Interview with Avi Greenstein, Member of the Executive Committee at PEARLS

PEARLS YAFFED
Avi Greenstein (R) and Yochonon Donn, at the Hamodia office.

The report issued last week has long been awaited. How did it all start?

I’m going to try to make it a very short synopsis. In the summer of 2015, the city received a complaint letter that was very vague and very unspecific. The letter basically stated allegations that 39 schools are not receiving substantial education, which is the law in New York state. The city did not release the names of these 39 schools that were on the list nor did they release the names of the supposed 52 people who signed this who claim to be parents and children who graduated from the system. The reason they didn’t release it is because of a specific request from Yaffed not to release that information.

A year ago they did release the names of the yeshivos, but they still never released the names of the complainants.

Correct. About a year ago, a little less than a year ago, they felt comfortable releasing the name of the schools, but they did not, to date, release the names of the 52 people who signed this complaint. What did the city respond back in the end of 2015? That they are going to investigate this matter and issue a report. That report was just released last week.

It’s a 14-page report and the report basically states that the city has visited 15 schools. I’m going to speak of the good and then the bad.

The good part is that not one single claim or allegation that was laid out in the complaint from Yaffed was substantiated by this report. Not even one. The city reports that they observed in the, I believe, hundreds of classrooms that they sat in and in the schools that they visited — by the way, that total, in terms of enrollment, is 82 percent of the overall students that were on the list of those allegedly not providing substantial education. There are over 13,000 students in yeshivos that have been visited and another 3,000 students that have not yet been visited but are scheduled for visits in the fall.

The city basically claims, as stated in their letter, that they’ve seen a good education. They’ve written about their conversations with teachers and principals in terms of the broader understanding of what a yeshivah education is about and it seemed to be a very positive layout of what they’ve seen. They speak about the idea of the dual education, which is the limudei kodesh along with limudei chol, and how this is a critical way of developing skills for children.

They’ve also written about the new PEARLS curriculum which is in the process of being developed and implemented in schools, which we can talk about. But just to give you an idea, the city was very impressed and has written about this being implemented in many of the schools that they visited along with the professional development that is going along to assure that this curriculum is implemented properly.

Before we continue, maybe explain the breakdown of these 39 yeshivos. You said that 15 were visited. It sounds like there’s another 24 that weren’t visited.

What was apparent is that this complaint was very vague and unspecific. They initially claimed in their complaint that there were 39 schools. Apparently, when we got the list this year, we were able to see that there were not 39 schools. Many of the schools are doubles — having double addresses. For instance, Satmar or Bobov, or other schools, because they have such a large school so they have different grades in different buildings. That was all part of the 39 schools.

How many schools are there altogether in reality?

There are 29 schools, 23 of which are elementary and six are high school. It’s 29 altogether. The report has been so inaccurate — the report claims that the parents who signed up on this complaint had experiences in all of these schools. That’s why they have a right to complain about it. What turns out is that from the 52 parents or people who signed off on the complaint stating that they had bad experiences, they are only representatives from 11 schools.

What this says is that they randomly took on schools, school names, school addresses, dumped it into a list and sent it in as one big blanket complaint because what they were looking to do was to blanket or broad-brush all of Klal Yisrael’s yeshivos or all the chassidic yeshivos or the yeshivos that there are.

One of the “yeshivos” is actually a butcher shop.

Correct. They basically wanted to show that this complaint is extremely vague and it’s not a small detail. It comes to show that it’s easy to feed the media misinformation on a community that’s very unpopular.

I wouldn’t say unpopular but misunderstood.

Misunderstood, perhaps. We, unfortunately, endured an organized smear campaign by our critics and that had to have taken a toll. Because many people out there, unfortunately — levelheaded people, fair-minded people — who are forming opinions which are incorrect based on this information that they have been fed. So yes, we are, unfortunately, coming to a point of being unpopular, but not because of substance but rather because of the narrative that was painted by our critics on us.

What in the report do you look at with concern?

We’ve had communication with the city throughout the last three years. Avi Schick will be the first one to tell you. He is the point to contact with the city regarding each and every one of these schools. The city was given access to every single one of the schools. There were no orders given by one single school to bar entry to its particular school. The initial goal was to bring up-front the larger schools that have the larger amounts of enrollment, but eventually all schools will be given access to by the city. The city can come and look at any time.

Then why does Carranza write in the report that he was not given access to 15?

Our lawyer, Avi Schick, responded to that in the press conference and he said he can unequivocally say that that is false.

