Cohort Based Learning on Local Scale

By Rabbi Joshua Fenton

Whether it’s Steven Covey who said “Interdependent people combine their own efforts, with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success” or……

Michael Jordan who said “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships,” the lesson comes through loud and clear and echoes one of the deepest and truest Jewish values.

“It is not good for people to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We actualize our highest selves when working together.

Which is why it’s not surprising that we continue to hear more and more announcements for cohort-based professional development programs. They work. Fellowships, intensives, and other cohort-based service learning programs support the growth of participants while they simultaneously gain valuable work experience. These programs meet the diverse needs of participants who each are looking to make meaning out of a shared experience, but often do so in different ways (think learning styles). And they offer a structure for ongoing professional development and growth long after the intensive ends resulting in stronger programming and more effective staff. “Students who have the opportunity to develop and build their personal, social, and academic skills within a pedagogical community are more advanced in their ability to foster new communities within their professional careers” (Cohort Based Learning – College Quarterly 2005, v7).

But don’t be fooled, while many of the most well-known cohort base learning programs are offered by universities and larger organizations, smaller organizations can benefit greatly from the model as well.

I run a small afterschool program in Berkeley, California, and three years ago we launched our own modest fellowship program, attempting to address both the needs of the Jewish education community broadly, as well as our own organizational needs. We saw college graduates looking for full-time employment with an interest in education. We observed a field lacking entry level positions that included comprehensive training for emerging educators. And we in Berkeley needed well trained, less expensive staff for our programming.

We don’t have a big building. We don’t have a large endowment. But we know what we do well. With the generous support of the Covenant Foundation, and the willingness of our board to take a chance, we piloted the Jewish Learning Innovation Corps or JLIC, a full-time work study program launching the careers of a new cadre of Jewish educational innovators trained in our approach to Hebrew-intensive after school learning. Three years later, here are some of our biggest lessons.

The Model

While we believed cohort-based professional development would deliver the kind of transformative, long lasting learning we wanted to achieve, what we didn’t know was if the cohort based approach would work on a smaller scale. We knew our afterschool program would never be so large as to require 20 or 30 teachers, so we wondered if we could create the kind of social experience young adult participants are often looking for.

What we found was that our smaller sized program resulted in an intimacy and closeness that proved to be valuable and very special to the fellows. Our fellows grew close to one another quickly, and their care for one another and belief in one another’s’ abilities translated into a sense of calm, purpose, and confidence throughout the program – qualities the children responded to. “We are all learners” and “we are always learning” are words we hear a lot now.

The Applicant

Would a supplemental Jewish education program – an afterschool program – appeal to the kind of applicants we were looking for? Could such a program and opportunity overcome the bias against part time or after school Jewish learning?

The answer is yes. As we spoke with applicants from around the country we found that not only was the intensive work study model appealing to them, but they harbored few of the negative associations and assumptions of part time Jewish education we often hear from parents. If anything, they had been through supplemental programs as children and were excited to bring their experiences to bear.

The Financial Model

For years our afterschool program, like so many other part-time programs, hired part-time educators as staff. Competition for these educators is fierce. We were unsure what the trade off would be if we replaced part-time teachers making high hourly wages with a full-time staff engaged in intensive professional development, working for a lower hourly rate? After three years, this is the last and most complicated challenge to solve.

At first, it seemed like a simple question of arithmetic. We spent on average less than 5% more per staff person per year, to have less experienced, less expensive staff people working full-time as part of the JLIC program. But less experienced staff cost in different ways. Infrastructure was needed to support them in their training. Faculty had to be hired, and that costs money. While the direct staffing costs for a full-time fellow are essentially the same as the cost of a higher-paid, more experienced, part-time employee, the infrastructure costs – both one time and ongoing – to support the cohort remain high and difficult to sustain without dedicated funding for the program.

Impact on the program

There is no way to overstate the positive effect the fellowship has had on our afterschool program. Full-time positions message to employees that what they’re doing is important and that the organization takes them and their work seriously. Full-time employment comes with medical benefits, which are crucial for young adults as they work towards independence, and full-time positions professionalize the experience. For the field of part-time Jewish education, this is huge. This results in programming with more intention, much greater planning, greater dynamism, and a professional culture committed to the model and its strategies.

Cohort-based service learning programs offer a compelling model for aligning the needs of emerging educators with those of schools of all sizes – you don’t need a million dollars to make it happen. While the approach does require additional infrastructure, the investments are on par with the kinds of investments a school would make to ensure excellence.

“One who studies Torah in order to teach will be given the opportunity both to study and to teach. One who studies in order to practice will be given the opportunity to study, to teach, to observe, and to practice.” (Pirke Avot 4:6)

Rabbi Joshua Fenton is Executive Director of Studio 70 and Edah in Berkeley CA.