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Shorter School Days and the Jewish Day School Calendar

190p style=”text-align: justify;”>In early January, Rabbi Daniel Alter wrote a piece, “School Calender Wars” (January 4, 2018), discussing the push-pull struggle between various school populations about the open/closed days and other issues related to the day-school calendar. Two months ago, the SAR High School student newspaper, The Buzz, also featured a debate between two students about whether to shorten the regular school day by shaving off a few minutes here and there. In response to that debate, I had a number of thoughts and shared them in a letter to the editor to the Buzz. While I focused on SAR’s specific schedule, the basic contours could apply to any Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school in the country.

Below is an adapted version of that letter to the editor. According to the most recent Avi Chai Census of Jewish Day Schools (2014) there are a bit under 11,000 Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox yeshiva high school students in the United States. Close to half of these students are studying in 10 yeshiva high schools, so getting together and discussing such a proposal would not involve coordinating hundreds or thousands of schools in a public school system in the United States or Israel.

The proposal presented by the SAR students amounted to shaving off some minutes here and there from various periods during the course of the year. The school-year calendar was left intact and the school day was slightly tweaked, with the same number of periods during the school day. However, I have been in the field of Jewish education close to 30 years and have seen multiple models of the school-day schedule in various yeshiva high schools. Different schools tweaked the schedule in various ways but students in our high schools come home after long days at school, filled with 10-11 periods a day, at anywhere from 5:30 p.m. at the earliest to 7:30 p.m. (for those who have long commutes and traffic) each night and then begin their homework or extra-curricular activities. This is then followed by having to get up very early to catch a bus or carpool to school to begin the cycle again. This is a challenging schedule that creates a lot of pressure and stress on kids and families.

For many years, I have believed that we need a paradigm shift in our thinking about the yeshiva high school educational experience and the daily schedule. Thus, might we consider as a community to look at the feasibility of extending the school year into mid to late July while shortening the length of each school day by two to three periods so that kids get out of school no later than 3:50 p.m. and are home before dark for the overwhelming majority of the school year. Instead of a day with 10-11 periods, it would turn into an eight-period day of study and learning. Learning could occur at a more relaxed pace and internalized in a less hectic schedule.

Here is a model of what this might look like in the context of SAR. We currently have about 170 actual days of instruction in the school year plus another 8-10 days a year reserved for study days and final exams. If one subtracts the 30 or so Fridays during the year when school ends early as it is, we are left with about 140 days of pure instruction, Monday through Thursday. If one removes two periods a day from the schedule, that is a total of 280 forty-minute periods of instruction that need to be accounted for. In terms of school days of eight periods each that would end at 3:50 p.m. each day, it would equal about 35 days of instruction. If school did not end in the first week of June (this year it concludes on Friday June, 1) but instead continued regularly through June concluding in the first week of July, with the second week of July devoted to finals (no study days but concentrate the finals all into five days), school would end at the conclusion of the second week of July. This would get us up to around 26-27 days of instruction. (If one wanted to end the school year even a few days earlier, after Pesach, we could add a period or two to Fridays so instead of ending at 2:30, we ended at 3:20 as Shabbat begins so late in May-early July.) We would then move up the opening of school to the last week of August or first week in September (depending on the year) in order to cover all 35 days of instruction.

There would still be at least six weeks of “summer vacation” left before Labor Day for kids to go to camp or Israel trips for a sustained period of time. (In general, due to issues of cost, more and more families do not send their kids to camp for a full seven weeks as it is, but rather for half a summer). Yes, to an extent, the camp and Israel programs would have to readjust their schedules, but in the end this would create less stressful days during the course of the entire school year, more well-adjusted and alert students who get home at an earlier time, can get to sleep at a normal hour and have the workload spread out over more of the year. This will also increase the retention of material and learning as less time will pass from the end of one school year to another. The daily experience of school could be less relentless and pressing on the health, emotional well-being and soul of both students and teachers alike. Extra-curricular events, including extra learning at ITIM (a weekly after school Torah-learning program at SAR) and Mishmar, sports practices or other activities could be done while still getting home at a decent hour.

If one were even more daring, one might even examine the feasibility of starting the school day later, let us say at 9:20 a.m. and having the eight-period day concluding at 5:10 p.m. but going into July as outlined above. (Many studies have pointed to the fact that many teenagers’ internal clocks are more geared to a later wake-up time and working more in the evenings.) Details as to how to divide the longer school year and allocate the instruction time for various classes would need to be worked out to ensure that all subjects received their proper due as in the current schedule.

I recognize that there are powerful forces of tradition and inertia, as well as legitimate questions as to the feasibility of such a program. For example, there would certainly be challenges in terms of the scheduling of AP exams and having enough instruction time to complete the course load by the end of May but I do not believe that is an insurmountable obstacle nor one that should hold us back from rethinking part of the daily experience for all students over the four years of high school.

I strongly believe that the proposal outlined here or a better version of it should at least be given some communal thought in the future. I fully realize that this may not happen in the near future, but maybe, just maybe, some student reading this who will go on to head up a school like SAR will take up this educational vision, which I think would be healthier for all involved to achieve the greatest amount of learning and growth as students, human beings and committed Jews.

By Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

 Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the Torah She Baal Peh Dept. at SAR High School and rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck. He serves on the editorial board of Jewish Educational Leadership and has served on the faculty at Frisch, Ma’ayanot and TABC in his 30 years in chinuch.

 

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