‘Tis the season for high school applications, acceptances, and choices. For those who feel that they could use some pointers in how to go about making these choices I have put together some ideas which were the result of advice passed along to me, hard-won personal insights, and things I have observed during the tenure of three sons in mesivta (yeshiva style high school). I would welcome any additional ideas as well. Full disclosure: our experience is mostly with what some would call more “right-wing” orthodox schools, i.e. those who typically maintain dress codes of white shirts, black pants, hats while davening, etc. However, I think most points will apply to other kinds of schools as well. Also, I have not touched upon the issue of cost – in our experience, most schools of similar type had similar costs, and the differences were not enough to influence our decision. However, when there is a big difference in cost, that factor obviously needs to be considered – but you don’t need anyone to tell you that!
Right Level of Learning
It is important to choose a school which is a close fit to your son’s level of learning. Boys’ yeshiva high schools, with the exception of a community school, tend to be narrowly tailored to a specific level of learning. It is important to consider schools where your son will be challenged, but not so much that he will feel frustrated or be on the bottom of the class and struggling to keep up, nor too little that he will feel bored too soon or where it would be difficult for him to find a chavrusa of similar skill. Larger yeshiva high schools might have more than one class/shiur, with the different classes tracked. It is important to determine if there are different kinds of boys in one track vs. the other and which group your son is most likely to be part of.
How to determine what learning level a school is on can sometimes be a challenge. Yeshivas, like other schools, like to strengthen their reputation to prospective families, and sometimes schools will declare, at an open house or elsewhere, that they serve “the best boys” or have a “top program.” It is important not to be naïve and take everything a yeshiva says about itself at face value. That is, it is important to go beyond these statements and find out what the learning level of the boys who are currently there really is to determine if it is a good match. [Similarly, if a school brags about its graduates who go on to the Ivy League, try to find out if they are bragging about one or two unusual boys, or whether it is typical for its graduates to go on to the Ivy League.]
I would hesitate to send a boy to a “top” school if his grades in learning don’t match up or if he is unmotivated. Some rabbanim recommend that a boy go to a “better” school rather than one with a lesser reputation if a boy is borderline in his learning abilities, because, if things don’t work out initially, it is easier to transfer from a better school to a lesser school than visa versa. I would say this should only be followed where the boy is very motivated and is the type to put in the extra effort he will need to maintain a fair position in the class, and if you as parents are willing and able to pay for tutoring if he needs it. It does him no favors to languish at the very bottom of the class at a “better” school rather than thrive at a more modest school (unless there are other factors present that would counterbalance this possible sense of failure and lack of accomplishment).
Values and Culture Compatibility
Second, it is very important to choose a school whose values and culture “match” where your family is holding, religiously, philosophically, and practically. Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein shlit’a (from Project Chazon) has said that it is crucial to be on the same wavelength as the yeshiva, and that a family needs to trust the chinuch and guidance that comes from a particular yeshiva. This would include factors such as its attitude toward the outside world and philosophy about participation in secular culture and relationships with non-Jews; religious affiliations should match generally, i.e. are you and the school Agudah types, OU, YU/Modern Orthodox, etc etc; mode of dress/level of tznius practiced by family members; use of internet/movies/TV/various technologies and leisure activities practiced at home; ideas about secular education in general; ideas about a college education and advanced learning after high school; boy/girl relations or lack thereof; ideas about Zionism. Conflict, or even just a clash in values, can put your son in the middle of a sticky situation. Any normal boy will likely pick up the habits and values of his school culture and peer group and adapt them for himself and bring them home, so be comfortable with them before you start!
Some dorming schools also have a philosophy that once in that school, the primary responsibility and influence of a boy’s chinuch has shifted from the parents to the yeshiva, and they assume in large part that the parents are on board with this, and have chosen that mesivta partially for that reason. They are molding a “ben yeshiva” and they create this by being the place where he eats, sleeps, learns, and gets guidance and advice 24/7 for several years. In these schools the boys come home for Shabbos typically only once a month (in 9th grade it can be slightly more frequent) and sometimes less than that. If you choose this sort of school, realize that you are even more fully entrusting your son to their care, and that your role as parents will shrink, whether you want it to or not. Your son’s outlook on halacha, hashkafos ha chaim, and daily living will likely become that of the yeshiva and he may trust their advice more than yours, even in such important aspects of life as his future plans and whom he marries. That is the goal, and some BTs don’t realize this when they sign up. Therefore your values and the school’s values should be as parallel as possible. When the family and the school match, and are true partners, the boy often blossoms beautifully and it is wondrous to behold.
One aspect of judging whether a yeshiva’s values match your needs is its familiarity with BT issues and/or its ability to be flexible. It is good to discuss various “BT” needs and possible scenarios with a school administration to see their reaction and their ability to make accommodations prior to choosing a school. This sort of discussion can also prepare a willing but unfamiliar yeshiva with the kind of issues that may arise and will help the school make accommodations when necessary. An example might be to discuss how they would react to asking for your child to come home from yeshiva for a Thanksgiving dinner that is made for secular family members, or what kind of accommodation they would make for father-son learning sessions where the father is not very advanced in learning.
Is Your Son Wanted There
Does the school want your son? I think it is important that the school regards a boy as a valued member of its class, and communicates that they look forward to the responsibility to be mechanech him for the next four years. It is my humble opinion that it is not good for parents to “push” their son into a particular school, because in sending an initial rejection, the school is saying that they are not equipped or willing to be mechanech him. If anything needs remediation during the school year they may be less willing to respond or put forth resources for him, because they didn’t think the boy was appropriate for the school in the first place. If a family has more than one school to choose from, it is also not a good idea to send to a school if they have the attitude that they are doing you a favor by accepting your child. It does not make for a healthy foundation for the future relationship, and could affect the boy’s self-regard if he finds out he wasn’t wanted in the first place.
Decide what you want for your son in terms of secular studies. There is a wide variation in what some schools offer, and an even wider variation in terms of what they enforce about attending secular classes. It is not unusual at some mesivtas for boys to skip the English classes entirely and graduate without a diploma, or to go to class in a pro forma way without really learning anything. This creates an atmosphere where it is difficult to take the classes seriously, or sometimes even to hear the teacher, even if a boy is interested in learning the material.
I would also take with a large grain of salt any statements that a school is planning certain improvements in the secular (or kodesh) program in the upcoming year/s. Statements from school officials that they will have something in place, will be hiring someone new, or intend to pursue having a particular course may be nice ideas, but the improvements sometimes never materialize, even if the school really wants it to happen. Decide if you will be happy anyway even if the intended improvements never happen, even in four years. The attitude should be ‘what you see is what you get.’ Decisions should be made based on what is, not what might be some day.
I have friends who sent their sons to a particular mesivta partially based on public promises the menahel (principal) made about secular program improvements, and those improvements never materialized despite efforts the yeshiva made toward that end. These friends are still very dissatisfied with the program, and one has switched their son from the school. A boy should not have to experience this sort of upheaval based on a mistaken reliance on someone’s promises, no matter how well-intended.
Part 2 – is scheduled to be posted next week
Originally published in February 2011