School Choice

Yitzchak Oshry is preparing for his sophomore year  at Baltimore Polytechnic  Institute. He and his parents say choosing public school was a tough decision but has been well worth it. (David Stuck)
Yitzchak Oshry is preparing for his sophomore year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. He and his parents say choosing public school was a tough decision but has been well worth it.
(David Stuck)

“My son is happy for the first time in years — and engaged and intellectually stimulated.”

That is a message that Aleeza Oshry wants parents to hear.

Oshry moved her son, Yitzchak, 14, to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s Ingenuity Project for the 2012-2013 school year. She says for the past decade she has been struggling to find him the right environment, a place where he could fit in and also learn material that plays to his strengths.

The problem in the past was that the Oshrys, an Orthodox family, felt obligated to send their child to a Jewish day school. No matter which school they tried, however, there was not a good fit. Oshry sought advice from community leaders, colleagues and friends. The sad part, she says, is that no advice was available.

“We were not given options,” says Oshry. “Actually, we were told we could not choose this for our kid.”

Oshry says that in her more insular Orthodox community, she has been ridiculed and mocked for her decision to move her child to a public school environment, despite the fact that she supplements his secular education with after-school Torah learning and provides a wholesome environment at home.

“The reaction we have gotten from people literally is we are destroying his yiddishkeit,” says Oshry. “The concern is that things from the [Poly] community will rub off on him, things that are not necessarily positive.”

But Oshry decided to gamble. She says Yitzchak, who is not a social sponge but has Asperger’s and is much more focused on his academic pursuits, has thrived at Poly. She can see where some parents might be worried, she says, but she thinks that a parent has to know his or her child and choose a fitting environment.

“We have seen from our side only positive growth,” says Oshry.

Yitzchak smiles broadly when he thinks about his school. He says he made friends, though “I am not a very social person.” He notes how high the expectations are at Poly and how much he enjoys the challenge. The only downside: “I need to make up work for the Jewish holidays I take off.”

Yitzchak says he gets a lot of questions about his religion from his peers. And, “I like answering them.”

Jewish Community Services’ Joan Grayson Cohen says each child’s needs — educational and emotional — need to be taken into account when choosing a school.

“Not every child is a fit for every school,” says Cohen.

She says the family values — such as religious values — should be taken into account when selecting the right school environment. She explains that it can be harder for a child to make friends if he or she is around people with very dissimilar backgrounds. The most important piece is to balance the parents’ needs with the child’s needs and to make sure the child is getting what he or she needs to be successful in the future.

“Just because a child is in a situation that is not ideal,” Cohen cautions, “does not meant there will be permanent repercussions. However, there are things that can cause permanent potential problems, for example, learning issues. If learning issues are not identified, then a child won’t reach his maximum learning potential.”

Additionally, the child may gain a dislike of school and become less engaged from the academic environment, which will affect college choice as well as occupation choice.

Also, if the environment is too challenging, or if a child is bullied, this could have long-term impact on a child’s self-esteem and self-image.

“This can affect the type of relationships they have in the future and how they feel about it themselves,” she says.

For Tanya Ruttenberg, the issues Cohen raised and finances played a factor in sending daughter Yocheved (Kim), 12, to the International baccalaureate program at The Mount Washington School. She says the teachers there have been “amazing.”

She says there have been challenges for her daughter, who has not made a tremendous number of friends in her new school. Yocheved is used to faster-paced environments (she formerly went to Yeshivat Rambam) and finds that some of the children misbehave and waste time. Nonetheless, she says, on the whole the children are good kids, and she thinks it has been a good experience.

Unlike Oshry, Ruttenberg says she didn’t experience the same put-off from the Orthodox community when she made the decision to move her daughter. She says her friends were more like, “do what works for you,” but she knows that may also be because she is a single mother, who, even as a professional, struggles to afford tuitions for three children.

“You have to consider what is important to you,” says Ruttenberg. “You also need your kids to feel comfortable.”

Read more parenting advice from JCS.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief

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  1. As a teen, I switched from an Orthodox day school to public school for my final couple years of high school. The reasons in my case were a mix of social and academic, and we (my parents and I) felt at the time that the other choices available were inappropriate for various reasons.

    At the time, we faced tremendous backlash from various members of the community, both from those who represent certain interests, and from those who felt a need to voice their opinions. They [almost] all were of the opinion that this choice was wrong – although they could not offer us any reasonable alternatives. I can only recall of a single rabbi in the city, who, when asked (by others) to intercede, refused, saying that we were the ones best equipped to make this decision, and if we wanted his assistance in making the decision, it was for US to ask HIM, not the other way around.

    Now, 13 years after I graduated high school, I remain happy with my choice. I believe it was the correct choice for me at the time. Despite the concerns voiced, I am still Orthodox, married with children, active in my community. I’ve changed, of course, but I believe that had I not left the day schools and moved to the public school system, I would have been less connected to the community in the long-run.

    No, public school is not for everyone. You have to be aware of the nature of the challenges you will face, and have an approach to dealing with those challenges. Yes, it will change you – but that can be either a good thing or a bad, and it all depends on you.

    To Yitzchak and the entire Oshry family: Hatzlacha Rabba! Believe in yourselves that you know what is best for you. Listen to others, but in the end, trust in yourselves.

  2. Wearing tzitzit and kippah, my son thrived in a public school that could meet his special learning needs. Because of the support he received in public school and his involvement in NCSY he went on to yeshiva in Israel and to Yeshiva University. Do what’s right for your child and your family and don’t worry what others think.

  3. Amen! This is a story of different strokes for different folks. We have some very good public schools in out community. I have seen too many kids frustrated by forced doctrine and selective discipline that runs rampant in our day schools today. Parent involvement makes all of the difference in the world. Good luck to Yitzchak and the entire Oshry family.


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