What if high school were not just a way station on the road to college?
What if high school were to prepare graduates to start earning a wage?
That’s the premise of the Builder School, which hopes to join North Jersey’s growing rank of Jewish high schools.
It’s the longtime dream of Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, who until recently was associate head of school at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, working under his father, Rabbi Elazar Teitz. That school, the JEC, was founded in 1941 by his grandfather, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz; it was one of the first seven Jewish day schools in the United States.
Back in February, the Builder School was on the verge of signing a lease with the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. In March, however, covid came along, and Rabbi Teitz postponed the opening to the 2021 school year.
The idea, however, remains constant: A four-year coed program that will focus on practical education, in Jewish as well as secular classes. Ninth graders will take fairly standard high school courses; starting in 10th grade, however, students will select one of four tracks that will see them well prepared for a job when they graduate.
“One track will be hands-on construction,” Rabbi Teitz said. “One will be technological — coding and app construction and things like that. One will focus on business and real estate, with the goal that you will graduate high school with a real estate license. That’s a leg up on the competition. The fourth we’re looking at now is law, where you’ll graduate with a paralegal certification.
“We’ve had kids ask about medicine. These are the four models now. If one doesn’t gain traction, we can swap it out for medicine, with students graduating with EMT certification.
“The idea is to give them options. You’ll have something you can leverage and use, and it looks great on a college resume. A lot of parents are saying they can’t afford to pay for college. They don’t want the debt. This gives the kids lots of possibilities. They can work while they’re in school, or they can put money away before school. We’re looking to create realistic options for kids.”
Rabbi Teitz sees his new school as the answer to the high school students he has encountered throughout his career, “who are just not really engaged. They sit there saying, ‘When am I ever going to use this? Why do I need to know this?’ You see they’re not connecting, but we push them through the system and we do them no favors.
“A lot of these kids don’t know what they want from college. It’s not them. They don’t want to be doctors and lawyers. They don’t want 9-to-5 jobs. They don’t want to be tied down to a desk. What do we do for these kids?”
Rabbi Teitz emphasizes that this is “high school plus, not high school light. It’s not a failure. The kids are getting a high school diploma like any other diploma. They’ll take SATs and ACTs.
“Baby Boomers and Gen Xers take it as a personal failing of their parenting if their child doesn’t go to college. But college is not the benchmark of success any more. A lot of kids go and find that they still need a masters degree. They end up earning less than an electrician who has no educational debt.
“The community has to understand that being a professional, a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, is not the only path to a happy life, a meaningful life, a successful life,” Rabbi Teitz said.
The fact that construction licensing standards are set state-wide in New Jersey, whereas in New York every municipality can have its own licensing requirement, is one of the reasons why Rabbi Teitz wants the school to be placed on this side of the Hudson.
It turns out that there are three components to becoming a licensed electrician in New Jersey. One is a high school diploma. Check. The second is a four-year educational program taught by electrician unions and independent electrical contractors. Rabbi Teitz will hire certified trainers to teach his students. The third requirement is five years of hands-on work, starting from age 18. The school obviously can’t provide that, but its graduates, having already taken the hands-on curriculum, will have learned about — and implemented — three-way switches and light fixtures and all the rest of the skills taught to aspiring electricians.
“When they tell an electrician that they want to be an apprentice, they can’t say they have worked on a job site, but they’ll have lots of skills,” he said.
Rabbi Teitz wants the spirit of practicality to infuse the entire curriculum.
“My dream is that a student will never sit in a class and say, ‘Why do I need to know this?’
That means math classes devoted to financial literacy for small business owners, rather than to calculus. Business ethics and contract law will be part of the social studies curriculum.
The same practicality will be applied to the Jewish studies curriculum.
“The focus is not going to be on Gemara per se,” Rabbi Teitz said. “The primary focus will be on Mishna, covering ground, so they’ll know what every chapter is talking about, so they can see the entire breadth of halacha.”
Torah classes will focus on the commandments, not on the narratives, he said, and there will be a particular focus on business ethics. “I am looking to recast the model of Torah education,” Rabbi Teitz said. “I’m trying to create this integrated whole, where everything relates to where the students are and what are their goals for the future.
“If you take a kid and force him to sit in four hours of calculus every day, will he want to be a physicist? So why are we dong it with Gemara? I’m saying now is the time for looking at a different model. Gemara will be an elective for the kids who want an intellectual challenge.”
Rabbi Teitz said that he expects his school to attract students who are only accepted grudgingly by the existing academically-focused yeshiva high schools.
“For us, the key is that the kid is committed to working hard,” he said. “If you’re committed to buckling down and working hard, we want you. We want the kids to feel wanted. We want them to feel this is a place that’s proud to take them in.