Can a good education cost less?

Can a good education cost less?

Yeshivat He’Atid’s new principal, Tani Foger, says it can

Dr. Tani Foger at a first-grade classroom at Yeshivat He’Atid.
Dr. Tani Foger at a first-grade classroom at Yeshivat He’Atid.

Come for the x, stay for the y.

In other words, sometimes people are attracted to something for one reason, but they stay with it for another reason entirely.

Many people originally were drawn to Yeshivat He’Atid, the four-year-old Orthodox elementary day school in Bergenfield, because it is at least relatively affordable. Although it is of course far more expensive than public school, including charter schools, it is less expensive than conventional day schools. Many families find themselves stretched nearly unbearably by the demands of the yeshiva education they feel compelled to provide to their children. Yeshivat He’Atid is cheaper.

But they stay for the education, the school’s new principal, Dr. Tani Foger of Englewood, said.

The school is a bit hard to explain because it combines a few new models. It uses “differentiated learning, small group instruction in a rotational model,” she said. That’s when a class is broken into small groups — three groups of six or seven children, say — and rotate through working with a teacher, working on a computer, and working with an assistant in a workbook. “Ideally the best way to learn is one to one, but we can’t do that,” Dr. Foger said. “Small group instruction is the next best thing.

“Children learn the same material in several modalities,” she added. Because different children learn differently, “this allows children to experience their best selves, and learn in the best possible ways.” It also allows teachers to focus more on each child, because the groups are smaller, and there is no time spent on the sort of frontal teaching that has a full class of children sitting still, staring at the teacher, being spoken at rather than to.

Dr. Tani Foger spends time in a first-grade classroom at Yeshivat He’Atid.
Dr. Tani Foger spends time in a first-grade classroom at Yeshivat He’Atid.

At the same time, the school is structured around project-based learning. “That means that instead of having our classes divided into subjects — science, history, math — the kids learn projects.” A unit on the colonial period allowed students to learn about American history, native Americans, and botany. Another unit saw students looking at vertical gardens at the Tenafly Nature Center; they studied some science, math, and art.

“It combines all the disciplines,” Dr. Foger said. “It’s 21st-century learning. It’s not just opening a book and reading about native Americans or gardening or the science of botany. You are going to see how it’s done, with living, breathing projects. And then they write about it, and then they go to the computer and do more research about it.

“Our kids don’t get bored. They’re always moving around, learning something. They’re always learning — you don’t learn only when you don’t move.”

When children use computers, their progress is tracked, and the teacher uses the information to focus on each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps ironically, the tool that might seen to be the most distancing, the one more likely to separate each child from his or her classmates, provides the teacher with the ability to draw that child into the material and into the class.

“It’s a unique model,” Dr. Foger said. “Some schools do one or the other — the rotational model or project-based learning — but they don’t do both.

“When I go into a classroom, I see kids actively engaged in learning. But it’s always quiet. The kids are busy learning.”

That’s the model that is applied to all subjects at Yeshivat He’Atid, general and Jewish alike. Then there are the specifically Jewish subjects. “We have a strong Ivrit b’Ivrit program” — that’s when Hebrew language is taught in Hebrew, Dr. Foger said. “In fact, the kids don’t even know that the Hebrew teacher speaks English.”

That program is particularly important to Dr. Foger because her doctorate, from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School of Jewish Education, is in Hebrew immersion.

It’s 21st-century learning. It’s not just opening a book and reading about native Americans or gardening or the science of botany.

And then there is tefillah — the prayer that arguably is at the school’s core, or at least its heart. “We introduced a new tefillah program, because we want to have a school with a soul,” Dr. Foger said. “It’s one of the first things I did. I asked to purchase a whole new set of siddurim” — prayer books. She was somewhat tentative because the mandate to keep down costs did not necessarily lead to buying new supplies unnecessarily. But she was able to get the siddurim she wanted, books aimed at elementary schoolers that ask them to think about what they are saying and help them to pray with intention, and they proved invaluable. “I hope that here we really are teaching that when we pray, we are whispering in God’s ear,” Dr. Foger said.

“In progressive education, everything has to be in alignment,” she continued. “Our philosophy, the way we prepare children to think about Hashem” — God — “the way we prepare them to think about themselves as people. It all has to make sense. It has to be healthy for children and other living things.

