How we chose a boy’s elementary school

This week, ds6 and I attended the orientation hosted by the school he’ll be attending next year for incoming first graders.  Since I’ve been asked very often about how we made the choice of where to send him, I’ll share about that now.

Earlier this year I felt a lot of pressure about where to register ds6 for first grade.  We strongly favored the educational framework that was provided by Amichai, but in the charedi community, every single family sends their boys to the local Talmud Torah (known as ‘the cheder’).   So this made the decision more complicated – do you send your child where all of your peers are sending (socially better), or do you send your child where you feel they’ll be best served emotionally and educationally?

I was very concerned about the social ramifications of sending our boys to a different school than the boys who locally make up their peer group.   I also thought about how would we as parents be viewed, and how would it skew the way people looked at our family overall.   It’s an unfortunate reality in most societies that people who make choices different than the norm aren’t exactly embraced warmly.

I’ve spent many, many hours over the years thinking of endless angles regarding education and have logged many more hours this year continuing to think about the way new educational situations are manifesting.  I’ve had a number of conversations with people in the community – including Israelis and Americans who grew up here /made aliyah at a young age/made aliyah as parents with school age children – to benefit from their perspectives and experience.  The conversations have included discussion about the elementary school options, where they lead to as far as high school options, where high school choices lead to, and how that works for them as adults.  When we make decisions like this, we try to be aware of the short and long term ramifications rather than the immediate present, so having all of this feedback was important for us because we didn’t want to make a decision without a well-rounded view of the issues involved.

After all of this thinking, the school we’ll be sending ds6 to is Amichai, and this is where we had the first grade orientation yesterday.  Here are some that were a factor in making our decision:

At Amicha, secular subjects taught in addition to Judaic studies, including enrichment classes like music, art, and computers.  The school day is shorter, leaving more time for us to spend together as a family.  This also means there’s more space for the kids to have down time or the opportunity to pursue other interests, which is critical to healthy emotional development.  A shorter day is a huge, huge, huge plus to me.

Something that many find a weakness is that due to the shorter school day and having more secular classes, there’s less time for Torah study.  We feel that with the increased time available to us, in addition to the increased emotional head space of our children due to the shorter hours, we can supplement this at home if at any point we feel it would be necessary.  In general I feel less is often more when it comes to school, so I prefer the enrichment approach to academics rather than overloading kids and burning them out.  (Our approach to teaching Torah and instilling a positive value for a Torah lifestyle is really its own topic.)

I like that there’s a message of joy in living a Torah life rather than a primary focus on obligation and textual skill, that there’s acceptance and tolerance for people of different backgrounds; this meshes well with our value system.  I like the understanding approach of the administration, the way they consider feedback from parents and integrate it.  The principal is a really special man.  I appreciate that my child can be seen for who he is (as much as possible in a school framework) rather than a cog who needs to fit into the institutional wheel.

I think it’s unusual to have an orientation for first graders several months in advance, don’t you?  (If this is standard practice for charedi schools in Israel, please correct me!)  They wanted to give each boy a chance to meet the other boys who will be in their class in a relaxed and unpressured framework.  They had two craft activities for Shavuos followed by snacks.  It was nice that the boys were able to come to the school when no one was there but their parents and a few teachers, go into their future classroom, and be with their future classmates without all the anxiety that comes with the first day of school.

While the boys were doing crafts together, the principal and school psychologist spoke with the parents about the school’s approach to education.  The principal spoke about how much they see parents as active partners in the education of their children, after sharing what the overall philosophy of the school is, as well as their academic focus on Torah and secular subjects.  They have a unique program that is foundational to their approach to Torah – by the end of eighth grade, a student will have familiarity and understanding of all the Rashis  (a primary Torah commentary).  As far as secular studies, they strive to provide a strong secular foundation, though they openly shared that their weakness is in science, as they don’t yet have an independent laboratory.

Part of the admissions procedure for first grade at this school is a meeting of the child with the school psychologist.  Though when I took ds several months ago for his meeting I felt that his evaluation wasn’t reflective of him because he didn’t understand fully what he was being asked to do since his Hebrew was still very rudimentary (his current teacher was very upset when she heard the conclusions since she knew how inaccurate they were) and I wasn’t able to stay with him for the interview to translate, I appreciated the reason they have these interviews.  Their perspective is that they want to have a sense of who each child is before he comes into the school, and they want to know that each child is emotionally ready for first grade.   If a child isn’t ready in some way, they’ll work with a parent to deal with whatever the issue is.  They don’t look at reading and writing skills, though they do assess fine and gross motor coordination.  (They teach reading in first grade rather than expecting incoming first graders to already read, which is what is expected at the other school.  This is also something I appreciate that works with our educational philosophy.)

