Navigating Transition to Middle School

For Rashi School, Paying Attention to a Tricky Age Paid Off

Bridging the Gap: Some Jewish day schools lose significant numbers of students when middle school starts. The Rashi school in Dedham, Mass., has retained a larger number by placing special attention on the middle school age group.
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Bridging the Gap: Some Jewish day schools lose significant numbers of students when middle school starts. The Rashi school in Dedham, Mass., has retained a larger number by placing special attention on the middle school age group.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published February 08, 2012, issue of February 10, 2012.
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One Jewish day school in Kansas cut its tuition in half. Another school, in Oakland, Calif., grew its endowment 15-fold. And a third, in Houston, succeeded in recruiting families from as far away as New Jersey, Venezuela and Israel. These institutions embraced bold, even risky moves in an effort to generate revenue and boost enrollment, which has been dropping at many schools outside the ultra-Orthodox community.

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According to recent Forward analysis of reports by the Avi Chai foundation, non-Haredi day schools are in a state of stagnation or decline. The Schechter Network of Conservative Judaism has lost 20 schools and 35% of its enrollment since the late 90s. Unaffiliated schools, commonly known as community schools, are barely holding steady. For day school proponents, the shrinking numbers and shuttered institutions represent a blow to the idea behind Jewish education, the notion that Jewish day schools are a key to Jewish continuity.

The economic downturn is a major factor in perpetuating the downward trend, with unemployed or underemployed parents simply unable to make hefty tuition payments. But there are other issues at play. In making the case to the many Jewish parents who see day school as an option rather than as a mandate, day schools face myriad obstacles: how to accommodate those with special needs, how to retain students beyond elementary school and how to provide academic offerings on par with private prep schools.

Each day this week, the Forward will be featuring a story of a day school that met such challenges and reversed its fortune.


THE RASHI SCHOOL (K–8)
Dedham, Mass.
Enrollment: 307
Founded: 1984
Tuition: $23,000 to $26,000
Percent on financial aid: 30%

For Jewish day school administrators, the transition from elementary school to middle school can be just as nerve-wracking as it is for students. That’s when many parents put their children in public school.

But at the Rashi School, a Reform kindergarten through eighth grade school in a suburb of Boston, there’s no longer the pronounced drop-off that there was a decade ago, when the school was losing 10% to 15% of its student body to public schools between the fifth and sixth grades. This year, Rashi’s sixth grade class was 13% larger than it was in fifth grade. And next year, school administrators anticipate that they’ll have to turn away some kids.

“I think people used to have to be convinced that it was worth the money to stay for middle school,” said Amy Gold, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction. “That is not the case anymore.”

Read the Forward’s entire week of coverage of creative solutions to problems facing day schools, including Naomi Zeveloff’s stories on Making Day School Affordable, and Welcoming Special Needs Students.

Five years ago, Gold initiated “Taste of Middle School,” a before-school program for elementary school parents to learn about what Rashi’s middle school has to offer: namely, an environment that is smaller and more nurturing than that of local public schools, organized student trips to Washington and to Israel, and the chance to volunteer at a nearby assisted living facility for seniors.

Gold also recruited middle schoolers to appear on a panel at Rashi’s annual open house for prospective parents. And in order to more seamlessly transition kids to sixth grade, fifth-graders were invited to participate in sixth-grade programming, like a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com and follow her on Twitter @naomizeveloff


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