“The kids look happy. They are happy. They are not imposed on. They can learn in a very natural, healthy way. We don’t just want to do what every other school does. This school is the face of Jewish education of the future.”

Students come to Yeshivat He’Atid, which now, in its fourth year, runs through fourth grade and plans to add a grade a year, from across Bergen County; parents of potential students from as far away as Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and from even-more-distant Staten Island, have begun to explore the school this year.

“It is a modern Orthodox parent body, and it is a community,” Dr. Foger said. “And it is a community that I know because I am a part of it, and I raised my own children in it.”

Dr. Foger, who is the first woman to head a local Orthodox day school, she said proudly, is striking looking. She is beautiful and idiosyncratic, with long red hair, colorful glasses, and glowing, flowing clothing.

She comes from a complicated background that has prepared her well for her new challenge. Now 58, she grew up on the Lower East Side, the only child of Sol Schneider, an actor who soon left the family, and Doris Schneider, her brilliant, hard-working mother, also an actress, who started a Yiddish-speaking theater company at the Henry Street Settlement — and who worked as a clerical worker to support herself and her daughter.

The school is proud of its students’ artwork.
The school is proud of its students’ artwork.

Ms. Schneider had wanted her daughter to go to a ritzy Upper East Side school — Ethical Culture, perhaps, or the Lycee Francaise — but Tani’s birthday was too late for them. And then “my mother’s cousin said that there is another good school on the Upper East Side. And that put me on this path. I went to Ramaz.

“Had any of those other schools accepted me, I wouldn’t be here now,” she said.

Dr. Foger went all the way through Ramaz, the modern Orthodox day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She loved it. “And then in the summer I went to Camp Massad, and that was total Hebrew immersion. I gravitated to everything that was spiritual. My mother had grown up in a religious home but had left it. But I brought it home, and then she got back into it, and we became more observant.”

Dr. Foger went to NYU, and then went to Israel in 1978. She lived there for five years; during that time, she married her husband, Soli Israel Foger, an architect whose strong personality, potent charm, and willingness to move from secular to increasingly observant life fit her needs precisely. The two went on to have four sons — Ami, Ori, Elichai, and Dov — and now they have three grandchildren as well.

Dr. Foger began a doctoral program in psychology at NYU before she left for Israel but did not finish it; instead, she earned a certificate in school psychology. She worked with drug addicts in a methadone maintenance program in Haifa; it was fascinating and gratifying work, but “it was a difficult first job,” she understated. Her next job was as a school psychologist in Ramat Gan. Eventually the family — Tani and Soli had two sons by then — moved back to the United States.

Dr. Foger worked as a school psychologist for the New York City Board of Education for 26 years. She had given up on the idea of finishing her doctoral work; clearly she did not need it. But at one point her oldest son, Ami, who was in college at YU, went on a ski trip and asked her to look at his mail. “Something came from Azrieli about a graduate program in education, and I looked at it and thought, ‘That looks interesting,’” she said. “That’s how I ended up in the program.”

She did her internship at Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef in 2001, when the school was new, helping it develop its Hebrew immersion program. “When I finished my dissertation and my program, though, I realized that I couldn’t work in Jewish education because it didn’t pay enough,” she said. “I was 55, and I had 25 years in.”

Next, though, she was offered a job at the North Shore Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island’s north shore. The job was wonderful, but the commute was not. “It was killing me,” Dr. Foger said.

Dr. Foger had been on Yeshivat He’Atid’s board since it first began; “last year, they reached out to me and asked if I would help out part time as a psychologist. I was there on Fridays. And the next thing I know…”

She began her new job at the start of this school year.

Yeshivat He’Atid has gotten a great deal of help from the Affordable Jewish Education Project, a privately funded group whose goal is “to improve the quality of Jewish education while making it more affordable,” its executive director, Jeff Kiderman, said. The group was created at around the same time as Yeshivat He’Atid, and the two have worked together from the beginning.

One of the most exciting parts of working with He’Atid was that it was “a blank slate,” Mr. Kiderman said. “There is something both refreshing and empowering about being able to look at things that people have been doing for years and think about whether there is a better way to do them. I think that parents who have experienced the school, whether by attending, teaching there, or visiting, have found an extremely high level of thoughtfulness that comes into decision-making. That comes from excellent faculty and administration, but also from the fact that when you are creating a school, you are empowered to think about the way you want things to be, not just the way they always have been.

