Much will be written about the Idea School’s five-year footprint on the landscape of Jewish education.
Most notable observers will say that the school, in Tenafly, was a groundbreaking educational endeavor, combining project-based learning (PBL) with an integrated curriculum, across all subjects.
When the school shuts down in June, many people will assume that it did not succeed. Yet, as its school psychologist for more than four years, I would like to suggest that success is not only measured by how long a school remains open. Rather, ultimate success is measured by the internal and lasting impact on individual students; the confidence, values, and work ethic imbued in them that they will carry forward.
Students who were seeking greater academic freedom and innovation beyond the traditional high school curriculum and frontal learning experience were given more agency in designing their studies. These students were allowed to soar and have been achieving academic successes beyond their expectations.
Students who had a history of school avoidance and social anxiety began achieving near perfect attendance, holding positions in school government, leading debate teams with confidence, and chairing various co-curricular clubs. Those were achievements that were unimaginable before they enrolled in the Idea School.
Students who struggled as part of the LGBTQ community and were simultaneously yearning for acceptance within the Orthodox Jewish community, found a home, a voice, and a place to thrive and flourish.
It is not an exaggeration to say that many students’ lives were completely transformed within the walls of this unique academic setting, due primarily to the school’s supportive, inclusive, and non-coercive culture. Through PBL the students learned the nuanced skills of collaboration, communication, and cooperation. These core values and skills are now deeply embedded within the students, and they will bring them along to whatever schools they join next.
While we in New Jersey and New York are blessed with many wonderful and varied Jewish high schools, each with their unique philosophy and religious bent, they often tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach, catering to a generic student prototype. In contrast, the doors of the Idea School were open to all types of students, welcoming them with a unique blend of warmth, emotional support, creativity, and individuation. As a result, the students developed a strong toolkit, enabling them to take on academic as well as social-emotional challenges.
Soon the Idea School’s students will enroll in other academic settings, bringing intellectual curiosity and confidence borne of collaboration and iteration along with them.
While numbers are necessary to keep a school open, they are not the only indication of success. The true measure of the Idea School’s success is the enormous social, emotional, and academic growth that occurred within each individual student, one student at a time.
How fortunate we all were, students and faculty alike, to have experienced this remarkable school, even if only for a short time.
Dr. Tani Foger, Ed.D, LPC is an educational consultant and psychologist; she was the psychologist at Idea School in Tenafly for more than four years. She and her husband, Soli Foger, are the parents of four sons. Email her at DrFoger@gmail.com.