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.
HYMAN BRAND HEBREW ACADEMY (K–12)
Overland Park, Kan.
Enrollment: 242 students
Percent on financial aid: 50%
Until three years ago, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy was on the skids, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and about 5% of its students each year. The backslide was perplexing. The 20,000-person Kansas City Jewish community had shrunk over the years, but only slightly. Hyman Brand’s board began to wonder whether the source of the decline was in the school itself.
“The most glaring item that caught our eye is that the middle class seemed to have disappeared out of the school,” said Eric Kaseff, board president. “We had families that could afford full tuition and families that couldn’t come close, and very little in between.”
Fearing that the student body would dip below 200, Hyman Brand’s board decided to lure back the middle class by doing something considered taboo in the Jewish day school world: slashing tuition. In the 2008–2009 school year, the school reduced its annual tuition to $6,350, from $9,000 to $14,000 depending on the grade level.
To cover the shortfall, the school reached out to families that could afford it and asked them to donate the difference between the old tuition and the new one. And since the donation would be tax deductible, the school asked the families to tack on the money they would have been paying in tax on that gift.
Read the Forward’s entire week of coverage of creative solutions to problems facing day schools, including Naomi Zeveloff’s story on Welcoming Special Needs Students.
It seems to be working. According to Kaseff, about 40% of the families donated at least $10,000 per student on top of tuition. Private donors from the community helped make up the difference, giving $40,000 in the first year of the program.
Some good old-fashioned belt tightening also helped close the gap in the school’s operating budget. For example, Hyman Brand now has one principal overseeing the entire school, rather than its former model of having separate lower, middle, and upper school principals.
The school is still operating at a deficit, but it’s about $100,000 per year, down from $300,000 to $400,000.
What’s more, the middle class seems to be coming back. In the first year of the program, enrollment jumped to 222 from 212. This school year, another 20 students enrolled. Most of them are new recruits, but there are a few returnees. According to Kaseff, parents are unanimous in their appraisal. “They said, ‘Before, I was on financial aid, but now you have turned me into a donor,’” Kaseff said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.