By Lindsey Bodner
In September 2018, the first group of one-and-a-half to three year-old kids began attending Olam Katan. I started this drop off playgroup because there are no reasonably priced, pedagogically sound Jewish programs in our Lower East Side neighborhood in Manhattan, and I feel strongly about my son receiving a quality Jewish early childhood educational experience that reflects my family’s values.
As a parent, I wanted to create a quality program that would benefit my son and other kids in the neighborhood this year. As Olam Katan approaches the end of its first year, I want to reflect on our experiences – both as a parent and as the executive director of a foundation that supports education – and spark additional conversation about affordable Jewish education within the funding space. Much ink has been spilled about the lack of affordable Jewish education, and if we are committed to addressing the issue now, the Olam Katan model – or a variation or variations of it – is a potential solution for early childhood education and well beyond. Below, I outline some of the ways the model could be implemented.
My drop off playgroup is technically a homeschool co-op. Homeschool co-ops are inexpensive, adaptable to the individual students and families, and provide the social benefits of attending school. We have very little overhead, and “schools” like ours can easily be replicated; I wrote a longer piece about how others can create their own Jewish homeschool co-op programs. Although each “school” can and should be customized to the needs of the kids attending, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel; many elements remain the same for everyone.
Olam Katan teaches in Hebrew and English; the kids celebrate Shabbat, learn about the weekly parasha and holidays, practice brachot, and Jewish values are infused throughout a play-based mishmosh of Reggio Emilia and Montessori theories because that was what was important to us, the families with kids attending. For others, the more religious elements of the program might not be as important, or perhaps they would want to teach exclusively in Hebrew or in English.
It would be wonderful to expand and codify the curriculum to make a highly visible, easily accessible “menu” that we could provide to others who want to create similar programs in different locations.
Families are already leaving our Jewish day schools. We know this because people have been vocal about leaving and because so many day schools are struggling. Leaders in the Jewish space must confront this issue head on. Each day we put it off, we miss the opportunity to strengthen our community, and we fail kids who want a Jewish education but are attending public schools, and we fail parents with kids at Jewish schools who are struggling to make ends meet.
Hebrew charter schools have been touted by some as the solution. Maybe they are. I personally hesitate because charter schools are public, so by law they cannot teach religious studies. However, they are free. By sending a child to public school or a charter school, families free up significant money for supplemental religious studies.
Whether as a compliment to Hebrew charter schools or public schools, we can put more resources into funding serious, quality, and fun supplemental religious programs before and after school.
I’m not the first to think of this; I know Chabad provides supplemental programming in Miami for the charter school families, and a before school program was recently started at a public school by several Orthodox families in Baltimore.
As funders, we know that the success of a program depends more on leadership than any amount of technology, good ideas, or good intentions. We look for smart passionate leaders who have a plan, and support them with funding, connections, and expertise. The best thing I did when I created Olam Katan was hiring a stellar lead teacher and capable assistants. Qualified, knowledgeable educators are critical to any program, but especially to a micro-program like a homeschool co-op or a small supplemental program.
Informal and newer models need to pay educators well, and provide them with benefits and as much job security as possible in order to retain them and because, well, it’s just menschlach. Paying well is not hard to do with tiny programs like Olam Katan, but finding and retaining great educators is the main challenge to scaling my model. If there existed a stream of quality educators who knew how to teach my curriculum or something similar, I would gladly expand to serve more families and age groups.
We could invest in a network of small start-up school programs like the ones mentioned above and create a teacher network where excellent and creative educators act as consultants. If teachers were paid benefits, or some benefits, and could split their time between “start-up” programs like Olam Katan, it would be a win for teachers and a win for small programs.
Existing schools might consider how they could be a part of newer models, like teacher networks. Funders might consider combining the best of traditional schools with newer options like homeschool co-ops.
Established Jewish schools could create satellite programs serving populations in different locations under the umbrella of the school. Whether a single teacher or small group, teachers from traditional schools could work with students in neighboring zip codes for part of the day. This way, children living farther away would get the benefit of a “name brand” education in a creative and cost-effective way. (How far exactly? 30 minutes? A few hours? There are ways to facilitate either.)
Teachers too, crave some of the flexibility increasingly afforded to other professions in the modern workforce, and this could be one way to offer flexibility and retain top talent, especially for teachers who live a distance from their schools.
In a satellite model, teachers and students would benefit from the infrastructure of the school and save time and money on commutes and busing. A satellite model could function in many different ways, but it would especially compliment public schools, home schools, or homeschool co-ops by providing Jewish studies. It could be set up either on a part-time or consulting basis or be built into teachers’ schedules. If schools were creative about their scheduling, many teachers could have the morning or the afternoon to teach at an alternative program closer to home.
As it stands, our teachers and Jewish professionals cannot afford education and camp, and dual earning households that are otherwise considered affluent have to do more than budget; they have to choose between sending their kids to Jewish schools and saving for retirement, weddings, down payments (theirs or their kids’). With preschool through high school tuition in New York City often upwards of $30,000 per year, per child; it’s no wonder this is impacting demographic trends within the Jewish community. As we’ve seen in these pages and elsewhere, the status quo is not working so people are finding alternatives.
If the priority is giving our kids great education, we can absolutely do that in a way that is accessible to all our kids.
My suggestions above are “small” in the sense that they are somewhat grassroots and don’t involve starting big schools. I would argue that smaller programs or hybrid programs are ideal for providing kids with individualized attention and families with exactly what they are looking for educationally and hashgafically/philosophically. As an added benefit, the smaller and more “alternative” the program, the more likely parents are to take an active role, and that’s good for everyone.
Our approach to smaller schools and alternative programs must be strategic. Networks, communication, and leadership should be on any funder’s lists of musts. The agility of smaller programs means they can make an impact now, and this will make a difference to a generation of Jewish kids and families.
I would be thrilled to talk to anyone about the Olam Katan model and how wonderful it has been for my son and for the families in our neighborhood. My hope is that Olam Katan can be a learning opportunity for all – kids, parents, and funders alike.
Lindsey Bodner is a mom, a rebbetzin, a lawyer, and the executive director of the Naomi Prawer Kadar Foundation.