The use of on-line public school within a Jewish day school setting.
Since arriving in Portland, Oregon in December of 2005 to serve as rabbi of Congregation Kesser Israel, the educational challenges of our community have been a primary focus of mine. In the course of addressing these challenges, our community has had the opportunity to explore several creative venues to provide Jewish education. The primary purpose of this article is to share a “field update” regarding one of those venues, namely the use of an on-line state funded charter school known as Connections Academy. I hope that this article will be beneficial both as a means of sharing our work with other communities, and as a furthering of the conversation as to how the broader Orthodox community can effectively address the tuition crisis.
I would like to begin with a history lesson (from Oregon of course!) which is useful in articulating my approach to our local challenges. Several months ago, I visited the award winning Tillamook Cheese Factory, located in the coastal town of Tillamook, Oregon. During my visit, I learned that the original pioneers arrived in the late 19th century with the intent of farming the land. They invested significant time and resources into clearing out the dense forest, only to discover that this particular area was too wet and cold to support their crops. In spite of this problem, they did notice that their cattle were thriving on the plentiful green grass. Consequently, they turned to dairy products such as milk and soft cheese as their source of livelihood, producing a surplus of dairy products far greater than the locals could consume. Finally, they discovered that with their surplus of milk they could produce hard cheese and butter products which could be preserved well enough to be exported, and they developed a viable economy. Today, this small coastal city exports its award winning cheeses all over the world.
Every locale has its own challenges. However, unique challenges point us to unique opportunities. If we accept the challenges that we face with optimism, we are likely to discover G-d’s blessing in the unique “exports” and “products” that our locale is capable of producing.
The educational challenges for a community such as Portland are straightforward. While Portland is a medium size west coast community with 40,000 Jews, there is minimal history of Orthodox infrastructure. Congregation Kesser Israel has been in existence for nearly 100 years. Jewish education has always been a major challenge for our families. Our community has generally struggled to offer K – 8 education for families from traditional or Orthodox homes. Consequently, many of our children wound up attending public schools. Further, many of the families that Kesser Israel has engaged and connected to the Jewish community, ultimately left Portland for more developed Orthodox communities. Families for whom relocation was not an option have been faced with very difficult choices when it comes to schooling.
During my years in Portland, establishing a viable educational option for our community became a major priority for the Orthodox community. Together with other local leaders, we decided that the optimal path was to open a community Orthodox day school. This decision was made in 2010, amidst all the problems of the ailing US economy, and the tuition crisis. Furthermore, we made this decision with very minimal financial backing. Portland is not a major financial center, and has had a very limited history of Torah oriented philanthropy.
Nevertheless, community members felt inspired to create something unique and new that would serve our community. Surely, we reasoned, we can be “Trailblazers” with our own contribution to Jewish education!
As a result of our efforts, Maayan HaTorah Day School (MHT), an affiliate of Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, opened its doors in the in the fall of 2011, and this coming fall, we will be opening the school through 1st grade. We will also be running a Judaic track for grades 2 – 7 (more about that below). We have 39 children registered in the school for the coming year. Special thanks are due to Torah Umesorah for their professional guidance throughout this process. Furthermore, while the school carries the bulk of the fundraising burden, we would not have been able to meet this challenge without several generous grants from Torah Umesorah.
A primary goal of opening this school is to create an institution that will educate and inspire children to be passionate about their Jewish identity. Another objective is to build an institution that will transform our community to become a locale where families can grow and thrive long term in their connection to Torah.
A primary goal of opening this school is to build an institution that will transform our community to become a locale where families can grow and thrive long term in their connection to Torah. Further, we seek to create an institution that will educate and inspire children to be passionate about Torah as the foundation of their identity.
Portland does offer a unique backdrop for a Jewish community. The Portland area is known for its raw Northwest beauty, rugged mountains, lush valleys, and great rivers. In fact, the name “Maayan HaTorah” is a reflection of the local beauty of many waterfalls. The Torah itself is a wellspring, and many people here have sought to have greater access to that wellspring. Local residents generally place less emphasis on material wealth than in other communities in the United States. This makes for a culture in which many individuals are open to spiritual exploration and growth.
