A teeny, tiny revolution in Jewish schooling

Rabbi Yossi Bertkin, a teacher at the Jewish Collaborative Learning Centre, with his students

Advocates say micro-schools offer a 21st-century approach to education at a fraction of the price of traditional day school programs

For Deena and Isaac Oziel, being part of the conversation about ways to improve their children’s Jewish education wasn’t enough.

“We were looking for a 21st-century education, and you can’t just sit around talking about it. We decided it was time for a change and we just wanted to grab the bull by the horns,” Deena Oziel said.

Last year, the Oziels co-founded the Jewish Collaborative Learning Centre (JCLC) with Esther and Jonathan Shields.

The centre is based at the Lodzer Centre Congregation in Toronto. The Oziels and the Shields, with the help of educational consultants and qualified general studies and Judaic studies teachers, co-ordinated to establish a micro-school to provide their children with a “21st-century education.”

“We are not looking to compete with the larger day schools. We are looking to deliver a different type of education, to deliver traditional in a non-traditional way,” Oziel said.

“We don't want our teachers to simply teach the curriculum. We don't want our students to simply be receivers of curriculum. We want our students and teachers to live curriculum, to bridge what they learn to their life outside the classroom. Learning does not have to take place within four walls of a classroom.”

Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, one of JCLC’s educational consultants, who is based in Philadelphia, spoke to The CJN about the philosophy behind a micro-school.

“If we go through the history of education, basically, once there was mandatory education, there has been the question of how to educate efficiently, so we got 20 to 30 kids in a classroom with a teacher up front moving at a pace that hits the middle of the class. The slower kids had it moving faster than they would like, and the kids who picked up the material more quickly sometimes found themselves bored,” he said.

“By incorporating project-based learning as well as technology, our goal is to allow each student to learn at their own pace, whether that is slower or faster than traditional grades… and build that learning around their interests as much as possible.”

Rabbi Weinbach said that according to studies on education, spending less time in smaller groups with a teacher is more effective than spending more time with a teacher in larger groups.

“We have an opportunity in the 21st century to do something that has really not been available in education for a long time. And that is to be able to work with students one-on-one or in very small groups throughout the day at a reasonable cost.”

Oziel said that although the school is not affiliated with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and thus not able to offer subsidies on tuition, families could still potentially save a lot of money by switching to a micro-school system.

For the 2015-2016 school year, with seven children from three families ranging from grades 4 to 8 enrolled at JCLC, tuition hovers around the $10,000 mark.

Rabbi Weinbach said tuition adjusts depending on the number of children enrolled, but based on a model of 15 students per class, tuition would come down to $9,500 per child, per year.

“If you’re paying $15,000 and you have four kids, that’s a savings of $20,000 a year,” Oziel said.

“We could fill the seats with 15 kids tomorrow. We’ve had enough interest, we’ve had enough applicants, but we really don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. We want to set kids up for success and we’re looking for people who want an alternative, a program based on executive functioning skills, a program based on hand-on learning, and not just on memorization. So we’re not looking to compete with traditional schools, we’re looking to offer a different kind of program.”

Daniel Held, executive director of the federation’s Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education in Toronto, said he’s “doing a lot of watching and listening and learning” about the different educational approaches being employed by schools across North America.

“We’ve seen… all kinds of new models that speak to both the educational values that parents are looking for and the specific needs of our kids and the cost structure of the schools. These are all exciting because they all, in their own ways, help kids develop strong Jewish identities that will help them become committed Jews in the future,” Held said.

Oziel said although the school has an old-school, pioneer, multi-age school house feel, the education offered is 21st century, employing technology and student-led learning techniques.

She said one of the projects the students did last year was to plan a dream vacation.

“They were given a $15,000 budget by the teacher. They learned how to graph, make population charts, study the demographics, the weather. They had to budget their money, which was a great math lesson… It’s a real life skill knowing how to research. And when the kids came home, they said, ‘Thank you so much for taking us on a vacation. It’s not so easy to go on a vacation – and it’s expensive!’ It was so amazing that they learned the value of a dollar,” Oziel said.

“The expectation was different for the fourth grader and the eighth grader. But they all did the same project. The expectation was according to their developmental milestone…The expectation is individual for each child. It’s individualizing and customizing the work for each child.”

Rabbi Weinbach said micro-schools can also be better for children from a socialization standpoint.

"The fact that there are less kids, it’s a much easier social environment for a lot of kids. It is a lot less pressure. I don’t think, outside of school, anyone thinks that putting 25 kids of the same age in one room is a great way to socialize. From a social skills point of view, [a micro-school] is advantageous.”

He said in the United States, micro-schools and alternative schools are part of a growing movement.

One of the best-known alternative school there is called the ALT school, a collaborative community of micro-schools with eight locations in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Brooklyn.

In Texas, the Acton Academy is also a well-known alternative school that’s being replicated in other communities. 

In Toronto, in addition to JCLC, there is a micro-school called the Forest Hill Torah Academy, a private boys Orthodox Jewish day school.

Students are grouped based on ability and not by grade level, and are taught by accredited Ontario teachers who specialize in general and Judaic studies.

Aliza Karoly, co-founder of the school, said that as of last April, she and co-founder Mia Onrot made a decision to open a private micro-school to accommodate the specific needs of their children. “We were frustrated that our kids couldn’t choose what they wanted to do within the framework of the system, irrespective of whether the system works or not,” Karoly said.

“They’re going into junior high, they are boys, they happen to be very interested in business and a lot of different things they were missing out on in school,” she said, adding that her son, who is gifted in math, wasn’t being challenged.

“Our goal was to have an ability-based school. So if we have a child, like my son, who, at 12 can do Grade 9 math… in this program he could be doing Grade 7 English and Grade 9 math.”

Tuition depends on the stream and whether students are full time or part time, but for the full-time junior high program, tuition is $17,500, which is what she said she was paying at Eitz Chaim.

But Karoly said parents could potentially save a lot of money on tuition because students could be doing the work of two grades in one year. 

“They’ll be finished Grade 7 by January, God willing, and then we’ll start Grade 8,” she said.

There are currently five students enrolled, but she said there are a number of applicants who still need to be vetted and she expects to have 10 students by Sukkot.

Rabbi Weinbach said the growing trend toward micro- and alternative schools is driven by a number of factors.

“One factor is education. There are families who feel that there are opportunities for 21st-century education that mainstream schools have not yet taken advantage of that would engage their kids more. Another driver is economics – obviously, the high cost of day school. The third driver that’s making this a trend and why there’s a lot of discussion about these models within federations or amongst fundraisers is that the economic sustainability of the current system is very fragile,” he said.

“This is a model that is very easily replicated. If there are other groups interested in this and they want to set up a model that has specific characteristics for them, for boys, for girls, Lubavitch, whatever it is, it is easy to replicate this model.”

He said models that deliver a quality Jewish education at a lower cost are almost inevitable.

“This past spring, I met with 20 families in the Toronto area, and there is a great deal of interest. At this point, it’s just a matter of time.”