Struggling To Stay Afloat

Schools Get Creative In Financial Crisis

By Lana Gersten

Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Last August, just as the new academic year was starting, Rabbi Yaacov Dvorin, head of Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School, in Skokie, Ill., was facing an increase in the number of families applying for financial aid, decreased dollars coming in through fundraising efforts and the possibility of cutting back on teaching assistants. It was a tough position to be in, given that the school had limited funds and prided itself on maintaining small classroom sizes with lots of individual attention.

Now, Dvorin struggles to make payroll each month, and he will have to make severe budget cuts for the 2009 school year. He predicts that he’ll have to cut around $200,000, which is a tremendous amount of money for a school that has fewer than 450 students, ranging from pre-nursery through eighth grade.

“What’s educationally sound is not always financially responsible,” Dvorin said matter-of-factly. “We’re going to have to tighten the belt.”

Dvorin is not the only one making difficult choices during this academic year. Jewish day schools and high schools across the country are facing even tougher financial situations than they did this past fall, as the economy continues to spiral downward and Jewish giving suffers.

“Small schools with low enrollment and fragile financials prior to this are thrown into a new crisis,” said Marc Kramer, who is the executive director of Ravsak, a national network of Jewish community day schools. “Whereas maybe the year-to-year conversation was about getting by and making do, or making excellent with little, now it’s about surviving with nearly nothing. Some of those conversations will, I think, terminate with some schools closing.”

In August, Kramer said he fielded many phone calls from school heads worried about their enrollment numbers for the 2008-2009 school year, but now, he says, the conversations are dedicated to working through the intense anxiety felt from schools across the denominational and geographical map.

To address the concern, leaders of Ravsak dedicated an entire day of their three-day annual conference, which was held January 18 to January 20 to brainstorm ways to pull through the tough economic times. A panel of economists, investors, financial planners and others held workshops on the final day, to discuss everything from protecting endowments to re-imagining professional development and implementing creative fundraising models.

The interest in the conference was great, Kramer said, because “the needs are starting to outweigh the capacity of the system to respond.”

“The situation is worsening considerably,” said Marvin Schick, a senior educational consultant at the Avi Chai Foundation. “There are schools that are on the ropes, and there are parents who have already pulled their kids out because they can’t afford the tuition.”

A new study, conducted by Miriam Prum Hess, head of day school operations at Los Angeles’s Bureau of Jewish Education, was completed by 22 out of a total of 36 Jewish day schools in the area. The study found that 125 students had dropped out of school either just prior to its start or during the month of September, and an additional 10 students had dropped out of school in October because they were unable to pay tuition. According to Prum Hess, these numbers are “definitely an increase from typical academic years.”

Every school is affected by the current state of the economy, but not all in the same way.

“The schools that charge high tuition and have a good donor base are going to be able to weather the storm,” Schick said. “There are a great number of schools in the Orthodox sectors, particularly schools that cater to poor families or immigrant families, that are going to be hurt.”

That is certainly the case for Dvorin. Hillel Torah never had big donors, but the ones who did give are now giving considerably less than they had been.

Many schools are starting to think outside the box. The Kadima Hebrew Academy in California and the Perelman Jewish Day School near Philadelphia announced that they would decrease tuition for the coming school year, an unprecedented move for private institutions whose strategy is to increase tuition each year. Other schools have adopted new, creative fundraising models in the hopes that they might bring in some extra money.

Ray Levi said that the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, where he serves as principal, has trained a large number of parents and grandparents to serve as solicitors. The school is also encouraging donors to spread gifts out over a longer period of time, and has considered treating some percentage of donor gifts as a loan.

In addition, the school has instituted new communication efforts to reach out to parents, including coffee meetings to keep them in the loop about their children’s progress and to provide more information about the updated curriculum. The administration hopes that this effort will maintain enrollment numbers.

“I think we’re trying to find a balance between being realistic and empathetic to families, but also to really enlist people’s support in underscoring the importance of our work and our mission,” Levi said.

At the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, where the maximum tuition is $27,540, the board members gave an additional $75,000 from their own pockets as a matching gift — a challenge for supporters to come forward with a dollar-for-dollar increase in their donations to help make up for some of the unanticipated shortfalls the school is facing. Principal Steven Lorch is confident that the community will meet the challenge.

Though tuition is high, Lorch said that as many as 45% to 50% of students receive financial aid in a typical year. This year, more than 50% are receiving financial aid, and a few families who were paying tuition in full have requested aid midyear. The school uses an outside service to determine aid, and is optimistic about UJA-Federation of New York’s new Rose Biller Day School Scholarship Fund, which will give up to 200 awards of $5,000 or more toward the cost of tuition at a Jewish day school in New York.

Even though schools are competing for the same money, many are working together to weather the storm.

“There’s a lot of energy, a lot of people who care,” said Don Sylvan, CEO of the Jewish Education Service of North America. “There’s a tremendous amount of innovation going on in the schools.”

That’s what has heartened Kramer as he continues to work with schools across the country. “We know that the one strategy that will fail is panic, so we’re trying to help everyone move beyond it, or minimally to contain it,” he said. “What are we going to do, and how do we learn from one another, and how do we support one another become the real questions.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.