A new model

A better path forward in Jewish day school education: Hillel Rapp’s model

Two articles were recently published in eJewishPhilanthropy about the cost of day school tuition. One touted the upsides of using smaller donations to subsidize the cost of tuition for students/families on the fence about Jewish education. This was presented as a creative alternative to multimillion dollar funds that provide sliding scale, needs-based scholarships to families, which was the subject of the other article. I want to push back on the assumptions underlying both of these financial structures and suggest a different model that, after startup costs, doesn’t require continued philanthropic investment.

First, the authors of the recent eJP articles and I agree on the following:

  1. The importance of day school education for Jewish continuity – Even controlling for other factors like the religiosity of the family, the most reliable way to ensure long-term engagement with Judaism is sending children to Jewish schools. 
  2. The unaffordability of most Jewish day schools – The burden is particularly acute for middle and upper middle class families (as opposed to those in financial distress who receive full tuition coverage or the very wealthy who don’t need it). 
  3. The Jewish community has a responsibility to make education more accessible to families who are interested in sending children to Jewish day schools and greatly benefits from doing so.

I admire the efforts of my colleagues working to improve Jewish education; we are all committed to the endeavor and want to improve student experience and outcomes in the North American context. I am responding to these articles not because I wish to argue with their particular authors, but because I hope more community members and funders will challenge the status quo in dramatic ways. Instead of propping up models that have experienced, by one author’s own admission, almost a 50% drop in enrollment over the past decade, those who care about Jewish education should consider investing in alternative models.

One such model is Hillel Rapp’s plan for reimagining Jewish high school education. Rapp, who is the Director of Education of the Bnei Akiva schools in Toronto, sets forth a detailed outline of his vision, which I highly recommend to those who, like me, believe a radical departure from the current system is not only warranted, but required, for the future success of day school education. 

Briefly, Rapp’s reimagined high school would be small, highly individualized, and mastery-oriented. The structure is nothing like a traditional school, which translates to huge savings. While there will be start up costs, this model is self-sustaining through tuition; it does not require extended philanthropic intervention. 

Small and Cost-effective: With only 60-70 students total, the school is organized not by classes that students move through, but by cohorts of 8-12 multi-age students with similar goals, interests, and learning styles. Approximately 6 superstar teachers – you know the ones: stellar communicators, creative, capable across disciplines, able to curate and analyze, and passionate life-long learners themselves – lead the cohorts and have significant responsibility as learning facilitators, administrators, curriculum planners, and mentors. And they would be paid accordingly (approximately $125-150k annually). Without hundreds of students and traditional classes, there would be far less complexity in scheduling, human resource management, and budgeting. The relatively small management tasks and decision-making could be shared by the teachers and at the board level. 

The model employs “blended learning,” a combination of gathering in-person and the incredible and ever-improving online learning resources available to help students specialize and enhance their learning. This school allows communities to consider the spaces available to them: do they need a dedicated campus? Could the school rent a space for 3 days a week, or mornings only? What are the other spaces in which learning can most effectively take place? 

Highly Individualized: These teachers are responsible for small groups of students, and they work with parents and students to craft individualized curricula and goals to optimize learning and allow for student specialization. The teacher would closely monitor student progress and act as a mentor to help the student connect with resources and develop the skills needed to learn any subject independently. Within their smaller cohorts, a teacher would present students with multiple modes of learning at once based on what they think might work for the group. The small groups would gather for regular discussion, debate, and presentations.

Learning to Mastery: Students would progress at their own pace and they would learn skills to mastery, rather than being taught in classes, being tested, given a grade, and matriculated regardless of whether they have mastered or completely misunderstood the material. In this model, students would have the flexibility to move faster or slower and pursue learning through the lens of their interests and strengths. 

Rapp outlines his model in greater detail, but even with the sketch provided here readers can see the educational and financial value. Similar models are already in use in private education settings outside of the Jewish community. However in his Lehrhaus piece, Rapp notes how the model is especially apt for Jewish education:

In addition, our alternative model would remove the need to retrofit Jewish identity into the fixed structure of daily classes or to sacrifice Jewish literacy for Jewish identity. The learning experience of each student in this model is defined by the parents, student, and school deciding on a course of study that suits a student’s learning style and enhances the development of core cognitive skills. 

For example, a student interested in law and philosophy might develop their cognitive skills through the study of advanced legal and Judaic Studies and a coached interdisciplinary course of study in general law and Talmud. Whereas a student who connects more to communal engagement might pursue opportunities for activism and learn mussar, business, or art. Rapp’s structure allows students to pursue their passion while gaining Jewish literacy in a natural way rather than pushing students through a one-size-fits-all Judaics curriculum. Rapp concludes, “a reimagined high school wouldn’t just create better learning; it would create better Jewish learning and living where it is most sorely needed.”

Upending traditional school in the way Rapp suggests does what some of the best new Jewish financial models don’t quite manage: it provides uncompromised world-class education for a fraction of the cost without relying on philanthropy. 

We are at a pivotal point: educators and schools have demonstrated remarkable creativity and resilience over the past year. Rather than returning to a flawed “normal,” we should harness that energy. I do not believe it’s an incontrovertible fact that quality Jewish education is simply out of reach for so many families. Neither should we accept that grandparents, large foundations, or individual donors must foot the bill. Though it’s true that communities have a responsibility to take care of families in need, when such a large portion of the community is “in need,” we must consider more viable models and stop subsidizing inefficient ones. And let’s not forget, some of the attrition we’ve seen in recent years is not only due to financial burden – it’s because better options (as defined by individual families) in private and public education are becoming available. Now is the time to explore this new model of Jewish day school education that will drastically improve student learning experiences and community financial outcomes. 

Lindsey Bodner is executive director at the Naomi Foundation.