Online learning, volunteerism help day schools cut costs

The Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey doesn’t have a math teacher. Instead, the nondenominational school relies on math tutors who help students work through an online math curriculum relying on outside sources.

At Baltimore’s Ohr Chadash, a Modern Orthodox primary school in its first year, students receive iPads beginning in the fourth grade to do more online and group work.

“The things the teachers ask us to do for work are fun,” said 9-year-old Nili Hefetz. For example, using Adobe Ideas, Nili and other Ohr Chadash fourth-graders draw pictures on the iPads inspired by the Chumash (Bible) lessons.

“The idea was to incorporate technology into the school in a seamless way,” said the school’s president, Saul Weinreb. “It became a way of doing things both in education and administration.”

It is also a way to save money.

Rabbi Francis Nataf leads an eighth-grade Talmud class at the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center in New Jersey. photo/jta-pclc

With tuition that can reach $30,000 or more per student, the day school tuition crisis has spurred a search for new options and given rise to a new breed of day schools where technology and blended learning — mixing traditional classroom learning with online education — are reducing costs.

“In the general world, online and blended learning is becoming a wave of the future,” said Rachel Mohl Abrahams, a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation in New York.

PCLC opened in the fall with 20 students in grades eight to 11. Its director, Lauren Ariev Gellman, predicts that all schools — public and private — will have an online component in the next 10 to 15 years.

“Everybody is going to move in this direction,” Gellman said. “It would serve Jewish schools well to get ahead of the curve. And bring the costs way down.”

Tuition is just $5,000 at the PCLC. The blended learning style has allowed the school to save in a big area: faculty. It employs two full-time administrators and only part-time teachers. Teachers assign lessons from online curricula, such as math and science lessons from Khan Academy or language lessons from Rosetta Stone, and then provide individual help while students work at their own pace.

The Judaic studies curriculum is more traditional, simply because the resources are not there yet. Two of the classes, however, are run via Skype with a teacher in Israel and students participating from four or five other yeshivas.

Volunteering is also helping to keep down costs at the new schools. At Ohr Chadash, where tuition is $8,400, each family is required to volunteer 25 hours per year. Nili’s mother, Shayna, is co-president of the school’s parent-teacher association and volunteers as an art teacher. Others have volunteered with office work, on field trips and as lunchtime supervisors.

“We try to utilize parent volunteers as much as possible,” Shayna Hefetz said.

Florida’s Jewish Cooperative School second-grader Tamar Serwatien uses a microscope brought in by parent volunteer Nochum Marcus. photo/jta-jewish cooperative school

Going paperless also has meant major cost savings, which Weinreb estimates at a few hundred dollars per student.

Volunteerism is the main model for keeping down costs at the Jewish Cooperative School in Hollywood, Fla., where 2011-12 tuition ran $7,500. As at Ohr Chadash, the administration requires the parents of its 23 students in kindergarten through second grade to volunteer several hours a month.

“I’ve found parents really enjoy being involved in the education of their kids,” said Janessa Wasserman, one of the school’s founders and a parent of two students there. “And the kids really love it.”

Avi Chai has provided grants to three of the blended learning schools, including PCLC and Ohr Chadash. Overall, Avi Chai is aware of eight blended learning schools that either opened this year or plan to open next year, from California and Texas to Maryland and Massachusetts.

The concept has started drawing attention from other funders, too.

Determined to figure out new, sustainable ways to ensure that all Jewish parents have the ability to send their children to affordable, high-quality day schools, a group of philanthropists in the New York area formed the Affordable Jewish Education Project earlier this year. The group honed in on the concept of low-cost day schools, said its executive director, Jeff Kiderman.

“There’s more to them than just their low cost,” he said. “We saw this as a tremendous opportunity to innovate in the world of Jewish education by promoting educational improvements and affordability improvements at a time when our community really needs both.”

Tuition savings at the lower-cost schools can range from 30 to 40 percent on the elementary level and 50 percent or more in high school, according to Kiderman. The schools focus on a mix of technology and volunteerism to keep costs down.

“This is absolutely the future of education,” said Rebecca Coen, founder and head of Yeshiva High Tech, a Modern Orthodox high school in Los Angeles scheduled to open in August with 40 students in ninth through 11th grade and tuition set at $8,500.

Distance learning has been around for years and Jewish schools are actually playing catch-up in online education, Coen said, noting that advances in non-Jewish education often take several years to filter down to the Jewish educational world.