Last Thursday, the Idea School in Tenafly announced that it would close at the end of this school year.
The announcement was a surprise; the high school, which opened in 2018 at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly with ninth-graders, graduated its first class, with 19 students, last year. It’s a small school, dedicated to project-based learning, which values creativity, interdisciplinary fluidity combined with academic rigor, the importance of social and emotional learning as a necessary complement to more theoretical knowledge, and emotional and intellectual resilience. It’s also a Jewish day school, so it combined Jewish texts, learning, worldview, and values as a necessary component of its education.
“The model worked,” the school’s head and founder, Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck, said.
But the practicalities were harder. It takes money and students to create a school. “The headwinds” — which in this case involved covid, which made it hard for the students to do much of the shared hands-on work upon which project-based learning is based — “were just too strong.
“Kids wanted more infrastructure, more sports, more clubs — the things more established schools have.”
The Idea School will graduate its second class — 18 students — this spring. Its leaders are working hard to ensure that its 40 juniors, sophomores, and freshman will be placed in the schools that are best for them. “Other schools are working with our students to place them in the schools that are best for them,” Ms. Wiener said.
“We’re partnering with other high schools, so that our students don’t just find a landing spot, they find the right landing spot,” the school’s administrator, Tamara Levin, said. “They are not going to go anywhere that’s not right for them.” That might mean that some students will go to schools outside the immediate area, and therefore have a longer commute, if that placement is best for that child, she added.
That concern for each child as an individual has been the school’s hallmark.
“Because of project-based learning, we have created a culture where we teach real-world skills, including self-confidence and collaboration,” Ms. Levin continued. “The kids have so much resilience. Our hearts are breaking right now, but we are confident that they have gained so much from this school that they will go on to take the world by storm.”
The school closing also was announced early enough in the year to give its staff time to find other jobs.
“While we are closing, we have learned so much amazing information about the model, and we look forward to sharing it with the field, as we have done through the Idea Institute, the professional development arm of the school,” Ms. Wiener said. “The institute, and that work, will continue. We always get inquiries about our work, we do workshops, and that will continue. We have other plans in the works, different programs and professional development opportunities that we will create.”
“We look at kids as individuals, not as numbers,” Ms. Levin said. “We really care about them as individuals, and that’s how we built our culture. We don’t have them go to class and take a test. This school and this model are about giving them a chance to use their talents in a way that works for them. They get real feedback from teachers who care about them.”
One of the problems the school faced is how hard it is to define project-based learning in a very few words. It’s not a bumper-sticker kind of philosophy. It doesn’t really lend itself, in more than nearly cartoon form, to an elevator speech. “It’s so many things that it’s hard to define and even harder to sell in just a few words,” Ms. Levin said. “But we know what we did, and the students know what they have.
“It’s a model where the learning is not just about memorizing knowledge, but about using your knowledge to solve problems in the world,” Ms. Wiener said. “It’s a way to develop a deep personal connection to learning, so that you also discover things about yourself, new skills and interests.” Skills, knowledge, self-knowledge, self-confidence, and competence grow together. “You grow and develop and become confident in solving problems and tackling everything that comes your way.
“It allows kids curiosity, perseverance, and understanding how to beautify their work so they can be proud of it, and proud of themselves.”
Ms. Levin, who did not start as an educator, now is passionate about the Idea School, and about the project-based learning work that will outlive it. “No matter what else I do, I will never forget this experience,” she said. “I got so much, and I hope that I was able to give to others. It was so important to me just to be part of this.”
“Tamara is not the only person to say this,” Ms. Wiener said. “One faculty member said that she’d worked in schools before, but this was the school that changed her as a person. And that has been true for all of us.
“We also were the projects. We were in a structure where everyone is collaborating, and we all were able to contribute our knowledge and skills and learn from each other. Just as we were putting our kids in projects, we were projects too.
“This school has changed me as a person.”