‘Self-paced’ day school ends first year on high note

‘Self-paced’ day school ends first year on high note

On a recent afternoon at the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey, students sat on couches and around tables in the break room engaged in a variety of studies. One young woman sat by herself studying Japanese.

Freshman Rita Kabarity of Highland Park was intently hunched over her computer studying the Greek poet Homer, as a proctor, a Rutgers University student, worked with her.

“It’s really been great,” said Rita. “You get to do your work with no one bothering you.”

Launched last year, the PCLC Jewish day school uses “self-paced,” individualized learning, a system that allows for fewer teachers and an annual tuition of $5,000, considerably less than that of other Jewish day schools.

As it winds up its first year of operation, PCLC has attracted the attention of Jewish educators and media from across the country (including stories in national publications) and is going into its next year with plans to expand courses and extracurricular activities.

The nondenominational school combines traditional classroom teaching with computer technology. Some 20 students in grades eight-11 learn Japanese, study via telecommunication with educators in Israel, and explore advanced math. It is housed in a wing of the East Brunswick Jewish Center, which it shares with the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley.

Next year, PCLC will offer classes in grades nine-12 and expects to enroll 25-30 students. Parents purchase some textbooks and supply certain items, such as laptop computers. Student “proctors” from Rutgers give individualized attention to students, who also meet with coaches and teachers to make sure they are progressing at the proper pace.

Before it opened in the fall of 2011, 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 meets certain milestones.

“We’ve been testing out a lot of ideas,” said school founder and director Lauren Ariev Gellman of Highland Park. “Some will be even better next year.”

Gellman said the school plans to offer more extracurricular activities, including a service club, an expanded drama club, and a chess club.

As one of 18 schools and yeshivot that formed the DigtalJ Learning Network this past year, PCLC is able to tailor courses, offering remediation or advanced placement and tapping into a broad array of student interests.

Assistant director Ruth Margolin said a student had expressed interest in advanced photography so “we found an on-line photography class” for the coming year. The school is also looking to offer a financial literacy course, said Margolin. “The point is, without hiring a teacher we can find a course to meet these students’ needs relatively easily,” she said.

Gellman said students are tested and graded on material, standardized tests are administered, and all college preparatory course requirements are being met.

During a recent visit, director of Jewish studies Rabbi Francis Nataf was engaged in study of Rashi and other Jewish texts with two students.

He explained that students are divided into groups based on their abilities, again allowing for individualized attention.

“Since we’re not really graded, we are learning just to learn,” said sophomore Sophie Shick of Highland Park. Her study partner, David Green, added, “I like it. It’s just easier to learn with a partner than when you’re in a class.”

David, a sophomore from East Brunswick, and Sophie continued to quiz each other and discuss text in the traditional hevruta talmudic study method after Nataf got up.

Meanwhile, in a more conventional eighth-grade Jewish history class, teacher Lily Iatridis was conducting a lively interactive discussion about the Reformation and its effect on the Jews.

“This school is awesome,” said Jessica Hader, an eighth-grader from East Brunswick. “We learn things we never would have learned any other place. You get to learn at your own pace. If you need more time, you get more time.”

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