By Avi Muchnick
Yeshiva education hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years, unless you consider the tuition costs. It used to be that sending your child to a yeshiva offered a far superior education to what could be had in public schools. But advances in technology and educational techniques in the last decade have left government-funded secular education moving to the head of the class in educational innovation, while yeshivas have lagged behind.
A group of dedicated parents from the Five Towns aims to change that in 2013 by launching Tiferet Academy, a model of 21st-century learning and sustainable tuition. It’s our goal to bring the yeshiva education system into the future.
How A 21st-Century Classroom Works
Colloquially referred to as 21st Century Learning (or sometimes “blended learning”) the educational model Tiferet uses splits every classroom into three rotating groups of students called sections. 21st-century classrooms are more spacious than traditional classrooms to more easily accommodate the sections.
Let’s say a class has 24 children: One section of eight children learns with a master teacher in a traditional, but more intimate setting that allows for more face-to-face time; one section of eight children reviews the materials collaboratively under the supervision of an assistant teacher, often with a hands-on project that helps clarify the material and makes the lesson relevant; and one section of eight children uses technology (computers or tablets) which assesses their understanding of the material in real-time, in order to help students move at their own individual pace and alert the teacher to any knowledge gaps which require filling.
Each child is given equal access to all three sections throughout each school day. The resulting approach to learning offers students the ability to gain greater face time with their teachers, develop social skills with their peers, and learn at a pace that is tailored for their unique needs. As an added bonus, it allows for greater cost efficiency by increasing the size of the classroom, while providing even more individualized teacher-student attention than traditional classes. This ultimately translates into lower, sustainable tuition costs for parents.
In the secular schools that have piloted this system in the last decade, grades have improved in astonishing ways. Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, implemented 21st Century Learning for math and reading courses and saw a 2.5-grade-level bump in both subjects in one year. Rocketship Education, a network of California elementary schools incorporating 21st Century Learning, saw the percentage of students who were advanced or proficient in English rise from 40% to 80% in 2010 under their model. Math skills rose from 50% to 90%. The results speak for themselves.
How Existing Yeshiva Classrooms Work
Tiferet’s approach greatly differs from other established yeshivas whose classrooms haven’t changed since the early 1900s (an educational model which was originally based on preparing children to work on assembly lines in factories). Traditional classrooms generally have one teacher lecturing to 20+ children at once, moving at the average pace of the classroom. In other words, teachers teach to the middle. Additionally, teachers are often unaware if their students have completely mastered a particular lesson until they see exam results. To their credit, yeshivas have made efforts to stay modern, but adding a Smart Board to a classroom and giving children one to two hours a week in a computer lab isn’t utilizing the educational power of technology to its full potential, and it is also not the 21st Century Learning model that has seen tremendous pedagogical success outside of the yeshiva system.
In our model, every teacher and every parent knows exactly how their child is performing in every aspect of the coursework, on a daily basis. With 21st Century Learning, students are educated and assessed in real time. There are no unknown knowledge gaps in the covered material. Knowledge is absorbed consistently, not crammed in for a test and then possibly forgotten a day later.
Tiferet Academy was founded by a group of dedicated parents in the Five Towns who were concerned with the growing yeshiva tuition crisis and knew things needed to change. We feared that if parents did not take action now, the yeshiva system would eventually collapse as a result of increasing numbers of parents unable to afford full tuition. Without a financially sustainable Jewish education system, the future of the Jewish people is in jeopardy.
Tiferet aims to achieve lower, more stable tuition at a 35—40% discount over local Jewish day schools through the following:
21st Century Learning educational models are naturally more efficient than the traditional educational models. They allow for a manageable increase in class size while dramatically increasing meaningful teacher-student interaction time. Additionally, 21st Century Learning models allows us to decrease the administrative overhead by empowering teachers to take on some administrative duties and allowing us to share some administrative costs across multiple 21st Century Learning schools.
We are not building mandatory scholarship funds into tuition fees, instead relying on separate fundraising and community efforts, and we are planning for the future from day one. We are already fundraising to create an endowment that can help subsidize school costs.
The net effect of these practices will save the average family of three children close to $200,000 over the course of K—8th grade. This potentially means savings of many millions of dollars for the community per year, money that can be earmarked for tzedakah, community projects, and, most importantly, enable families to comfortably afford to bring more Jewish children into this world.
Beyond making sure that tuition is affordable, we want to make sure that our children receive an education of the highest caliber. At the very least, it should surpass the public school system we are paying to keep our children out of.
Tiferet Academy embodies the following core philosophies:
Torah dedication. Creating a love for Torah, mitzvos, and Israel, with a special focus on instilling good middos and a lifelong passion for learning.
