Thursday, September 08, 2005

These Are Our Children

We read little about yeshiva and day school admission and retention policies, though this is a subject of extreme importance each year in hundreds of observant homes. It appears that, as with other issues in Orthodox life, it is best to avert our eyes from matters that deserve our attention - as if by averting our eyes the attendant problems will go away or be less painful.

Hopefully, what I write here will result in Torah leaders, and those who make admission and retention decisions in our schools, giving more careful consideration to the impact of these decisions on children and their families.

Schools are educational institutions. They exist to teach, to impart knowledge and skills to students and help them prepare for creative and successful adult life. There is a corollary function, somewhat separate from the educational, which is referred to as socialization - the inculcation of children in behavioral patterns that are crucial to their proper development. These include discipline, elements of obedience, and respect for authority and for other children. These often aren't easy tasks, certainly not in societies beset by a wide range of social pathologies, as ours is.

To an extent, Jewish schools have a somewhat easier road because we as a community are steeped in traditions of learning and study and are less affected than other groups by social breakdowns. But we obviously are not immune from what transpires in the world around us. Yeshivas and day schools increasingly deal with the consequences of the corrosive effects of popular culture on children and the changing character of family life.

Our schools have additional roles. Their socialization function extends beyond efforts to shape good conduct and encompasses proper religious behavior, including appreciation of mitzvos and their fulfillment. In a sense, our schools train children to be both good citizens and good Jews.

On top of this, there is the dual curriculum, the obligatory religious subjects in addition to the obligatory secular subjects. This factor alone complicates enormously the challenges facing our schools.

To accomplish their goals, schools operate as standardized institutions. There are attendance requirements, class hours, material to be covered, homework, tests and grades, dress codes and many other rules. It cannot be otherwise. Children, however, are anything but standardized. They have different aptitudes and attitudes, different skills and interests, as well as varying backgrounds. Some blossom early, others later on and, still others, hardly ever. Some are well behaved, others are not. Some are happy, others are not. Some are outgoing, others are shy. Some excel in music or art or athletics, others do not. How to accommodate the great diversity within a standardized framework is what makes education at once exciting and difficult.

With their additional curriculum and socialization responsibilities, Jewish schools are confronted with additional elements of diversity. There are students who are good or interested in Jewish subjects, but who are not good or interested in secular subjects. And there are students with skills and interests the other way around. There are weak students who exemplify proper midos, children whose substandard report cards are offset by outstanding coduct. How are our schools to handle such situations?

There are no easy answers. But there are, I believe, two guiding principles. The first, expressed in Proverbs, is "chanoch l'naar al pi darcho," which means that a child is to be educated in the ways that best meet his needs. In practical terms, this means that while not all children are superstars, they are our children who need our educational attention and deserve our caring, not our rejection.

The second principle is that children belong in school, not out of school; that it is the obligation of Jewish schools to maximize the capability of admitting and retaining students.

These principles are not sentimental expressions. They are our halacha and our hashkafa, our religious law and our religious outlook. These principles are binding on yeshivas and day schools and their officials. This means that as we so often counsel parents, patience and flexibility must be shown toward students. If they are not in a clear fashion harming themselves or other students, they are to be retained.

The trend in our community is in the other direction, especially in the New York area where space limitations have joined with heightened frumkeit and the desire of some schools to have only top-notch students to create an eagerness to turn away or get rid of weak and "problem" students. In not much more than a blink of an eye, students are expelled or not admitted. Out of sight is out of mind, without regard to the impact on students and their families, and without regard to how admission and retention policies expand the pool of at-risk children in Orthodox homes.

Of course, these policies operate without regard to halachic considerations. At best, the process is ahalachic, if not contrary to our religious laws. The great posek and religious authority, HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, said often in public speeches that he was infrequently asked about chinuch or Jewish educational issues, a point that is supported by his published responsa.

Orthodox Jews bombard rabbis and roshei yeshiva with questions, even about trivial matters. When it comes to admission and retention issues in our schools, mum is the word. Questions aren`t asked, religious guidance is not sought. As a rule, one person - usually the principal - is empowered to act. At the annual convention of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - an event that is primarily for principals, there are dozens of sessions touching on nearly every issue arising in Torah education. There are few or no sessions regarding halachic standards for the admission and retention of students, nor about the processes that are to be employed in arriving at these decisions.

It apparently is acceptable for one person to decide. The Chazon Ish, one of the transcendent Torah authorities of the past one hundred years, thought otherwise. When asked about expelling a yeshiva student, he said that the question was one of life and therefore had to be decided by a bet din consisting of twenty-three eminent rabbis. The letters of the Chazon Ish regarding chinuch should be required reading for all who decide on the fate of our students.

Why do we tolerate arrangements that depart from appropriate Torah standards? The answer is that there are cultural norms within the yeshiva and day school world that have gone unchallenged. With the passage of time, they have become embedded and accepted. What is inappropriate and unchallenged becomes the ordinary way of doing things. We are accustomed to the notion that children can be refused admission or expelled by one person. Any challenge to the improper status quo is paradoxically likely to be regarded as a challenge to Torah authority. What is wrong is now regarded as right, even though one-person decision-making is bereft of Torah legitimacy.

