The nondenominational Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey doesn’t have a math teacher. The East Brunswick school instead relies on experienced math tutors who help students work through an online math curriculum relying on outside sources.
At Baltimore’s Ohr Chadash, a Modern Orthodox primary school in its first year, students receive iPads beginning in the fourth grade to do more online and group work.
“The things the teachers ask us to do for work are fun,” said 9-year-old Nili Hefetz, a fourth-grader at the school. For example, using Adobe Ideas, Nili and other students draw pictures on the iPads inspired by the Chumash (Bible) lessons.
“The idea was to incorporate technology into the school in a seamless way,” said the school’s president, Saul Weinreb. “It became a way of doing things both in education and administration.”
It’s also a way to save money.
With tuition that can reach $30,000 or more per student, the day school tuition crisis has spurred a search for new options and given rise to a new breed of day schools where technology and blended learning—mixing traditional classroom learning with online education—are reducing costs.
“In the general world, online and blended learning is becoming a wave of the future,” said Rachel Mohl Abrahams, a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation in New York.
PCLC opened in the fall with 20 students in grades 8 to 11. Its director, Lauren Ariev Gellman, predicts that in 10 to 15 years, all schools—public and private—will have an online component.
“Everybody is going to move in this direction,” Gellman said. “It would serve Jewish schools well to get ahead of the curve. And bring the costs way down.”
Tuition is just $5,000 at the PCLC. The blended learning style has allowed the school to save in a big area: faculty. It employs only two full-time administrators and only part-time teachers. Teachers assign lessons from online curricula, such as math and science lessons from Khan Academy or language lessons from Rosetta Stone, and then provide individual help while students work at their own pace.
The Judaic studies curriculum is more traditional—simply because the resources are not there yet. Two of the classes, however, are run over Skype with a teacher in Israel and students participating from four or five other yeshivas.
Volunteering is also helping to keep down costs at the new schools. At Ohr Chadash, where tuition is $8,400 this year, each family is required to volunteer 25 hours per year. Nili’s mother, Shayna, is co-president of the school’s PTA and volunteers as an art teacher. Other parents have volunteered with office work, on field trips and as lunchtime supervisors.
“We try to utilize parent volunteers as much as possible,” Shayna Hefetz said.
Going paperless also has meant major cost savings, which Weinreb estimates at a few hundred dollars per student. And a budget oversight committee comprised of people otherwise unaffiliated with the school first approves every expense and ensures that budgets are planned around only existing money, not future fundraising. The methods can frustrate administrators, Weinreb acknowledged, but keep the budget in check.
Volunteerism is the main model for keeping down costs at The Jewish Cooperative School in Hollywood, Fla., where 2011-12 tuition ran $7,500. Technology does not play as central a role in the Modern Orthodox school, but as at Ohr Chadash, the administration requires the parents of its 23 students in kindergarten through second grade to volunteer several hours a month.
“I’ve found parents really enjoy being involved in the education of their kids,” said Janessa Wasserman, one of the school’s founders and a parent of two students there. “And the kids really love it.”
Hannah Shapiro, whose 7-year-old daughter, Aliyah, attends second grade at the school, volunteers by putting out a weekly newsletter for each grade, as well as helping once a week in the classroom.
“I love to be involved with my kids’ education, so I try in any way possible to get involved,” she said.
Shapiro says that since Hannah started at The Jewish Cooperative School this year, she jumps out of bed in the morning excited about school.
“It’s like a home for them,” Shapiro said. “It’s something special.”
Avi Chai has provided grants to three of the blended learning schools, including PCLC and Ohr Chadash. The other school is Yeshivat He’Atid in Bergenfield, N.J. Overall, Avi Chai is aware of eight blended learning schools that either opened this year or plan to open next year, from California and Texas to Maryland and Massachusetts.
The concept has started drawing attention from other funders, too.
Determined to figure out new, sustainable ways to ensure that all Jewish parents have the ability to send their children to affordable, high-quality day schools, a group of philanthropists in the New York area formed the Affordable Jewish Education Project, or AJE, earlier this year. The group began with an open mind but honed in on the concept of low-cost day schools, said its executive director, Jeff Kiderman.
“There’s more to them than just their low cost,” he told JTA. “We saw this as a tremendous opportunity to innovate in the world of Jewish education by promoting educational improvements and affordability improvements at a time when our community really needs both.”
AJE discovered several low-cost schools throughout the United States that either recently opened or are in development, but Kiderman noted that there was little connecting them to each other. That’s the role AJE hopes to fill, he said, by creating a network for the schools to share best practices and resources.
Tuition savings at the lower-cost schools can range from 30 percent to 40 percent on the elementary level and 50 percent or more in high school, according to Kiderman. The schools focus on a mix of technology and volunteerism to keep costs down.
Kiderman calls PCLC a “classic example of a school trying to find available, innovative educational models that they can share with the rest of the country.”
The school is “constantly re-examining what they are doing and constantly trying to improve it. That’s what everybody should be doing,” he said.
“This is absolutely the future of education,” said Rebecca Coen, founder and head of Yeshiva High Tech, a Modern Orthodox Los Angeles high school scheduled to open in August with 40 students in ninth through 11th grade and tuition set at $8,500.
Distance learning has been around for years and Jewish schools are actually playing catch-up in online education, Coen said, noting that advances in non-Jewish education often take several years to filter down to the Jewish educational world.
While the students work on online lessons, teachers will rotate from group to group to provide support when needed.
“It’s possible in the same classroom to have ninth-grade students working on ninth-grade English, 10th-grade students working on 10th-grade English,” Coen said. “You can have AP in the classroom, and they can all be working simultaneously with the same teacher because the teacher is no longer the primary source for curriculum delivery.”
This may result in larger class sizes, Coen said, but teachers will “actually spend more time with each student than if they’re standing in front of the classroom.”