A revolutionary three-pillared pedagogical model is what drives every day’s activities at Yeshivat He’Atid, a yeshiva day school now completing its second full year of operation. Currently located on South Washington Avenue in Bergenfield, where the school plans to stay for just one more year while it actively seeks a new building for its growing student body, Yeshivat He’Atid, whose name is translated as “yeshiva of the future,” currently operates a pre-K, kindergarten, first, and second grade. One hundred and sixty-two students from 130 families are enrolled, and there is currently a waiting list for incoming students.
One of the initial goals of the yeshiva is well-known to the community: To bring a lower cost to day school tuition. The school continues to be committed to keeping its tuition at approximately $9,000, in keeping with 2012 inflation. But it is the 21st century educational approach, along with a commitment to working more efficiently, that is setting it apart and allowing it to take its place as a leader in Bergen County’s many pioneering Jewish institutions of excellence.
The unique blended learning model that Yeshivat He’Atid follows asks each student to empower his or herself by developing 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. Second, the students work collaboratively with classmates, sometimes with the teacher as only the facilitator. The third pillar of the model is quality time in student-teacher small groups, doing meaningful activities.
To put the model into practice, each classroom is complete with rotating stations in addition to a community space, where the class gets together for morning meetings and other group activities.
The school is scheduled to add a grade each year as it did this year, so that the current second grade will be the first graduating eighth grade class. The second grade is the smallest, with 24 students, while the first grade has two classes of 22 students. There are three kindergartens, each comprised of 21 children. The pre-K has two classes of 16. Hebrew immersion studies comprise a major part of each student’s day, and in pre-K and kindergarten, one out of each class’s two teachers speaks only Hebrew all day. “The goal is that by eighth grade every student will be fluent in Hebrew,” said Rabbi Netanel Gralla, Yeshivat He’Atid’s head of school. Also, the school plans to separate classes into boys and girls, probably in 4th grade, he said.
With an academic background in special education and extensive experience teaching at the Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys, MTA (YU’s high school for boys) and Central (YU’s high school for girls), in addition to teaching and directing special education programs, Rabbi Gralla explained his epiphany to his approach to education, which contributed to his being approached to join Yeshivat He’Atid as head of school. He told JLBC that after almost a decade teaching special education, he was asked to teach honor students and found that an individualized education plan, similar to those he created for his students in special education, worked not only just as well, but in fact very impressively well for his honor students.
Gralla explained that every student learns differently, but classic classroom situations don’t always allow for the teacher to understand the intricacies of how a student learns. For example, a student who is considered an early reader, may be simply very good at decoding, which is recognizing the shapes of letters as they form words, and memorizing those shapes, but may be lacking in phonological understanding, which is the ability to attribute a sound to each letter. “Computer assessments give us important data on each student, and we then group students according to skills, such as phonics and decoding,” he said. Therefore, “In our school, non-readers may be learning at the same level as those who might be considered early readers, because they are all working on phonological understanding,” said Gralla.
This kind of information might not be available in other learning environments, and if a student is very good at memorization, it may provide a crutch to carry a student through a large portion of elementary school. “But by the time they get to higher grades, when they are traveling from room to room for classes, the information coming at them may become too overwhelming to memorize and the student may start to experience challenges because his critical thinking and problem solving skills aren’t as strong as his memory skills,” he said. “We will pick up on the fact that they are working primarily with their memory skills, and then give them more opportunities to work on critical thinking and problem solving,” Gralla explained.
For these reasons, it’s not too surprising that each morah at Yeshivat He’Atid is a licensed teacher with a master’s level degree, most often in special education. “We are looking for teachers who are very open to learning and growing, reflexive, collaborative, creative, and looking for additional professional development. And someone who wants to be part of a start-up, in an innovative environment,” Gralla added.
While Gralla said that a traditional resource room performs an important service in many schools, and he hopes that there will soon be room for one at Yeshivat He’Atid, the resource room concept today in most schools means that teachers pull the student out of the class to work with them individually. “With our rotational model, we are essentially providing remediation all day,” he said.
For 20 minutes each day, students get computer time for reading, math, or Hebrew. Each classroom has a three-to-one ratio of students to computers, so there are eight PCs in a room with 24 students. The school uses the iReady program for reading and math, which provides assessments based on whether the student gains mastery of the concept being taught. If the student doesn’t pass the assessment, the computer program either sends the student back for additional learning, or reports out the information to the teacher, who then works with the student individually on the specific issue.
Groups of students take their turns on the computers, and then work individually, with each other or with their teachers in rotation. Gralla shared that a recent study by a Harvard professor showed that the biggest success factor for students in school was whether the student felt the teacher “liked them.” So, therefore, a strong student-to-teacher relationship is valued at Yeshivat He’Atid. But the time with the teacher needs to be quality time, Gralla said, not just with a teacher writing on a board for an hour in front of all the students.
In topics other than reading, math, and Hebrew language skills, the computer time is not as present, Gralla explained, because the computer programs available on the market are not yet as sophisticated as iReady and TalAm (the program used for Judaic Studies). But the educational model certainly translates to the all other subjects being taught. “We are, first and foremost, a yeshiva. The key component for us is our pedagogy, our approach to education. We want our students to work independently, collaboratively, in a small group with a teacher, and as a class as a whole, to have meaningful discussion,” Gralla said. “So when our students study science, social studies, Chumash, and ultimately Mishnayot and Navi, those components of the classroom will always be in place. We will come up with creative ways to have the students be engaged in meaningful work that will allow them to have time for the various learning modalities,” he said.
In every classroom, there’s a poster that illustrates what students should do when they have a question. First, they ask themselves. If they don’t come up with the answer, they ask their neighbor or another member of the group, and then if they still don’t know, they ask their teacher. This allows for each student to be engaged in critical thinking all day, developing those 21st century skills s/he needs for the future.
Gralla said that other local school administrators have reached out to him to discuss learning methods, and that Yeshivat He’Atid has an open-door policy for all their professional development days. A group of West Coast school administrators recently visited the school to share methods and ideology. The school is also active in the DJLN, the Digital Jewish Learning Network, and Gralla recently presented a webinar on some of his school’s concepts. That webinar can be replayed at https://plus.google.com/events/cdado0m7orsdrgap735gje7q4ig, though one must join the network to view it.
Those interested in learning more about Yeshivat He’Atid, please visit http://www.yeshivatheatid.org/.
By Elizabeth Kratz