Monday, January 14, 2013

Guest Post: JFS – 3 Years In

Four years ago we decided to consider educational options that wouldn’t leave us broke or asking for money from others. This was prompted, in part, by the arrival of our fourth child (who is now 5 ½). We stumbled upon JFS, mostly because we casually knew Uri and Devra Gutfreund, who started sending their children to JFS that year. Uri found JFS during a failed attempt to start a low cost school in Bergen County. JFS has a 50+ year track record, and it was Uri’s benchmark for low cost schools. I have posted from time to time about JFS on this blog and others, but as we head into Yeshiva break week, I thought it would be appropriate to follow up.

Educational Quality
I cannot stress enough how impressed we have been with the quality of education JFS provides. Generally speaking, this is “old-school” education. Teachers command their rooms – there aren’t multiple teachers to hand off to, so teachers who can’t control their students don’t last long at JFS. While there are smartboards, and there is a computer lab for assessing progress in math and reading, this is not HeAtid. It’s certainly not Noam, either--the educational philosophy is less “the centrality of the child,” and more, “pay attention in class and do your homework.” The religious subjects are taught much the same way; when you’re learning Torah, you’re learning Torah. I’ve seen some schools that try to integrate Torah into the secular subjects as well, JFS doesn’t explicitly do that.

We have three very different children at the school. We were told by a local school that one child might have learning disabilities and that intervention might be required. JFS evaluated this child and concluded that all the child needed was firm expectations. This child is now in the middle of three tracked classes and is performing well. Another child is incredibly bright but has difficulty socializing. We have been impressed by the combination of educational discipline and understanding that has allowed this child to succeed. Finally, one child is incredibly bright and socializes easily. You’d expect this child to thrive anywhere, and that’s certainly been the case at JFS. We’d like this child challenged more, but JFS’s tracking system has him in the highest class and unless we homeschooled him, we doubt he’d do better anywhere else. JFS has been slightly harder for him than his previous school – especially in Hebrew, where JFS’s standards are simply higher. (There is a substantial base of Israelis at JFS, and the Hebrew language classes are beefed up accordingly.)

Other Benefits
It’s hard to quantify this precisely, but we have also found that JFS kids are simply nicer and (slightly) less materialistic than BC kids. There are parents who are lawyers and accountants, but also parents who are union plumbers and auto mechanics. JFS has a diverse parent body in other ways, too – Ashkenazim, Sefardim, various shades of Modern Orthodoxy, and even a few families who are not fully religious (yet). We consider this exposure a major plus. It also means that while JFS gets some of its Rabbeim from RW areas just like BC schools do, the Rabbeim have to be more open minded to teach at JFS.

Because the school day is shorter for younger grades and it doesn’t make sense to run two separate buses to BC in the afternoon, the younger kids have free, teacher-supervised after-care. This means that a) they get their homework done before coming home, and b) JFS’s hours are far more working-parent friendly. Our kids leave the house at 7:15 AM and return around 5:10 PM.

How They Do It
JFS keeps costs low in a variety of ways. They have a lot less administrative overhead. They pay lower teacher salaries – many of the teachers are supplementing public school pensions, and JFS is competing with Brooklyn for teachers, where salaries are lower still (and you might not get paid at all). JFS has fewer teachers per classroom, no rent expenses (the building was paid off), and shares expenses and facilities with RJJ, the more right wing school in Staten Island. JFS/RJJ is the only example I can think of in a major metropolitan area where MO and RW cooperate in this way. Achdut/Achdus at work. It’s amazing. Finally, New York State provides more resources (secular textbooks, the school nurse) than New Jersey, which helps keep costs down, too.

How Much it Costs Us
Tuition at JFS for Staten Island residents is a little over $9,000 all-in for K-8. Most JFS students live in Staten Island, but the local community is not growing as quickly as it once was, and JFS decided to reach out to families in Brooklyn and Bergen County to fill classrooms and round out the student body. To do so, JFS initially capped tuition – all-in – at $8,500 per child for Bergen County families including door-to-door transportation. This year it raised tuition to $9,000; door-to-door transportation and all fees are still included. (JFS sets tuition even lower for Brooklyn families – many Brooklyn schools offer little in the way of secular education, but tuition is cheap). There are no building funds, dinner fees, security fees, etc. However, there are still $5/$10/$18 things throughout the year for trips and whatnot. These used to drive me bonkers when I was paying thousands more for tuition/add-ons and STILL had to pony up for a trip to the matzah factory, now I just laugh and write a check.

We are sending our children over a bridge to another state when there are five perfectly good – and in some ways great – local schools. But the commuting time from our house is not a big deal. Ironically, our 5 year old attends HeAtid in Bergenfield, and he is on the bus for 50 minutes each direction, plus we need to take him to/from the bus stop. Our three kids going to Staten Island are picked up at our doorstep and are on the JFS bus for 40 minutes each way. There is usually one day a year when the Turnpike is closed for a tractor trailer accident and it takes over an hour; even the worst Rt. 4 backups aren’t as bad because you can route around them. But that’s really rare.

The bigger problem is that we have to drive to JFS for parent-teacher conferences and siddur plays; Bergenfield, Englewood, or River Edge is much closer. Birthday parties are not as big a deal as we feared; after a certain age, there just aren’t that many of them. We do drive to Staten Island or Brooklyn every once in a while for play dates or joint projects, but this is not a regular thing. Getting to Staten Island on a Sunday morning is a breeze; getting to Brooklyn… ugh. Our oldest is getting to bar mitzvah season, and we’re starting to realize that transportation for that may be an issue. It can be a problem in reverse, too: for a recent bat mitzvah, one BC-JFS family rented a bus to transport their child’s friends to the celebration here. That move ensured all of child’s friends were able to come, and the family considered the $300 bus rental a part of their tuition. We also provide each of our kids with Nintendo units for the bus as compensation for their “longer” commute; that’s basically a cost of JFS, too.

Socially, all three of our children maintain strong friendships with local kids from shul/camp/prior school. In our shul, parents send to a variety of local schools (plus Breuer’s and JFS), so it’s not like they always associated with the same kids on Shabbat as they did during the week. And, again, ironically, our HeAtid child does not have any school friends within walking distance on Shabbat, either.

The biggest drawback is that JFS does not have a high school. From what I can tell, our local high schools are amazing, but they are quite a jump in cost from what I’m paying for elementary school, and we’re suffering from much greater sticker shock than if we’d been paying $14K – 18.5K all along. Yikes.

I’m not traveling this week and I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments. –Avi Greengart