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‘Digital day school’ is forced to scale back
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‘Digital day school’ is forced to scale back

An eighth-grade Talmud class at the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center, April 2012.     
An eighth-grade Talmud class at the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center, April 2012.     

The Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey, which began three years ago with the promise of reducing the cost of a Jewish day school education by combining traditional classroom teaching with computer technology, will scale back operations in the face of financial difficulties.

Following an emergency meeting May 13, school leaders decided to offer classes next year only for its juniors and seniors, said school founder and director Lauren Ariev Gellman of Highland Park. She also said “most probably” the school would seek an alternate site, probably in Highland Park, and leave its current location at the East Brunswick Jewish Center.

“We were trying to raise enough money to get through the next five years and grow, but we weren’t able to raise the money,” said Gellman. “It might happen if we can just get through next year. We might regroup and start again. We have no firm plans right now. We’re just trying to figure out next year.” 

The nondenominational sixth-12th grade high school has emphasized self-paced individual “blended” learning, allowing students to take on-line courses as well as attend traditional teacher-led classes.

With its approximately $5,000-per-year annual tuition, PCLC billed itself as a lower-cost alternative to other Jewish day schools, whose tuitions can exceed $15,000. It began with about 20 students in 2011-12.

Gellman said enrollment was “definitely up” to about 30 students, drawing from a broad area, including Mercer and Bergen counties and Brooklyn. Next year, 10 to 15 students are expected in the junior and senior classes.

When it started, the school was awarded a $50,000 matching grant from the Woodbridge-based Marion and Norman Tanzman Charitable Foundation and a $50,000 planning grant from the New York- and Jerusalem-based Avi Chai Foundation with the promise of more funding if the school committed to meeting certain milestones. Gellman said the school was able to meet the milestones, which varied year to year, and was “generously” supported by the foundation. This past year’s milestone was to hit certain fund-raising goals. 

As one of 18 schools and yeshivot in the DigitalJLearning Network, a project funded by Avi Chai, PCLC was able to tailor courses with a “blended learning” model of on-line coursework and face-to-face instruction, offering remediation or advanced placement and tapping into a broad array of student interests. It also offers extracurricular activities. Rutgers University student proctors provided individualized attention to students. 

Gellman said the program would “definitely change” since it would cater to only juniors and seniors, but PCLC would not cut back on course offerings for those grades. 

She said she believes the school’s financial challenges are less the result of a bad economy than its failure to get its message out.

“I think there are a lot of Jewish schools out there looking for money, and I think we weren’t successful in conveying what made us different and special,” said Gellman. “I’m disappointed because we had such a wonderful year. The kids were so enthusiastic and they learned so much.”

PCLC is the second local day school to find itself on the financial ropes. Last year the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, also housed at EBJC, closed after 31 years. 

However, the Orthodox Yeshivat Netivot Montessori will move from Edison to that vacated space to accommodate its growing enrollment.

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