The reality is that the yeshivos have never closed doors to anyone, especially to the city, to come in and look, and they never will. We’re not embarrassed with the education we provide. We know that we have a different type of education. That’s precisely why we send to these schools. If we would want the education that is substantially equivalent then we could have gotten it for free in public schools.

The yeshivah system is the bedrock of our community. It’s not even a question. It’s quite difficult to have to defend it to people who have no clue what a yeshivah education is all about; but in our hearts we know that this is worth everything we have and that’s why we spend tens of thousands of dollars. People typically don’t have that type of money and sacrifice vacations, investments, so much to send our children to these schools. Why? Because of what it is.

We can talk about what we do to improve schools. No one is saying that any institution is perfect. Harvard is not perfect. But as parents and as educators we work within our own world to help improve and bring out the best of the schools or we choose another school for our children.

But again, the only way that we can achieve that type of change historically has been parents getting together at PTA meetings, demanding it from the schools, working with your son’s teacher, getting involved, being a parent. That’s something that, baruch Hashem, I’ve been part of in my own right, both as a father and as an educator working in schools. And I can say clearly and unequivocally this is the only way to help improve the yeshivah system that is so near and dear to our hearts, not government imposition nor government intervention nor critics organizing smear campaigns against us. That is not going to lead to any results that we want, effective and positive results.

Before we get into the PEARLS curriculum, what’s the next step after the report?

The hope that I have with this article is to make people who read Hamodia, who are really caring citizens, heimishe people, people from the community who love the yeshivah system and care for it, to make them understand that this is not about better education or not better education, improved education versus neglectful education. That’s not the issue at all. I can say as someone who has devoted thousands of hours on a voluntary basis over the last two to three years for this particular cause.

I hope this article can impress upon people what the tremendous sakanah could be by getting government involved.

People don’t realize that the State Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, had originally wanted yeshivos to have an equivalent of almost 33 hours dedicated for general studies. There is not one yeshivah in the United States of America, in New York state, that would be sufficient in terms of its education. What do the guidelines say if schools do not provide the proper education? They lead on towards consequences, one of which is that after a certain amount of notices and warnings, getting the court involved.

 

People think, “Yeah, it’s about education. Let the government come in.” No, no, no. This is about much more than that.

How did the PEARLS curriculum get together?

There is no doubt in my mind that had we not implemented the improved curriculum, we would have been in a worse position. We could have had a good strong legal defense and a good PR initiative, which is part of what we do in terms of PEARLS, but the fact is that people got together and said, you know, we have pooled resources. Why not take this opportunity to finally form a strong alliance, for the first time ever, so that we can have buying power? We can sit down with major textbook companies, national textbook companies such as Sadlier and Houghton Mifflin, and negotiate with them so that they can help create for us individualized specific textbooks that are culturally sensitive and Common Core aligned for the middle school children, which is something we’ve always struggled with.

That’s how we’ve accomplished tremendously. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on curriculum improvement and on textbooks to date. We will continue to invest time and resources. We created an excellent curriculum team led by Richard Altabe, who is well respected by both the city and the state and, by the way, he has met with the city and the state countless times where he’s demonstrated and presented to them the curriculum. The educational officials expressed how impressed they were with the progress. They really feel that this is a true effort that can lead to something really, really phenomenal. A great education. A great improved education.

Lead me through the process of how you got the curriculum, the textbooks, from the seeds of an idea to students’ desks.

We recruited. We worked hard on finding an educational expert who we felt should own this initiative. This educational expert must be someone who is passionate, for whom education is so near and dear to him, has years and years of experience and is well respected.

Our goal for that person would be to create a model, create a curriculum, a fallback if you will, for every single yeshivah from Satmar to Pupa, from Gur to Belz, every yeshivah that can utilize and implement that particular curriculum. And it would guarantee that if you go through this curriculum year by year, you will achieve the skills that you need to go from grade to grade so that when we conclude going through this process the children will have whatever they need. They will be equipped with the skills to be able to read, to write, to express themselves, and to be successful and productive members of their communities.

We’ve reached out to many people and we’ve ended up hiring Richard Altabe and Richard made it his mission and he assembled a team of six educational experts, people who are just phenomenal. I can share names with you, but I don’t know if you would know them, but definitely very well respected individuals in the field of education. Together they set themselves out to work on both math and ELA.

