, although Rabbi Druin said that The Jewish Academy would consider adding more grades if parents demand it.

To grow further, however, the school — co-founded in 2004 by Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, the longtime director of Chabad of Long Island — may need to overcome perceptions that it is Chabad and not really community or pluralistic in orientation.

Rabbi Teldon serves as the school’s executive director and his wife, Chaya, is its associate head. Rabbi Druin is also Chabad.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Druin insists that The Jewish Academy, a member of the RAVSAK network, takes a pluralistic approach to Judaism. The students, many from interfaith families, and the teachers come from a wide range of backgrounds, he said.

Rabbi Teldon is the only Orthodox Jew on the school’s board, which meets every other month. Katz, the president, was a longtime president of a Reform temple; however, he told The Jewish Week he is no longer a member of any synagogue but attends Chabad services.

“The goal is not to become observant,” Rabbi Druin said. “It’s to be part of the Jewish puzzle, to play a role. We give the kids a Judaism they can use to bring home and apply. They’re proud of who they are as Jews and know the role they play in the community.”

“Everybody’s getting proud of being Jewish and getting knowledge and information that’s always relevant,” he added. “They’re part of a community. We try to think about what they’re going to gain from a lesson, what’s relevant. Rather than asking them at Passover, are you going to search for chametz at home, we ask, ‘Do you know what chametz is? What’s the history of it? What can we learn from it?’ and then maybe we’ll search for it at school.”

Renee Hecht, who has two children at the Jewish Academy and identifies as Conservative, said the school is “embracing of everyone and doesn’t” criticize different streams of Judaism or different levels of observance.

Hecht, whose older two children attended the Solomon Schechter of Suffolk County, which closed in 2008, said she liked Schechter — and is equally happy with The Jewish Academy.

“We’re very happy with the personal care they give and the concern for the academics,” she told The Jewish Week. “There’s a lot of nurturing, and one thing I’ve been impressed with has been the excitement our kids come home with: they used to fight to be the one to tell us about the [Torah portion] at our Shabbos table.”