In 2004, eAchieve Academy opened its virtual doors as an online charter middle and high school. Using innovative technology and a highly individualized approach, in less than a decade—in 2013—it was named one of America’s top high schools by Newsweek magazine.
About a year after eAchieve began, Lubavitch of Wisconsin was asked to step in and manage the struggling Milwaukee-area Hillel Academy, a kindergarten through eighth-grade day school established in 1960. It took some time, but with direction and focus Hillel flourished, increasing enrollment by 40 percent since the new administration took charge.
That worked for younger students. But without a Jewish high school, Hillel graduates often had nowhere to further their religious education.
Rabbi Yossi Bassman, in Wisconsin from New York working to address the high school issue, says “the kids would be faced with the choice of either going out of town or curtailing their Jewish studies.”
One such student is Avi Gelfman, who graduated Hillel Academy in 2011 and spent the next two years in a boarding high school in Memphis, Tenn.
As Hillel parents and faculty explored the option of opening a top-quality local high school where students would be able to further both their Jewish and their secular education, they reached out to the staff of eAchieve, with its successful model. Finding common ground in their approach to student-centered education and differentiated learning, they hammered out a plan for a new partnership, and Hillel High School was born.
Gelfman’s father, Jonathan, says “we wanted a school that would give our boys the tools to live in our world along with a strong base in Judaic education, identity and practice. The new school will be filling the gap for us and families like ours.”
His other son, Isaac, will join Avi this fall at Hillel High.
A Hands-On, Contemporary Approach
Gelfman also notes the leadership and personal style of Bassman, who he describes as “young, hip and ‘with it,’ and who has the ability to straddle the seemingly disparate words of general education and Torah scholarship. He will be able to speak to my boys as the primary Judaic studies teacher and work with the kids in the other subjects as well.”
“Our goal isn’t just to create book-smart graduates,” says Bassman, who will serve as administrator of the new school. “The Judaic studies curriculum will have a refreshingly hands-on, contemporary approach. For example, after exploring a subject in Talmudic law, the students will go on to discover how that law compares to American law and jurisprudence. Outside of school hours, we will encourage them to volunteer with Friendship Circle, Habitat for Humanity or other hands-on organizations, so they can see how they can make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Bassman is planning to open with a pilot class of up to 12 male students this year, and is exploring the possibility of a parallel track for female students, depending on the interest and the ability to form a critical mass.
Following the eAchieve model, students will pursue secular education at their own pace during designated times, with guidance from Hillel faculty and eAchieve teachers.
Flexibility Is Important
According to Chris Schulteis, marketing and logistics manager at eAchieve, “virtual schooling is unique in that it is more student-centered. The teacher is more of a guide, assisting the students in discovering their own paths to education. Every student is different. Some require a lot of teacher intervention, and others thrive with less. We empower students to chart their own course. Advanced students are not held back, and weaker students are able to proceed at their own pace.”
This flexibility is important for Hillel High students, who will be devoting time each day to Judaic studies.
Beyond graduates of Hillel Academy, the school will serve students from other Jewish and public schools in Milwaukee—and all over the world.
Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin, executive vice president of Lubavitch of Wisconsin, says Hillel High will cater to high-schoolers coming from a broad swath of backgrounds, ranging from those raised in Modern Orthodox families to teens who have not yet had any formal Jewish education.
He expects that a major draw will be the reduced tuition costs made possible by the partnership with eAchieve. “While Jewish high-school tuition typically costs around $25,000, we are able to cut those costs by up to 75 percent due to our partnership with eAchieve. Pending eligibility, tuition for the 2013–14 school year is set at $6,500 per student. For parents facing the choice between public school and the prohibitive costs of private education, this is really a unique opportunity.”
In addition to tuition, out-of-town parents will be paying for room and board. As part of Hillel’s personal approach, the students will be carefully matched with local host families.
Even though the academic year is three months away, Bassman says he’s already busy fielding calls from parents and planning the logistics of what he expects to be “the school of the future.”