Use of on-line public school
A significant challenge in this project has been balancing the needs of the larger community on the one hand, with those of individual children on the other hand. While the viable path forward for the community was to open a pre-school, and gradually add grades year by year, there were a number of children in our community from Orthodox homes in older elementary grades in need of schooling. Maayan HaTorah was not in a position to open classes for those grades.
A unique schooling model was created to address the needs of these children. This schooling model is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it may very well be a relevant option for other small communities. Secondly, it raises some very important questions about how the greater Orthodox community may be able to address the education crisis in the coming years.
This coming fall, MHT will open a Judaic Track for ten local children, in second through seventh grades. These children happen to break down into two groups, boys in grades two through six, girls in grades five through seven. MHT has hired a local rabbi who will serve as the rebbi for both of these groups. This hire, combined with assistance from other local rabbis and parents, will enable us to provide these children with a full Jewish education.
While MHT was not in a financial position to fund a general studies program for these sparsely populated grades, we have identified a local resource, the Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA) which we are utilizing to educate a number of these children. ORCA is a public (read: free) on-line charter school. (Connections Academy is also available as an on-line public school in a number of other states with significant Jewish populations, including California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas amongst others). ORCA seems to target families who seek the flexibility of home-schooling, but lack the resources to actually home school their children. For example, ORCA serves a number of students who either want to focus on an extracurricular activity that takes a number of hours out of the student’s day, or come from a religious (non-Jewish) home which is adverse to public school.
We are facilitating the participation of local children in this program by providing a location within MHT for these kids to “log-on” to the ORCA program. Further, parents of these students have partnered together to hire an educator to be present on-site to oversee the children and help them to manage their courses. Just as in many Jewish day schools, the school day for these students is split 50/50 between Judaic and secular studies.
In essence, MHT is offering a Judaic program, as well as facilitating a general studies program in one location for these students above 1st grade. While MHT is financially responsible for the Judaic track, enrollment in ORCA is free of charge. MHT does not (and legally cannot) charge for or take financial or other responsibility for students participation in ORCA. Each family may choose to enroll their child in that program of their own accord.
Here are some relevant facts and features of Oregon Connections Academy:
- Free public school education, books and laptops provided by the state.
- High-quality, nationally accredited education, overseen by a team of professional educators.
- Schooling takes place in an on-line environment, where students access their work and their lessons (including live-lessons).
- The school and lessons are accessible 24/7 in one self-contained web site which brings the school right to students 24 hours a day from any internet connection.
- Each student enrolled in ORCA is placed in a class with a teacher and other students.
- Students are required to have a learning coach.
- Students can communicate with their teacher on a regular basis via phone and email.
- While the school year progresses at a challenging pace, there is flexibility in the schedule, making times such a Yom Tov manageable.
- There are optional opportunities to meet the teacher and other students for various activities.
- Graduates of this program (which runs K- 12) test well above state average and have a track record of being accepted into top universities and colleges throughout the United States.
In my own personal experience with Connections Academy (my daughter attended their 6th grade program last year), the staff was extremely helpful and understanding when it came to navigating “Frum” issues, from Yom Tov observance and standardized tests on Shabbat, to our sensitivities regarding studies of other religions.
Advantages of ORCA
Facilitating this group participation in ORCA has been far superior to both home schooling, as well as regular public school. I also believe that it may be superior to the secular education that a less developed Jewish community may be able to provide:
Here are several noteworthy advantages of ORCA:
- The education is superior to what home-schooling parents can offer.
- By utilizing ORCA, we keep our kids in a Jewish environment out of the public schools.
- By offering a location within a frum school for children to attend this program, we bring our kids into a positive and safe learning environment in which they can interact with other kids, under the sensitive care of our Torah day school staff.
- While individual families do not necessarily have the time available to oversee their kids participating in this program, by joining together, we had the resources to hire the learning coach.
- ORCA, with its flexible hours, offers the opportunity to get an accredited education with the flexibility of being able to be enrolled in our Judaic Track at MHT.
- While Jewish schools in small communities sometimes resort to blended classes (multiple grades in one room), Connections Academy addresses each child on grade level.
- ORCA offers many educational resources which a private Jewish day-school may have difficulty offering, such as gifted and remedial placement for each grade, or multiple levels of mathematics instruction within one grade, based on a student’s skill level and need.