Something that many parents have expressed concern to me about is that the children in this school come from a range of religious backgrounds rather than the homogeneous backgrounds of the cheder families.  This isn’t something that scares me, since part of my approach to education is to teach children to navigate the outside world – and that includes dealing with people who are different than them – rather than build increasingly higher walls to keep the outside world out.  I don’t like the increased possibility of exposure to the outside world, but I’m prepared to deal with it as a parent and in fact feel it’s my obligation as a parent to make sure my kids have tools to deal with this.  Also, I know very well that it’s an illusion that your child will only have positive influences in his life if all the children are coming from religiously similar homes.  In any case, at the orientation I was  very pleased to see what a nice group the parents were, much more similar to us than I had been led to expect by the comments of others.

The classes at this school are also smaller than at the second school – it looks like ds6’s class right now will be between 12 – 15 boys, versus about 22 (these numbers may shift with enrollment that takes place between now and then but for now are accurate).  This school is certainly closer to American values than the cheder, and I’ve been told that the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the city would very much like to see American families sending to this school since he thinks that it will be a win-win – it will strengthen the school at the same time that it will provide parents with an education that most closely matches their expectations.

I’m writing this to share my own experience, not to tell anyone else why they made a mistake to send their children somewhere else or to tell anyone moving here to send to this school.  Unfortunately there’s inaccurate information about this school that is being passed around to people visiting, and it’s inaccurate by virtue of all the people talking about it having no personal experience with the school – it’s what the parents at the second school all tell each other about it!  My decisions are based very solidly in my parenting philosophy, and what is right for each family will be different depending on the needs of their children as well as what their long term goals are.  As of now, I’m the only person in the charedi community of Karmiel to have children in both of the schools I’ve mentioned, and so I think that I do have a balanced perspective as someone who has an insider’s perspective to each.


12 thoughts on “How we chose a boy’s elementary school

  1. This school sounds a lot like the one where we sent our son to… and a lot of the reason for our choice to send him there vs the cheder a lot of other families send their boys to (even though we’re not charedi) are similar! Shorter days, a solid basis in secular subjects even though the main emphasis is on Torah, a lot of informal learning and a big effort to cater to each and every kid instead of expecting the kid to fold himself into the mold…
    I hope your son will enjoy school as much as mine does.

    1. Sounds like you have a great choice for him! (I seem to remember quite a while back you commenting you weren’t as happy with the options for your daughters – is that something you resolved?)

  2. Avivah, I really appreciate that you posted this as it gives great chizzuk to those of us facing similar situations! Though our daughter is still nursery-aged we assume she’ll attend an elementary school that requires us to provide lots of supplementing (probably Torah and secular subjects). I’m very curious about the approach you use to teach limudei kodesh at home — as a BT this especially unnerves me.

  3. I could have almost written this post. We made the same kind of school choice for our kids (after being in a Yeshivish school), came to the same conclusions about things that you did, asked all the questions. Thanks for sharing your process. :)

  4. our DS12 is at Amichai and has friends at both schools. He came to Israel as a 7th grader and Amichai was a good school to transition him to. The Cheder was too long a day for him , plus no Hebrew support.

    Amichai has arranged that DS12 works with someone in the Kollel to help him with Gemara and that has been great for DS12.
    I agree about the principal–he is awesome and goes above and beyond to help our son.
    Our DS4 has one more year before 1st grade, and then we will have to be in the same decision-making process as you to chose which is the best school for him.

  5. Thanks for keeping us informed about your school choices. In Israel, it is not uncommon to switch schools during the school year multiple times a year, as things don’t work out. Wishing you a good shidduch for your son’s school situation.

  6. I wish I had the choices you seem to have! Unfortunately I don’t, and I’m quite nervous about the school DS#1 will be in next year for grade one (as well as several of his classmates). The short day for me would be a drawback, not a selling point, as someone who needs childcare for the hours after school lets out, and it’s just not available.

    1. The classmates have a great impact on the child’s schooling. In our experience, the teachers are not equipped to handle and solve problems in and outside the classrooms.

    2. I hear what you’re saying about the short school day not being an advantage when you’re a working parent who needs longer hours. I can very much relate, having been in the same situation years ago – it was very stressful.

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