Rabbi Netanel Gralla, head of Yeshivat He’Atid, has two things he wants everyone to know about his school.
First, teachers have not been replaced by computers. And second, while the tuition — $8,990 for kindergarten and first grade — is substantially lower than that of other area day schools, the students are hardly enduring a no-frills education.
“We have art, music and gym,” the 40-year-old father of seven points out to a visitor during a recent tour of the Bergenfield, N.J. elementary school. “We’re not cutting corners.”
With its dual approach of making Jewish education affordable and using “blended learning,” a mix of computerized and face-to-face instruction, He’Atid — the name means “Yeshiva of the Future” — has been open just two and a half months.
But already, the 116-student Orthodox school’s impact is being felt in the Jewish day school world; other Bergen County schools are lowering tuition in the younger grades and looking to incorporate more technology. Meanwhile, two new Orthodox schools following He’Atid’s model are on track to open next year: Westchester Torah Academy in New Rochelle and Tiferet Academy in Long Island’s Five Towns.
The two planned schools, along with He’Atid, have the financial backing of the New York-based Affordable Jewish Education (AJE), an ambitious nonprofit so new it is still awaiting 501(c)3 approval.
Established by 44-year-old hedge fund manager Mark Nordlicht (who, through an intermediary, declined to be interviewed) together with six anonymous donors, AJE’s goal is nothing less than solving the day school tuition crisis by creating a new breed of tech-savvy, lower-cost schools.
“This is an urgent problem, and we have a sense of urgency,” says Jeff Kiderman, AJE’s executive director. “We can’t take a wait-and-see approach; this is the time to act.”
The money from AJE is intended solely as a startup investment to get the schools “on their feet”; the goal is that eventually the schools will be financially self-sustaining.
“The point is not to redistribute who’s paying, but to change how much it actually costs,” says Kiderman.
The He’Atid approach, inspired in part by innovative charter schools like California’s RocketShip and Arizona’s Carpe Diem, is not without its critics. While it’s hard to object to lower tuition, some parents — and leaders of established day schools — are skeptical about blended learning, which has yet to be proven successful on a large scale or over the long term. Others wonder whether AJE and He’Atid’s budget projections are realistic — the school, currently spending over $11,000 per student, is supposed to break even financially in its third year — or if the model risks faltering as it expands (the target size is about 1,000 students in pre-K through eighth grade).
Not helping the matter is that He’Atid and AJE have refused to make public the details of the “model” they are using to project expenses, although they have revealed that cost savings will come from “efficiencies” like larger class sizes, fewer administrators and group purchasing.
“The ‘model’ is just our prediction of what we think will happen — what’s more important is what actually happens,” says Kiderman. “We are constantly tweaking the model as we learn more, and we are prepared to share it with any school who wishes to learn from it.
Says Gershon Distenfeld, He’Atid’s president: “We’re happy to go over it one on one, but with no context everything gets misinterpreted.”