A few words about the cost
The costs associated with supporting kids in ORCA are significantly lower than running our own secular studies program.
The basic costs are the rent for the location and utilities, as well as the wages for the learning coach. The profile of the learning coach is someone with a background in education who can support the children both academically and emotionally. These facilitators do not create curriculum or even grade tests – all that is done by ORCA. We simply pay the facilitator an hourly wage to oversee and assist the students while they do their work.
There are a number of important dollar savings here. Just one example: aside from not needing to hire a salaried teacher, we also do not need to hire a secular principal, as obviously ORCA has a principal who manages and oversees the entire program.
Were MHT to consider facilitating ORCA as a longer term option for the school, I believe that we could cut our tuition by 20% or more (MHT’s current tuition for 1st grade is $9,600.00 plus consumable fees). In a middle class town like Portland Oregon, this creates a significant opportunity to market ourselves as an affordable version of Jewish day school.
I would like to point out that there are several important limitations regarding how this program can be run in the context of a day school. For example, because ORCA is a public school, no tuition can be charged for participation in ORCA. Further, a day school such as MHT cannot determine a child’s enrollment into ORCA; the student must apply independently. The day school can be designated by a parent as the “learning coach”, and manage the students work within ORCA. I would recommend that anyone seriously interested in exploring this option for their community, consult Connections Academy or possibly an attorney to assess legal limitations regarding the use of Connections Academy in the context of a day school.
It is important to point out that at MHT we are acutely aware of the dangers of the internet. The program has been set up in such a way that children are not exposed to the harms of the internet:
- The program is contained within one website, “Connexus”, run by ORCA.
- The students do not own their laptops; they belong to the parents and are given to the kids for school use only.
- MHT provides adult supervision at all times.
- Our students computers are equipped both with a very strong filter (K9) as well as Web-Chaver, which sends weekly email reports of internet activity to the parents.
- Depending on how the computer filter is set up, all websites can be made inaccessible without the passcode.
- Our students are prohibited from visiting websites other than Conexus. On rare occasions, assignments do involve visiting other sites; this activity is monitored by the learning coach.
- Other measures can be taken, depending on the comfort level and good sense of the parents.
Some reflections on on-line schooling
Again, at this stage of our development, this on-line public school is being utilized for a group of 7 children. However, I believe that this presents an opportunity that our community – and others – should look at seriously for long term secular studies education. The feasibility of an institution such as MHT providing full resources for high level Judaic and secular courses is a very serious question mark regarding our future. While we want to appeal to parents who value both Judaic and secular achievement, offering a dual-curriculum is a monumental financial challenge, especially in Jewish community such as Portland. While finances are an issue in almost all communities, small middle-class cities like Portland find finances particularly vexing.
On the other hand, by providing our own Judaic program and supporting students in ORCA, our goals may become more attainable. And by providing these resources within the school building, we are creating a very positive Jewish environment in which kids have a place to grow together with their peers and their Judaic teachers, while accessing a top rate general education. And while some prospective parents may be reticent about the on-line learning component, with our set-up, we have created a dynamic learning environment which addresses the multiple layers of social and educational needs that students have.
With all of these advantages to the ORCA program, it is important to note a significant challenge we may face in the event that we use ORCA as our educational template, as it may not be perceived as a “real” schooling option by parents that we want to attract. While we may not loose local Orthodox families if we utilize ORCA, potential parents outside of our Orthodox community who we seek to recruit may opt for schools which provide traditional secular classrooms on site, with the obvious advantages that creates. If MHT or another school is to consider this virtual option, we will need to look very carefully at how this will impact our long term ability to attract new families. While the cost of ORCA would work to our recruiting advantage, there could be negative perceptions that we need to overcome.
The greater Orthodox community of the United States is at a crossroads. Times are changing, and it is likely that the way that our schools provide education will need to change. We have a collective responsibility to address these challenges in a creative way. Today, there are many Orthodox kids who are leaving Orthodox day schools. We also face the unsustainable financial burden which threatens the well-being of families in our communities. To respond to these challenges, we must develop sustainable solutions that will allow every Jewish boy and girl to access Jewish education. This is especially true in smaller communities which do not have the resources of larger Jewish communities. The use of pubic-on line school “under the roof” of the Jewish day-school, is one possibility which should be examined seriously within the Jewish community.