It is difficult for parents whose children are expelled or refused admission to give voice, except quietly, to their pain and distress. In most instances, they have other children to care about, other childrn to send to the schools that have rejected a sibling. It is interesting and telling that while the Orthodox community has a stellar record of chesed activities, so that there are wonderful organizations filling nearly every nook and cranny of physical and emotional needs, to my knowledge there isn`t even one organization advocating on behalf of yeshiva and day school students.

The starting point for improvement is a willingness to speak out, a willingness to challenge the wrongful status quo. Unless we articulate our concerns and pain, there will be no change and the ranks of at-risk children will swell. What I write here is based on hundreds of situations that have come to my attention over the years, often from parents pleading for help. I hope this challenge to what is wrongful will encourage others to speak out.

Admission and retention issues are most acute at the high school level, although they crop up in the lower grades, even in preschool. Applicants are turned down and students are left behind because it is said that they aren't socially ready, as if being turned down or denied promotion eradicates shyness and promotes self-esteem. In public schools there are what have been called social promotions. Some of our schools specialize in social demotions.

In the lower grades, day schools with a modern orientation are more rejectionist than yeshivas. It is at the high school level that yeshivas, including Beth Jacob schools, go into high gear, turning down applicants - including their own elementary school graduates - because they aren't strong enough or do not come from good enough homes or allegedly do not have good enough character. There are schools that want to maintain a reputation as accepting only the best, without reference to whether halacha permits such a policy or much reflection on what the rejected students and their parents are supposed to do. Are they to go to a public school? Or perhaps they should set their sights on kiruv schools and institutions for at-risk students?

Each year, well after the period when girls are admitted to high school, dozens of Beth Jacob elementary school graduates have as yet not been accepted by a Beth Jacob high school. Rav Pam of blessed memory used to decree that each girls` high school must accept a number of these applicants.

Since his passing, the situation has worsened. The main Beth Jacob high school in Boro Park, which is an excellent institution, frequently serves as the place of last resort for these girls. But it is reluctant to accept applicants from schools that are attached to high schools because of the belief that such schools have a moral obligation to accept their own graduates.

If only because of the intensive focus on Gemara or talmudic study, admission issues are more complicated at yeshiva high schools. There isn`t much point to accepting applicants who will not make the grade. Inadvertently, therefore, yeshiva high schools feed the at-risk phenomenon.

The apparent solution is to support and strengthen and also not belittle high schools that accommodate boys who do not fit into the ordinary Judaic curriculum program. These schools serve a vital function; with few exceptions, they are poorly supported.

The retention side of the coin is different. There are boys` and girls` high schools that are quick to expel students for even minor infractions or for the kind of acting out that is characteristic of many, perhaps most, teenagers.

Patience is for parents, not for those who educate our children. Students have been expelled because of rumors about their behavior. As in other aspects of our religious life, we talk a good deal about the Chofetz Chaim and not engaging in rumor-mongering. Unfortunately, there is a large gap between what is preached and how we act.

In these matters, nearly always the principal has the authority to unilaterally decide the fate of students. Halacha takes a back seat. I cannot imagine that there is a halachic basis for a Beth Jacob high school rejecting a girl because she is not a strong student. In fact, is there a halachic basis for a boys` yeshiva expelling a weak student who excels in midos?

Let me underscore once more that when a student is disruptive or in some fashion adversely affects other students, there are grounds for expulsion. In these situations, as well, parents are entitled to be heard before the decision is finalized and principals are not entitled to decide unilaterally. Schools obviously have more leeway in determining whom to admit, although here, too, it is unwise and probably inappropriate to allow one person to decide.

In view of what is at stake, I cannot understand why any principal would want to have sole authority in such matters. Why should a principal object to a three-person committee, perhaps consisting of a local rabbi, a respected lay person and a school official, determining whether a student should be expelled? It is likely that in most instances - but certainly not all - the principal's recommendation will be accepted.

To bring about the procedural changes that are sorely needed, we first need to bring about attitudinal changes and this is predicated on a willingness to openly discuss issues and arrangements that have essentially been closed off to discussion. Unless we challenge the erroneous and non-halachic view that one person can expel a student, what is wrongful will continue to be regarded as appropriate.

I do not urge this change because I want to undermine the authority of principals. My concern is our children and their families. My concern is that we fulfill the obligation to recognize that these children are our responsibility. Their self-esteem must be our primary concern. When we destroy or even weaken a child`s self-esteem, we run the risk of destroying that child.

We are a religious community. We are rightfully proud of our kiruv activity. We proudly trumpet the Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin, which teaches that he who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the entire world. We in the yeshiva and day school world might well ponder the Mishnah's next clause, that "he who destroys a single life."

As I have emphasized, the issues raised here require discussion. I hope that readers will offer their comments and experiences, even if there is disagreement with my point of view.