NEW YORK — When kindergartners at Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway — otherwise known as HAFTR — manipulated a robot across a plastic mat to collect virtual objects related to Hanukkah, they weren’t simply playing a game.
“They don’t even realize they are learning to count, and by controlling the robot they are learning engineering,” said Benjamin Gross, CTO and director of STEM for HAFTR. Gross has spent the past five years building a STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — program at the K-12 school.
Whether it’s learning to code, operate a 3-D printer, program a drone or design a robot, it’s hard to overestimate how important such STEM skills are for students looking to pursue careers in fields such as medicine or engineering. Indeed, CNN Money recently ranked mobile app developer as the number one job in the nation.
And while these kindergartners are a long way from pitching their resumes to tech companies, they aren’t too young to start learning the skills necessary to compete in an economy where STEM rules.
According to a 2014 US Department of Education report, four years after graduation STEM majors earn an average of $65,000 compared with non-STEM majors, such as humanities graduates, who earn about $43,100.
“Our goal is not to just infuse more technology into the classroom. Our goal is to teach 21st century skills to our students so they can compete and be a part of the future. It’s that simple,” Gross said.
Or maybe not so simple for yeshivas and Jewish day schools. Developing costly state-of-the-art STEM programs is expensive, from hiring teachers with engineering backgrounds to purchasing the necessary equipment.
But as nonpublic schools, these institutions receive little to no government funding; instead they must rely on private donations to offset costs. Until now.
New York just became the first state in the nation to mandate that the government compensate nonpublic schools, including yeshivas and day schools, for the costs of STEM instruction.
The legislation came about largely because of an intense advocacy campaign led by Teach NYS, an arm of the nonpartisan Teach Advocacy Network.
“STEM funding, for us, was an argument the state would understand. It would understand the return on investment; it would understand the idea of greater job producers for the state if properly trained. It’s the state saying, ‘We care about these kids and we care about their education,’” said Maury Litwack, the executive director of Teach Advocacy Network.
Affiliated with the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, the Teach Advocacy Network has a one goal: to secure government funding to make nonpublic school education safe and affordable for every child, regardless of religious affiliation. It has additional offices in New Jersey, California, Maryland, Florida and Pennsylvania; the New York office, founded in 2013, is its largest.
Having already successfully lobbied for increased funding for security and lunches, Teach NYS decided the time was ripe to tackle STEM.
It launched a campaign involving thousands of parents and students on this one issue alone. Knowing they had an ally in Gov. Andrew Cuomo – he has made STEM education a priority for his administration – they turned their attention to the Democrat majority statehouse. Last year Teach NYS sent 600 parents, students and activists to Albany, where they met with policy makers and legislators.
“This program is important for nonpublic schools and our communities, to help ensure that our students are given the knowledge to compete and succeed in the new economy in an affordable fashion,” said Jake Adler, Teach NYS director.
“Teach NYS successfully took our message to Albany, and we have made access to quality STEM instruction central to our mission,” he said.
Of the 400,000 students in New York State who attend nonpublic schools, 150,000 attend Jewish day school or yeshiva. In New York City, one out of 13 students is a yeshiva student, according to Litwack. Yet, these students, Jewish and non-Jewish, receive less than 1 percent of state funding.
In the past few years nonpublic schools of all religious denominations learned that presenting a united front gives them a better chance of securing government funding for things such as state-mandated attendance taking, security, and school lunches.
In the last four years, New York State has more than doubled the amount it allocates to nonpublic schools from $111 million to $289 million, according to Teach NYS.
New York isn’t the only state to increase government funding. Per-student funding in New Jersey was increased to $37 for technology, $95 for nursing aid and $75 for security, according to the Avi Chai Foundation. And during the academic year 2016-17 Florida allocated $17 million in state low-income and special-needs scholarship funds for its Jewish day school students.
In New York the program will go a long way to help tackle the tuition crisis facing many nonpublic schools, including yeshivas and day schools, said Litwack, who also serves on New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy’s transition team.
As Litwack explained, that $5 million is $5 million the community doesn’t have to raise from private donors.
Under New York’s new program, schools are eligible for $5 million in government funding and reimbursement covering the costs of STEM instruction. The program is now accepting applications for this from private schools in New York State. Once approved, payments will be made to schools in the fall of 2018. The money is available for all nonpublic students regardless of religious denominations.
“This funding will take us to the next level. Instead of having STEM once a week we can incorporate it into all aspects of learning: history, math and Judaism,” said HAFTR’s Gross. “Because of this I am able to build a STEM lab. This is something schools want and need. This is the future.”