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.
ROBERT M. BEREN ACADEMY (pre K–12)
Tuition: $6,345 to $18,070
Percent on financial aid: 54%
As one of seven Jewish day schools operating in Houston, home to an estimated 45,000 Jews, the Modern Orthodox Robert M. Beren Academy has a lot of competition.
When a Sephardic day school in Houston opened eight years ago and drew a number of students from the Beren Academy, Beren’s administrators knew they had to replenish their numbers to stay afloat financially.
Beren’s administration decided it had to go beyond metropolitan Houston to find Modern Orthodox families to populate the school. Two years ago, Beren began offering Modern Orthodox families willing to move to Houston discounts on tuition, as well as breaks on Orthodox synagogue membership, summer camp enrollment and Jewish community center membership.
New families at Beren would receive half off tuition for the first two years and 25% off tuition for the next two.
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, and Navigating the Transition to Middle School.
New Jersey native Samantha Steinberg, Beren’s director of admissions and marketing, traveled to the heavily Modern Orthodox community of Teaneck, N.J., to tout Houston as the affordable alternative to the sky-high costs of raising a Jewish family in the New York area. This year, 12 families from Venezuela, Israel, New Jersey and beyond took advantage of the program, enrolling a total of 27 students in Beren.
Donniel Ogorek, a father of two children enrolled in Beren’s preschool program, said that the tuition discount helped sweeten the pot when his family moved from upstate New York in August.
His family had decided to move to find a bigger Jewish community, and Houston was an unexpected choice. “With the discounts, I pay about $5,500 for both kids,” he said. “I’m thrilled about that.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.