Real-world skills. Teaching children crucial skills like personal financial management, healthy lifestyles, and entrepreneurial skills.
Operational responsibility. Practicing complete fiscal responsibility and transparency from day one, so as to stabilize spiraling tuition prices and operate efficiently.
Visibility. Facilitating clear communication between parents and the school, by providing a real-time window into their children’s learning progress.
Evoking change. Becoming a model that other schools can learn from. We plan to share our plans and resources with all local yeshivas that wish to adapt our model. We want to be an agent of positive change in the Jewish community.
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, rabbi of the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, said it the best in regard to our movement: “Every opportunity for the sake of some of our kids enhances possibilities and holds out greater promise for all of our kids.”
Part Of A Growing Movement
We aren’t the only group of concerned Jewish parents trying to bring the yeshiva system into the future. A group of parents in Bergenfield, New Jersey, shared our concerns and opened Yeshivat He’Atid (“Yeshiva of the Future”) in September 2012 under the guidance of Rabbi Natanel Gralla of Woodmere (and previously of HALB). The community in New Jersey embraced 21st Century Learning and Yeshivat He’atid opened its doors with 116 students.
“Yeshivat He’Atid plans on differentiating the learning experience and creating a custom-made curriculum for each student,” said Rabbi Gralla. “The efficiencies in our design allow students to learn at a pace they are comfortable with, in an appropriate modality and at a significant cost savings.”
Another 21st Century Learning yeshiva is planning to open its doors in Westchester in 2013. Yeshivas incorporating technology in Baltimore and Los Angeles are already open and thriving.
As more Jewish schools begin to adopt the 21st Century Learning movement and offer richer forms of educational content in their curriculum, the number of Judaic studies providers will rise. Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, regional director of NSCY, has founded Aleph Beta Academy (www.alephbeta.org), a digital platform for Jewish learning in partnership with Rabbi Fohrman, a prolific author and noted lecturer who also served as a lead writer and editor for Artscroll’s Talmud translation project. Aleph Beta is one of a new wave of providers beginning to develop next generation Judaic curricula.
“Aleph Beta Academy is developing rich interactive digital coursework for Judaic topics,” said Rabbi Lightstone. “As the education world at large incorporates more next generation learning methodologies for secular studies, Judaic studies are sure to follow suit.”
Other organizations are helping innovate in Jewish education as well. The Avi Chai Foundation, a private foundation that has donated staggering amounts to Jewish education and Israeli causes, has helped fund Tal AM, a digital curriculum covering Hebrew language, Torah, and prayer, as well as introductions to rabbinic literature and Jewish history in older grades. Tal AM software is already in use in more than 400 Jewish day schools worldwide.
Guided By Experienced Leadership
Tiferet recently selected Rabbi Avrumi Sacks, an experienced and technologically savvy educator with 20 years of experience, to serve as head of school. Rabbi Sacks most recently served as the principal and director of education at the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh in 2009—2012, where he oversaw pre-nursery through twelfth grade. Before that he served as assistant headmaster at Ramaz Lower School from 2005-2009, having originally started at Ramaz in 1996 as the director of educational programs. Rabbi Sacks’s warm, engaging relationship with students and parents alike, as well as his unique perspective on correctly leveraging technology inside the classroom, were the key factors in the Tiferet board’s decision to hire him.
“Tiferet Academy has a unique mission to bring Jewish day schools back to the forefront of the educational world, and I look forward to helping the entire Tiferet family champion that cause as the head of school,” said Rabbi Sacks. “I am excited to meet all prospective parents and tell you more about Tiferet Academy in person at our open house on November 18.”
Tiferet will be contracting with EdElements, a consulting company with expertise in implementing 21st Century Learning, having done so in over 70 public and private schools nationwide.
Tiferet is financially backed by donors with ties to the Five Towns, as well as the Affordable Jewish Education Project, an organization that backed Yeshivat He’Atid and plans to help spread 21st Century Learning to other yeshivas.
“We are excited to help support the 21st Century Learning movement and see it expand to more and more Jewish day schools in the tri-state area and nationwide,” said Jeff Kiderman, executive director of the Affordable Jewish Education Project. “We applaud the tireless efforts of the growing and dedicated Tiferet Academy team and we invite prospective families to join Tiferet and AJE in playing a leadership role in day school quality and affordability.”
Tiferet Academy will be holding its inaugural open house in the Lawrence Woodmere Academy auditorium on November 18, 7:30 p.m. at 336 Woodmere Blvd in Woodmere. More information and preregistration information can also be found at www.tiferet.org. v
Avi Muchnick is a resident of Woodmere, yeshiva parent of three children, and technology entrepreneur. He is the spokesperson and a founding board member of Tiferet Academy.