“Yeshivat He’Atid was our first school; we are now working with others,” he added. “We work with Westchester Torah Academy in New Rochelle, and with the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.” All those schools are Orthodox, but he is open to working with other Jewish schools.

“At the outset, we provided them with financial support, and then it became strategic support,” he said. “Now we are gradually moving into working more on educational support. That does not mean developing curricula — it is more about helping the school refine its already innovative educational model to better achieve the mission of high academic quality and low cost.”

If AJE is the laboratory that develops the ideas, then He’Atid has functioned as its research and development arm, Mr. Kiderman said. “It is the place that is actually doing the stuff that we were talking about. We learned a tremendous amount from it and what worked and what needed to be tweaked.

“All the other schools that are trying or have tried similar initiatives are to some extent standing on the shoulders of Yeshivat He’Atid.”

When AJE began researching its model, it got its ideas “primarily from the charter-school world,” Mr. Kiderman said. “I think that continues to be the case; the places that we look for advice and inspiration are mostly outside the Jewish world.” It’s not an exact match, though. “You generally have a different demographic base,” he said. “Different type of parents, different expectations, a different financial model, and in many cases a different culture, and not insignificantly a different schedule,” because non-Jewish schools generally do not have dual curriculums. How to divide the available time by the number of subjects that must be taught — and taught well, because day school parents will not accept low quality in secular subjects any more than in Jewish ones — is an ongoing challenge to day-school educators.

There were a lot of naysayers in the beginning. They said that we couldn’t maintain the price or the quality. We have proven them wrong.

“Yeshivat He’Atid is at a very interesting point in its trajectory,” Mr. Kiderman said. “It is no longer a new small school. There are 230 students already, and hopefully many more are signing up for next year. They are gearing up to move to a new campus” — the move, to a larger building in Teaneck, is scheduled for January — “and it is establishing itself as a strong, enduring institution. People are coming to realize that this isn’t a fad or a fleeting project. The school is here to stay.”

Gershon Distenfeld of Bergenfield, who has been a guiding force behind the school from the beginning, chairs its board, as he has from the time the board was formed.

“Our vision was founded on three principles,” he said. “The first is that the school should be more affordable without sacrificing the quality of education. The second was the differentiated model of learning.

“The third was to be more sensitive to working parents; to try not to have programming for parents during the day or on Sundays, to figure out ways to bring in day care.” The school has partnered with a day care provider who will offer before- and after-school service in the new building.

He is proud of the school. “There were a lot of naysayers in the beginning. They said that we couldn’t maintain the price or the quality. We have proven them wrong.”

It is clear that the school’s model can provide a quality education, but how does it keep costs down? “You don’t need as many resources outside the classroom,” Mr. Distenfeld said. “In a traditional model, there are 20, 25 kids in the classroom. You have a range of students, and the teacher has to teach to the average, so you will have some kids who are bored and other kids who need extra help. The traditional school has to supplement a lot. We don’t have to.

“Studies show that it is not the amount of time students spend with a teacher that matters. It is the quality of that time. It is being able to work in small groups according to ability level.

“This model makes the teacher much more empowered.”

The technology is great, he added, but is just a tool. “It doesn’t matter what you have in the classroom — computers, iPads — what matters is how you use it.”

Mashie Kopelowitz is the school’s Judaic studies and Hebrew coordinator. She talked about the model sukkot the children made. “They learned about what makes a sukkah kosher from the Mishnah. We brought in recycled materials, and the children made the most beautiful sukkot. Some were kosher, and some weren’t, and they were able to explain why it was or wasn’t kosher.

Students works on creating a model sukkah with recycled materials.
Students works on creating a model sukkah with recycled materials.

“In upcoming projects, we will turn a classroom into a shuk,” a marketplace. “The general studies program is learning about farm to table, and we will connect it to brachot. A second-grade class will be turned into a restaurant, and the kids will have to know what brachot to say about the things on the menu.”

Dr. Foger summed up her feelings about the job.

“I’m excited because I believe that this is the new face of Jewish education,” she said. “It is not cookie-cutter. It is not one size fits all. You don’t have to be one particular kind of student. I think that we can teach every type of child, and that is exciting to me as someone who has grown children and grandchildren. I know that every child deserves a Jewish education, and I also know that not every child will be strong in every subject, and it’s important to remember that.

“I am excited to be part of this school because I think we are getting it right,” she said.

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