Parents Face Dilemmas When Jewish Schools Close

Tough Decisions Shaped by Belief, Jewish Identity and Class

iKids: Students work on the first day of school at the Saul Mirowitz Community School in St. Louis
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iKids: Students work on the first day of school at the Saul Mirowitz Community School in St. Louis

By Seth Berkman

Published January 22, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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Jonathan Scott Goldman, who has one child in second grade at Perelman’s Forman Center in Melrose Park, Pa., disagreed with the decision to combine the middle schools. He worried that the K‑5 program could also be in jeopardy. “If they do it once, I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “Also, institutionally, it makes it harder to sustain a lower school if there’s no middle school.” Goldman said that when his son ages out of elementary school, he will not send him to the combined school.

Sharon Levin, head of Barrack, said she has already met with every Perelman elementary school family, and there will be incentives such as transportation initiatives and scholarships to support the merger of the two schools. “We want to feel like one integrated mishpucha by September,” she said. “We will bring the best from both schools.”

In St. Louis, parents have been more enthusiastic over the combining of two local day schools. The Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy and the area Solomon Schechter Day School merged in January 2012 to create the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. As separate schools, the two institutions had 170 students. In August, 165 students moved into the Schechter building for the merged operation.

A representative of the Reform movement’s Mirowitz School estimated that it lost about two students to the merger, with a few others having moved away from the area. Cheryl Maayan, the head of the new school, said that very few Schechter school students did not move on to the Mirowitz community school. The fact that it is located in the old Schechter building, she said, made students and parents feel more at home.

Even the best mergers entail significant financial risks. And some school mergers have brought financial disasters. In 2005, Providence, R.I.’s Alperin Schechter Day School merged with the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, also in Providence, promising a school that, as the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island’s website put it, “embraces the entire Jewish community, offering the highest quality of Jewish day school education.”

In August 2011, the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island filed for receivership to get out of the debt it had accumulated in seeking to expand staff and increase capacity for the merger. The economic crash of 2008 and the recession that followed led to lower than expected enrollment and made the debt impossible to service.

Calls to representatives of JCDSRI were not returned, but Schick said that the Schechter school in Providence had been “very successful.” Nevertheless, he said, the local federation “pressed it to merge with the local community day school, and the result was a disaster.” Schick said there was a “massive drop off in students,” causing JCDSRI’s default on its debts. “It’s a pale shadow of what it has been,” he said.

Elaine Cohen, director of the Schechter Day School Network, said her organization was conducting its own study of enrollment figures. She admitted that there were some schools experiencing enrollment decreases, but said that Schechter schools in some areas were showing enrollment growth. Overall, enrollment in Schechter schools dropped by 3.6% between 2011 and 2012. Schick said he had expected a greater falloff in Schechter School enrollment last year.

Cohen said one of her main concerns is finding the extent to which day school tuitions are affecting enrollment. “With multiple children and the economic climate, affordability becomes a big issue,” she said. “It’s been hard for parents to keep up.”

In several cities, local federations have provided tens of millions of dollars in scholarship aid for day school student to address this issue. But in Westchester, such outside support was not enough to save the Gittelman School. In the end, the school’s board of directors sought to use their own dissolution to help the Rockland Jewish Academy escape a similar fate. At one of their last meetings, the directors voted to establish a fund from the sale of their school to support the academy.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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