By Rachel Mohl Abrahams

In 2010, AVI CHAI began supporting projects that focused on blended and online learning. Our motivation and goal was two-fold: 1) to improve the quality of education by increasing individualized instruction and enabling students to develop skills and ways of thinking needed in the 21st Century, and 2) to bring down the cost of education. From the very start, we developed a three prong approach: a) work with established schools to integrate online and blended learning into their systems (b) incubate new schools that will start with a low tuition and high quality education proposition based on blended learning, serving as proof points and a disruptive force to influence established schools and (c) stimulate the beginnings of Judaic studies offerings online.

Supporting new schools amounted to backing entrepreneurs who were willing to experiment with the model of a day school by incorporating online learning in service of both educational and cost-saving goals. As part of our strategy to encourage these budding efforts, we made initial grants of $50,000, often used at least in part for consultation with blended learning experts, and then two-year operating grants totaling $300,000.

We saw the new schools as revolutionary, quickly offering new models to study and show the field. This was to be in parallel with work in established schools which was evolutionary, as laid out in Disrupting Class by Christiansen and Horn – schools will first find the niche where online learning helps solve a need and then slowly use it more centrally. We expected that having new schools in the field would serve as a catalyst to propel the established schools forward – especially as parents and lay leaders of the older schools sought the educational and tuition benefits available in the newer schools.

Early on, the Foundation engaged Dr. Leslie Santee Siskin to study and document the projects we were supporting (You can find her previous reports HERE). Her latest report, New Schools, New Directions – Approaches to Online/Blended Learning, is an analysis of the new schools effort, focusing on three new schools funded by the foundation. The schools reflect a range of grade levels, affiliations, and educational design models. When selected, all were beginning to put their plans into action. These schools were observed two to three times a year over a three-year period. Conforming to norms of academic research for confidentiality, we have used pseudonyms for all individual schools (Darom, Zafon, and Mizrah).

As you will read, only one school, Zafon, remains open in 2017. The report tries to posit some reasons for its success, but more importantly, discusses the challenges that Darom and Mizrah faced in becoming sustainable. Their demise had little to do with blended learning, instead showing the risk-averse nature of parents to enroll their high school age children in small new schools.  AVI CHAI expected that only some of these schools would succeed, and believes that the field needs both successes and failures to learn from. The report has a robust section on “Lessons Learned,” valuable for those contemplating starting new schools, as well as for established schools and communal leaders.

The heroes of this story are the school leaders, who should be recognized for their dreams and for their valiant efforts to establish schools that would break the mold. They created interesting, active models of learning and engagement. They gave rise to the dream of affordable, high-quality day school education. As a field, we need to continue to support disruption to make progress.

This article was originally posted on the AVI CHAI blog. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.