We in the North American Jewish Day School (JDS) world have good reason be proud of what we have created. Our various, varied educational institutions around the continent inspire children to live lives of meaning, both Jewish and secular. We present learning opportunities on a high level, and our students take advantage of the opportunities, developing into productive, responsible citizens of the world.
Because the default assumption of our schools is that our graduates will continue on to college attendance and completion, we teach rigorous dual curricula – keenly focused Judaics and college preparatory general studies. We push our students with programs that exceed state mandated graduation requirements. Our graduates have gone on to the highest levels of success: academically, financially and spiritually.
We also realize that not all students learn the same way. So we developed entire programs to address those students who have learning differences. We expend great effort and significant funds to give those children an equally meaningful education that will afford them the same opportunities of college success as their peers. And on the other end of the scale, some schools provide opportunities for truly gifted children to expand their horizons far beyond what the schools traditionally offer.
When the system works, it works exceptionally well. There is so much about which we can be rightfully proud.
But what happens when it doesn’t work?
Some children are not academically inclined. This has nothing to do with intellectual capacity or ability. Some children do not thrive in a hard-driven academic setting. Some might be more artistically inspired. Others have learning differences that are not addressed by the mainstream JDS world. Some are simply not ready yet to focus on long hours of studying texts and learning information that they do not find particularly relevant to their lives. Others prefer to work with their hands, not only their minds. A life of working in an office does not resonate for them.
For these children, the JDS experience can be frustrating, maddening, dispiriting, depressing, even soul crushing. They lose enthusiasm for all learning, sometimes even subjects that interest them. Religion often becomes a numbing burden as the study of Judaics becomes more and more onerous. The children can become detached from the entire support structure of their lives, seeing school not as there to help them but as the cause of all their troubles. Parental concern, well meant, may worsen the situation, as children see themselves as failures in their parents’ eyes. Parental concern poorly expressed, however well intended, can certainly exacerbate an already fraught situation.
In those cases, we know it is often the best choice for the child to be sent out of the JDS environment into the general schooling world, if only as a last resort. We encourage parents to seek out what is truly in their child’s best interest. But we still see every child leaving a Jewish school for a specialized secular educational program as a failure on our part. We know we can’t afford to offer such niche programs. But we still wish we could.
Ours is not the only community to face this dilemma. School districts across North America grapple with the exact same challenges: how do we prepare children for a meaningful, fulfilling, productive life that does not require a college degree? More and more districts now offer alternatives to the traditional college prep model of schooling. Specialized technical and vocational schools are now available educational options throughout the US.
We can no longer neglect the needs of this particular subgroup of our children, or only serve them by sending them out of the Jewish community. The time has come for us to develop our own vocational and technical schools that will prepare these children for careers in the real world. Not exclusively focused on students who can not fit into mainstream educational environments, but programs designed to meet the needs of bright, motivated students who don’t necessarily fit the traditional college pathway.
Not every student shares the same educational goals. Nor should they.
It’s time for a new concept in Jewish learning, combining a focused Torah learning approach with diploma-oriented secular studies, and vocational training.
If not now, when?