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.
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.
OAKLAND HEBREW DAY SCHOOL (K–8)
Tuition: $19,000 to $20,000
Percent on financial aid: 44%
Just like families in a down economy, Jewish day schools are at risk of living hand to mouth, raising funds in an annual campaign only to see them dry up months or years down the road. Schools in this situation often dream of growing an endowment — a large, interest-spurring investment to ensure the long-term viability of the school. But creating one isn’t easy.
At Oakland Hebrew Day School, which is Modern Orthodox, the school grew its endowment in just a little more than a year to almost $2.3 million, up from $150,000.
“The lesson I have learned is, you don’t get what you ask for. The answer will be ‘no’ a lot of times, but the one time you get a ‘yes,’ it will be tremendous,” said Rabbi Yehuda Potok, head of school.
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, Welcoming Special Needs Students, Navigating the Transition to Middle School, and Recruiting From Long Distance.
Oakland Hebrew Day grew its endowment by first acquiring the $1 million commitment of an anonymous donor and then asking the local Jewish community to match the funds. The school took out advertisements in local newspapers and sent out direct mail, and at one point, Potok himself called every single parent who hadn’t yet contributed.
In the end, all the families, along with scores of grandparents and alumni, gave to the school. Donations ranged from $18 to $150,000. When the campaign ended four months ahead of schedule, the anonymous donor gave another $100,000 — which also was matched.
The generosity of the school community, however, belied the fact that tuition was becoming a stretch for many families. Though Oakland Hebrew Day had not experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment, administrators sought to prevent a decline before it began.
In tandem with the fundraising campaign, Oakland Hebrew Day rolled out a tuition program called kulanu, which, in Hebrew mean “all of us.” In addition to traditional financial aid packages, the program provides $300 to $6,000 in tiered tuition breaks for families with incomes of up to $300,000 per year. Families who don’t qualify for those breaks and have more than one child enrolled at the school can get a $500 discount per sibling.
“There is the classic quote that the best birth control these days for Jewish families is day school affordability,” Potok said. “We wanted to make sure that is not the case.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.