April 13, 2024
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The Idea School to Shutter After Academic Year

The Idea School in Tenafly has announced its time is coming to an end, after five years of providing innovative Jewish education to high schoolers. An emotional letter from Head of School Tikvah Wiener and board chair Raz Haramati was sent out to the community on February 2, stating that the Modern Orthodox high school will be finishing out the 2022-2023 school year and will not be reopening in the fall of 2023. This decision comes as a major loss for families seeking schooling options with project-based learning—but not without a long-lasting impact on models of Jewish education.

Wiener explained during a meeting at The Idea School that the decision to shutter stems from low enrollment. “It became clear that we’re just not attracting enough students,” she said. “While people love the educational model, ultimately high school is a very social time, and prospective students are seeking a more robust social life, including clubs and sports teams, which is part of the infrastructure that larger and more well-established schools have. We just couldn’t compete with that…our model is amazing, and there are so many amazing things about the school, but it just became too much to push against.”

The school’s announcement letter described the environment as a place where students “owned their learning, found their voices, challenged themselves to be better and do more with each project they undertook.” Since 2018, the school has fostered individual growth for students who “are steeped in the morals and ethics of the Torah and our Jewish heritage.”

“The Idea School is ahead of its time,” said Wiener, noting that people just “aren’t ready” for this particular model of Jewish education. Nina Kampler, a friend of The Idea School, echoed this idea with praise for the ambitious head of school: “All visionaries are truly ahead of their time. They see it early. And what Tikvah Wiener did in bringing The Idea School to Bergen County Jewish education was a pioneering move that was likely too early to take deep root in the community. But an effective visionary knows when to pivot, and that is what she and the school are now doing.”

The high school has seen plenty of success for its students and alumni over the past five years. Said Isaac Glasman, parent of alum Ezra Glasman, “Our experience with The Idea School was magical. Ezra is now in college at Oberlin. He did great on his ACTs and finished his first semester with 3 As and a B+. He knows who he is, never communicates through a false persona and has great emotional stamina. We got more from The Idea School than we could have reasonably hoped for. We are filled with gratitude.”

This announcement leaves the question: What’s next for the students of The Idea School?

“I see some upset faces and I just want to acknowledge how difficult this is, for us and for you and your children,” Wiener stated during the meeting, emphasizing that the administration would do everything in its power to help current students make the transition out of the school. “We have already reached out to the principals of the schools where we feel our students will be a good fit, and they have been so generous and gracious and kind throughout the process.”

Wiener also touched on the help that may be needed in addressing the graduating seniors’ college applications and transcripts. She opened the floor to questions from parents, which were answered by the appropriate members of the faculty and administration as thoroughly as possible. “We want to lighten the burden for you [the parents] as much as possible…and we want to make sure that when we close our doors in June, your children have a place to go.”

“We expect to continue this semester as promised,” Wiener continued. “We still plan on having as much normalcy as we can while we go through this difficult step.”

As for the faculty and administration, The Idea School is still exploring what lies ahead, especially in regard to its professional development arm, which has trained 1,750 Jewish educators in its innovative approach to teaching.

“The Idea School has opened up new opportunities for teachers and students to strengthen learning and the high school experience, thanks to the power of project-based learning,” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. “The commitment of the administration, faculty, students and family at The Idea School is inspiring to the entire Jewish day school community, and we see more schools looking to introduce these innovative, creative pedagogies to their classrooms.”

Despite the heartbreak over this decision, The Idea School is confident in the amazing changes that it has catalyzed for Jewish education. “We are so proud of the impact we’ve made and are eager to share the exciting new opportunities that lie ahead,” reads the announcement letter. “Our team remains devoted to fostering innovation in Jewish education, and we look forward to sharing our next steps with you in the coming months.”

By Channa Fischer

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