Why Be Bold?

As a Foundation, AVI CHAI is committed to supporting day schools (along with overnight summer camps) as effective vehicles for creating the energizing nucleus of the next generation of Jews: young people with the values, commitments, motivation and skills to lead the Jewish People intellectually, spiritually, communally and politically in the 21st Century.

by Yossi Prager

Last week, The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE) and the Kohelet Foundation announced the winners of the BOLD Day Schools grant, which will assist five established day schools in transitioning to a blended learning model. The schools range in size, geography and religious affiliation. The BOLD project dovetails with AVI CHAI’s funding for new blended/online day school models: we hope to help both established and new schools in the day school field learn about the educational and potential financial benefits of blended learning.

AVI CHAI began promoting online and blended learning three years ago because these new educational models were emerging as promising answers to some of the challenges facing the day school field. By joining the best aspects of both face-to-face and online instruction, blended learning strives to create a learning environment that allows teachers to target the particular academic needs of each student, based on individualized feedback obtained from the software. The evidence for the effectiveness of blended/online learning comes, at this point, from experience in public and Catholic schools. While the data is still limited, it seems that in addition to improved educational outcomes for students, online and blended learning educational models have often resulted in cost savings to schools by reducing schools’ personnel, facility and textbook costs.

After many years of funding to enhance teaching-and-learning through curriculum development and teacher/principal training (as well as interest-free loans for construction and renovation of day schools), we have more recently focused on the sustainability and affordability of day schools. This has led to grants to YU and PEJE, which are working with dozens of schools on financial benchmarking, annual fundraising and endowment building. Blended learning seized our attention because of its potential to increase quality while reducing cost, the ideal combination for Jewish day schools.

In developing the strategy for our work in this new area, we decided we needed a balance between supporting established and new schools. Our initial funding toward online/blended learning was to the Jewish Education Project’s DigitalJLearning Network, which has fostered experimentation with online and blended learning in approximately 35 day schools across North America. We subsequently funded a related network of 12 Torah Umesorah schools. These established schools are beginning to imagine how blended and online learning can improve their educational programs. The work is evolutionary, as schools move slowly through the change process.

After two years of work, AVI CHAI, in partnership with AJE and Kohelet, realized that it would also be valuable to partner with a small group of established schools ready to experiment in a revolutionary way – to serve as proof points for the educational benefits of blended learning, the steps needed to convert existing schools to a blended model and the net financial implications of the conversion. If the five BOLD schools are successful and we can document their educational models, results and (hopefully) cost savings, other schools will have the benefit of these schools’ experiences and will hopefully be able to make appropriate shifts themselves.

More controversially, AVI CHAI has also supported the development of new schools built on a blended learning model, including Yeshivat He’atid in Bergen County, NJ, PCLC in central NJ and The Binah School in Boston. Other new schools have been created in Los Angeles and Westchester County, NY. Our funding for new schools has attracted criticism to the extent that the new schools compete with established schools. I want to explain our thinking. We believe that new schools generally have the potential to test radical ideas more quickly than established schools, which are tinkering with a successful model already in place. At the same time, the learning from the new schools – successes and failures – benefits established schools as well. We also believe that the pressure from new schools has caused existing schools to experiment more quickly than they might otherwise have done. However, we want to be clear: we are not funding new school models because of a negative view of the established schools, nor are we funding only new schools. In general, our decision to support any new school is made after careful thought about the potential communal impact.

As a Foundation, AVI CHAI is committed to supporting day schools (along with overnight summer camps) as effective vehicles for creating the energizing nucleus of the next generation of Jews: young people with the values, commitments, motivation and skills to lead the Jewish People intellectually, spiritually, communally and politically in the 21st Century. Our support for blended learning is a piece of this larger strategy, and we expect to continue to work with established and new schools as AVI CHAI continues toward our sunset in 2020. We are grateful for the leadership and entrepreneurial spirit of professionals and lay leaders across the country. Ultimately, we feel confident that they will lead strong Jewish schools and communities as the 21st Century progresses.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.