What we did first is, we sat down with the major textbook companies — and they got excited to work with us because they heard the number of tens of thousands of students whom they’re going to be focusing on. They also made teacher pacing guides that have day-by-day, very clearly broken down for a teacher to understand. What are your goals and objectives of the day? What types of manipulatives do you need? How many minutes will you spend on this? How many minutes will you spend on that? Conclusion of the day. Reviews. All that is in a separate booklet that the teacher can always look at and prepare his subjects.

In addition to that, we created something very important called a Principal Advisory Group. We started with ten principals — over time it expanded — from the largest schools, from the schools that are implementing the curriculum, and we brought them into an advisory committee to which Richard Altabe would report on the ongoing progress of this curriculum. They would discuss how to make this practical in their respective schools. So together with the input of the experienced principals and the experienced curriculum writers, we set ourselves out on the feasible goal of achieving something that has never been done before. That is a curriculum that can be utilized in every single chassidishe mosad during the time that is allocated for English.

How many schools are already using them?

Currently, many of the schools are using them. We’ve also found it necessary to establish professional development workshops and individualized teacher coaching. It’s an ongoing process. Some schools are getting it better and quicker and some schools are implementing a slower process.

But the goal is for every school to utilize this, and they will want to utilize it because it’s going to be a really effective curriculum that is both practical and Common Core aligned. It is accepted by the state, and is a really good indicator that the school is providing for the students the exact skills that they need.

For those people who have not been following this from the beginning, what does Yaffed want here?

One can speculate what Yaffed’s driving force is over here. People have formed their opinions. It is clear, to me at least, seeing their organized slander and smear campaign on the community which goes beyond education. We can give example after example of how they’ve simply used their platform to slander the community time and time again of things unrelated to education just because they are critics.

Such as alerting the FBI to articles critical of somebody who happens to be Orthodox.

Yes. They’ve generalized about people who get arrested.

Urging people not to donate to Masbia.

Correct. Urging people not to donate to Masbia or even indicating that the Boro Park JCC board should fire me for our working hard to combat poverty.

But it’s much more than that. There’s been just constant maligning this community and so they made it quite clear what their goals are. They felt that this is an issue that for some reason resonates in their minds. They keep on throwing mud and with the goal of just embarrassing and hurting in this way this community that they freely left.

What is PEARLS’ mission?

Very simple. Protect and Preserve Educational and Religious Liberty and Parental Choice. That’s what we are here to do. We understand the sakanah, the terrible danger that can come out from the direction and the path that Yaffed is leading this to. We need to, as parents or as a community, to stand up and say we are strong enough, we are smart enough and we are caring enough to know what is best for our children. The idea, the notion that government officials, or anyone for that matter, can come to me and tell me that they care more for my children and they know what’s best for my children is wrong. It is preposterous. It just goes beyond common sense. I am a graduate of this educational system. It’s all about choices.

I can say one thing. I am a yeshivah graduate. I am 32 years old. I run the Boro Park Jewish Community Council. I’ve authored two books to date. I’ve been a principal. I’m very proud of my accomplishments. There’s nobody who can look me in the eye and say that if you’ve gone through any other educational institution, be it a public school or another private school, you would have been more successful and you would have been more accomplished at this point in your life.

Let me tell you this. I’ve not been given a golden ticket. I’ve struggled as a child. But my yeshivah that I grew up in, Yeshiva Yagdil Torah — they didn’t give up on me. They worked with me and with my parents individually to help give me extra tutoring, to help give me whatever I needed to get me back on track. I often look at my days of child education with great gratitude. And so there’s no question in my mind to which school I will send my children. Of course to the same school that I grew up in, Yeshiva Yagdil Torah and Gur, because I want the best for my children.

Now that the state has passed the Felder Amendment, which clarified to a great extent what substantial equivalency is, and now that the city issued a report which is pretty laudatory to yeshivos, shouldn’t Yaffed declare victory and go home?

If my goal would have been to make improvements in schools, I would have never gone down the path that Yaffed has gone down. I would have done and will continue to do the things that I am doing, which is working individually with yeshivos and working with respect and dignity. They’ve never set themselves out to help improve our yeshivos, so it’s wishful thinking that they will go away. It is never going to happen, I think, unfortunately, because I submit to you today that I don’t think that this was initially their plan. I know this was not their plan.

It’s impossible, because if their plan was to improve yeshivos, they would have done what I’m doing and that is work with yeshivos, acknowledge the greatness of these yeshivos, build respect and hopefully you will be given a seat at the table. But Yaffed lost their seat at the table because they’ve proven themselves time and time again what their real intents are and that is to malign and to slander and to continue to smear this wonderful community that we don’t take for granted.