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Thursday, 10 December 2015

Alleviating the Tuition Burden

Daf Yomi Sotah 44

My daughter, Millie (Miriam Leah), is in eleventh grade.  She is fourteen years old.  She will graduate high school before her sixteenth birthday.  How is that possible?  She attends Menorah Academy in Edmonton.  Her class is the oldest girls’ class in the school; all three of them. 

Some time ago, we got together with the parents of the other two girls and decided to fast-track the class.   They’re all bright kids, and so collectively we figured:  why should they keep pace with the lowest common denominator in the province, or for that matter, in most of the world?  Most kids take twelve years to finish school, but we knew that our girls were brighter than ‘most’ kids.  The truth is that two out of the three had already skipped a grade of elementary school simply because there weren’t enough girls to sustain two separate grades.  And so now, it was just a matter of accelerating the curriculum and combining three (Canadian) years of high school into two.

We’re often asked what Millie will do when she finishes school two years early.  Socially, she wouldn’t be at the maturity level of her peers if she were to go off to seminary straight after grade twelve.  So our plan, hopefully, is to have her complete most of her undergraduate degree prior to going to Israel and be well on the way to grad school by the time she returns home at nineteen. 

The Torah states, “When you go out to war against your enemies . . . the officers shall speak to the people saying: Whoever has built a new house and not dedicated it shall go and return home, lest he die in battle and some other man dedicate it.  And whoever has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it shall go and return home, lest he die in battle and some other man redeem it.   And whoever has betrothed a woman and not married her shall return home, lest he die in battle and some other man marry her. 
The Rabbis taught: Employing the sequence “who built . . . who planted . . . who betrothed,” the Torah taught us proper behaviour.   A man should build a home and plant a vineyard, and only afterwards get married. 

In Hilchos Deios (Laws of Attitude to Life), Maimonides codifies this sequence as the right way to order one’s life.  First, you get a job and buy a house.  Then you get married.

In theory, that sounds like a wonderful plan.  But in practice, how feasible is it for a frum Jew today?  By the time the average person finishes high school s/he is eighteen years old.  They then go off to yeshiva or seminary for a couple of years.  Then to university for an undergraduate degree.  And most proceed to graduate school to complete their professional qualifications.  So, if you’re lucky, you might have a job by the time you’re twenty-five. 

You then start working.  And now you’re juggling any savings with student debt payments!  So, if you’re doing okay, you might have enough for a down-payment on your first little apartment by your late twenties.  And so, is it only then time to get married?! 

Especially given our western culture, it’s spiritually far healthier to get married in one’s early twenties, as most frum people today do.  But then you’re stuck working in the opposite direction of the Torah’s formula!  As a community, is there any way we can get back on track? 

What if we were to fast-track the entire process much earlier and have our kids finish school at fifteen or sixteen instead of seventeen or eighteen?  We happen to be fortunate to have been able to implement such a framework, given our circumstances in Edmonton.  But maybe it is a model that could be followed elsewhere and made more mainstream? 

Admittedly, I am not a mechanech (educator), but Millie’s classmates’ parents are mechanchim; and they were happy with the arrangement.   And we are most grateful to the hanhalah (administration) – the past and current principals, Rabbis Rafi Draiman and Dovid Sass – of Menorah Academy, along with the teachers, for supporting the facilitation of the accelerated system.   Everyone sat at the table and agreed that there was no reason to hold our bright girls back just because the average child takes twelve years to complete school.

Would it work for every child in our community?  I’m not sure; that’s a question for experts in the field of chinuch (education).   But there is surely a large number of kids being slowed down unnecessarily on account of western cultural norms that may or may not be immutable.   Maybe it’s time to consider either fast-tracking, and allowing smart kids to skip grades; or even perhaps day-schools that are dedicated to supporting our bright kids.

It’s really not as crazy as it sounds.  The curriculum in grades two through four might be covered over two years, instead of three.  And the curriculum in grades six to nine might be covered in three years, instead of four.   Certainly, the optimum formula for success is best left to the experts; but it’s a conversation we should be having.

But here’s the kicker:  Not only would this system resolve the conflict presented by the Torah’s prioritization of life – career, home, marriage – but it would also help alleviate the tuition burden suffered by many frum families today.   Imagine we could slice a couple of years off each kid’s tuition – in a family of half a dozen, we’re talking savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars!  Not to mention the fact that young married couples would already be well on the way to stable careers and home purchases; and consequently, less of a financial burden on their parents.

It goes without saying that we must continue to learn Torah and maintain our worldly education throughout our lives.  The Gemara’s point is that it is easier to sustain such a commitment to education if our physical and material needs are taken care of.  May you always figure out how to maximize your learning in the limited time you have on Earth!  

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