By Jordan Hiller
I recently learned that my son’s school was canceled. That what I had hoped would be a positive and seemingly ideal first-grade experience for him–and right down the block!–was simply not going to happen. In an e-mail with the subject header “Tiferet Academy and HALB are Joining Together,” delivered to my inbox on March 20, I was informed, along with dozens of other parents, that it was time for Plan B. The message from Tiferet was guardedly positive, touting the “exciting” opportunity to merge their blended learning system with HALB’s current model. Needless to say, the excitement was lost on the confounded parent body reacting to this drastic turn of events.
There would be a conference call later that evening to work out the details. At approximately 9:30 that night, Rabbi Plotkin, the principal of HALB, welcomed Tiferet parents into the HALB family. He did so genuinely, warmly, and with all sincerity. There was not a hint of resentment or a false undertone in his handling of the difficult situation. The board of Tiferet owes a great debt of gratitude to HALB for making their impossible situation remotely palatable. Of course, I did not need to be welcomed into the HALB family. I had been part of the HALB family for seven years. I have two daughters in HALB. My son is in currently in Lev Chana, their preschool. I am a content, happy, often thrilled HALB parent. My children love HALB, have had an excellent experience there, have been taught by teachers they adore (some of them off-the-charts amazing), and come home with projects and information that tell me they are not only learning, but flourishing.
This is not about HALB. When I received the e-mail and concluded that my son was going to continue in HALB, I was upset, but not because he would be going to HALB. I knew he would be very well taken care of in Long Beach. This is about us. What upset me in ways that stung, embittered, lingered, and festered was that we, this community, allowed a venture like Tiferet to fail.
I found out about Tiferet as many did, when e-mails started circulating and parlor meetings were announced last spring. There was a buzz and a wave of kinetic excitement as many curious and dreamy-eyed yet wary parents gathered in basements and town halls to be educated about their kids’ education. We were dazzled with the concept of blended learning, a methodology that allowed our children to maximize their potential and feed off the benefits of being taught in smaller groups with more personalized attention. We were impressed by the group of parents leading this charge who wanted change, knew it was time for change, did the research, engineered the plans, and found the funding to bring this change home. Through a series of tough questions and sensible answers, we were made to believe.
And then there was the tuition. From the beginning, Tiferet promised to not only teach our children in a better, more efficient, more dynamic way, but to finally tackle the raging tuition crisis in the process. Tiferet’s pioneers seemed to be modern-day miracle workers in the form of young CEOs, lawyers, and doctors. These were prophets coming to us in the simple guise of parents who cared. Parents who heard the cries of their neighbors struggling with overwhelming yeshiva bills. Parents who understood that many of their friends were reluctantly, devastatingly capping their families because the cap for yeshiva tuitions was nowhere in sight. Through specific and targeted steps, tuitions were going to be reined in and stabilized and kept relatively affordable from the start though eighth grade. There was the possibility for a family of four to save hundreds of thousands over the course of their children’s elementary-school education.
This was all intriguing, maybe too good to be true. There was the fear and skepticism related to sending your child to a new school. But my wife and I judged the Tiferet board to be the real deal. They came off as highly professional and accomplished; they had clearly done their homework. They seemed to be running on all cylinders with backup plans, belts, and suspenders. And finally, there was our being compelled from within to do the right thing.
Here we had a group of bold, passionate, visionary individuals who were committed to providing us with something our community had been craving for and lamenting the lack of, and they had all their ducks in a row. Were we then going to say “thanks but no thanks”? Were we actually going to look a willing and able savior in the face and then turn our backs?
As time went on, there was an official launch of the school, registration opened, an accomplished and wonderfully personable head of school was selected (who was made available to all prospective parents for meetings and discussions), and it was decision time. The brochure, folder, and registration materials with the rocket-ship logo sat idle on our dresser at home for a few weeks. Eventually, feeling our procrastination requirement was met, we jumped in. The upside was tremendous, the price was right, and there was no indication that the experience for our son would be anything other than fine at worst, unbelievable at best.
From there, things only got better. We had our interviews and were elated with the good vibes emanating from the board, head of school, and staff. Most importantly, our son was at ease and made to feel special and comfortable in the new environment being cultivated for him. About a month later, the location for the school was revealed and, as luck would have it, our son was going to be five minutes away from home. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
And then March 20 and that “exciting” e-mail. Upon receipt of the news, my mind immediately concocted conspiracy theories and dark, sordid tales of fraud and collusion. I did not lash out at Tiferet, as many certainly have and will. I asked our contacts at Tiferet what happened. “We could not fill the classes,” they said. “We did not have the parents of the Five Towns behind us,” they brokenly admitted.
But the meetings were full, the launch event a packed house, the excitement palpable! All true, but when it came to signing up kids to attend and be a part of the change (the revolution, perhaps), skepticism and cynicism apparently won the day. A school cannot get off the ground if 80 percent of prospective parents are waiting to see how it goes before sending their kids. The logic of these parents is as sound as it is flawed. On the one hand, why should my child be a guinea pig (a metaphor my wife and I were jokingly jabbed with often, as our friends were equally squeamish about sending); on the other hand, a school cannot exist with children who only attend once it has a track record. We can call this the Tiferet paradox.
So, there is no Tiferet. There is no promising upstart with fresh ideas and ideals. There is no sustainable tuition. There is no nearby first grade for my son that I hoped would cater to his unique self. There is good, old, reliable HALB, for which I am thankful. I just don’t want to spend another moment listening to parents complain about tuition or a tired education system or not enough attention for their kid. Because we had our chance to do something about it, and we blew it. v