Friday, February 4, 2011

The Tuition Crisis 2: Return to the Cheder

After my last post highlighting aliyah as the ideal solution to the tuition crisis, a commenter wrote,
Telling people that they should make Aliyah to solve the exorbitant tuition costs in Jewish schools in America does nothing to bring those costs down. It's like telling someone who's not happy with their job that they should just get another job. It's not an answer, and it's honestly not very helpful to people who are really struggling to pay for their kids' tuition.
Point well taken. People should move to Israel because that's where Jews belong. Affordable tuition is an entirely different issue. I've got a couple of suggestions which obviously aren't going to be mainstream, but perhaps will light a fire under some creative, forward-thinking people.

Almost a decade ago, Rabbi Dov Lipman (we were classmates in high school) left his job at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington to begin a new school, which would eventually be called the "Eshkol Academy." The school didn't work out (and its main funder ended spending some time in a Federal penitentiary) but for the first year (even before the school officially began), the school had ten students, no real building, and one main teacher: Rabbi Lipman. From what I recall, he was the Jewish studies instructor, and there were one or two Judaic instructors. Every day he would drive the kids to the JCC for physical activity during the day. While the school eventually found a building, hired staff, and later imploded (see above), I often thought about the education that the kids got during that first year. I'm sure that they learned more that year than probably any other year of their education. They had a personal relationship with an excellent teacher and mentor. They studied in a relatively small class. And they used already existing community structures to supplement what they didn't have.
Some day soon, an enterprising educator is going to go off the "reservation" and open his (or her) own personal "cheder" for kids spanning two grade levels, renting space in a local shul (which has unused classrooms) for twenty or thirty kids. He is the administration. He's the teacher. He's the guidance counselor. He knows every student personally. He uses a local available facility for physical educations (Kids need to run. A lot.) and parents assist with some of the grunt work - preparing food, helping with secretarial work, etc. He hires another teacher to teach secular subjects. Assuming that we're not talking about upper-level high school classes, that's not at all a stretch.
This model, to my mind, could easily work at least through eighth grade. Children would develop an important relationship with a rebbe, receive personal attention and direction, and be nurtured in a warm, caring environment. A teacher would have one class, have a handle on each of his students, know the parents, and have greater influence (and responsibility) for their growth. The community would benefit from using under-utilized facilities which sit idle for much of the week (have you ever been to a JCC during the mid-afternoon hours? How about a shul during a morning), and parents' personal involvement would both save them money and invest them personally in their kids' education.
Will some entrepreneurial budding educator take the plunge and try my idea? I'm in Israel, where tuition isn't a "crisis." But in America, where parents are drowning in tuition fees, it might be an idea to consider.