Jewish Journal


June 3, 2009

Online School in a Jewish Building


Over the past few years, a confluence of events has lead to a very real day school tuition crisis. Parents are asking for financial aid, students are leaving day school for public education and donors are not able to meet their pledges. Anyone interested in the future of day schools must be willing to look at everything with fresh eyes. If school communities are unwilling to change the paradigm of Jewish education, they will wither and weaken; some have already begun to die.

I have been working on an alternative model for high school: a hybrid institution that allows students greater individuality in their program, offers more classes, and is less expensive. This hybrid model combines day school culture, online charter school classes, and online and traditional Judaic Studies classes, all within a brick-and-mortar building where students would socialize, interact and work together. I hope to open such a school in Los Angeles by fall 2010.

Online charter schools, which currently exist and are paid for by the state, are used most often by students who want to take extra courses, need credit recovery or want to take classes that their schools don’t offer. Accredited online charter schools already exist in 38 states, and nearly 1 million high school students are using them. Harvard, Yale, Stanford and UCLA all accept students who have attended accredited online schools. 

At the school I am hoping to establish in Los Angeles, students would take both online classes and traditional, teacher-taught classes. They would begin their day with prayer and also have mentor meetings to check in individually and in small groups with the staff, club hours for extracurricular activities, and school forums with guest speakers or group discussions. Students would take classes that meet California standards in math, science, English, social studies and foreign language, as well as courses in rabbinic literature, Bible, Jewish history and philosophy. Some Judaic studies are available online, and others would be taught by a teacher, and include collaborative chavruta time.

Electives might include art history, business communications, digital video production, fine art, game design, journalism, music appreciation, psychology, SAT preparation or Web design. When formal classes end at 3:30 p.m., students would have the opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities including sports, newspaper, debate, drama, music or martial arts.

A hybrid school would be able to offer more individualized class schedules than traditional day schools. Students would have the opportunity to accelerate or decelerate at their own pace while still being held responsible for the material by the teachers and staff.

Research shows that virtual schooling can be as good as, or better than, classes taught in traditional schools. Taking an online class does not mean watching a teacher on a monitor; classes are interactive, and students are expected to read, research and collaborate, creating written work, multimedia projects and even doing laboratory experiments that might not be available in traditional school settings.

Being together in a physical building gives students a place to socialize, interact and work together. Students also have access to mentors who supervise their academic progress and help guide them through the challenges of adolescence. In addition, students can hear a speaker present a pressing issue in Israel, participate in a debate, or become involved in social action projects. Parents will know that their child is in a physically safe environment that will nurture them spiritually and emotionally.

Because the hybrid institution is not a public school, the culture of the institution could be Jewish, with celebrations of Jewish events and holidays, religious services and breaks for Jewish holidays. Since the institution remains a private organization it may be selective in its admissions criteria.

Although this model is not free, I have estimated that it could save families up to $10,000 per student each year — nearly 40 percent. With moderate fundraising it would be possible to give scholarships that lower tuition to $10,000, a level that organizations such as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Bureau of Jewish Education suggest as a significant marker for many families choosing between day school and public school. The significant savings comes from the need for fewer staff, and the fact that all general studies requirements are paid for by the state, including the computer, printer and Internet access required for students to do their work.

In planning and researching this new hybrid institution, I have already made contact with several charter schools that could provide the general studies subject matter and several universities that can provide online Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and Hebrew-language classes. In the next year, it is my plan to recruit up to 25 students for a ninth-grade class, find a location in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and raise $800,000 for scholarships and expenses.

I invite families, leaders and students to join me in creating an institution that retains the best of the day school experience while providing an individualized program, leadership training and a state-of-the-art facility at a reasonable price.

Rabbi Avi Greene is a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University and former principal of Judaic studies at Shalhevet High School. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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