US Jewish day schools mostly 'hanging on'

Financial aid requests skyrocket as parents struggle to pay tuition.

morasha children 248.88 (photo credit:
morasha children 248.88
(photo credit:
NEW YORK - As schools across America opened their doors for the new academic year this month, in a corner of Orange County, California, the Morasha Jewish Day School stayed dark. Last spring, it failed in its last-ditch effort to raise much-needed cash through the sale of land. In April, the school's fate was sealed and the board sent a letter to parents outlining the grim financial situation. "It is with much sadness, therefore, that we share that Morasha Jewish Day School is a casualty of the economic downturn," the letter read. When it shuttered its doors for good in June, Morasha was not alone. Since the economic collapse last fall, day schools with fragile finances and dwindling enrollment have been forced to close. Others have seen dips in enrollment and significant increases in financial assistance. While there have been no mass closures, about half a dozen schools did not reopen this fall, including the recently closed Solomon Schechter Day School of Palm Beach County in Florida. Other schools "are sort of hanging in there," in the words of a longtime education professional. To be sure, the crisis did not emerge suddenly. For years, parents and school administrators have been grappling with a crisis of affordability, with tuition ranging from $6,000 to $30,000 a year. But before the recession hit, most day schools were on a growth trajectory, according to preliminary findings from a 2008-09 census of American Jewish day schools, recently published by the Avi Chai Foundation. Among the key findings, there were 228,174 students enrolled in day schools, an 11 percent increase from 2003-04. But while Orthodox and community day schools grew, the Conservative Movement's Solomon Schechter schools saw a 25% decrease in enrollment. That decline - attributed to economic pressure, changes in the Conservative Movement overall and a tendency among non-Orthodox to consider options other than day school - was worsened by the unraveling economy. Jewish community day schools found themselves under similar pressure. "My colleagues across the country were saying to me in June, 'You could go out of business in September because community day schools is not where committed Jews go,'" said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, which includes 102 schools. As of this fall, two schools have closed and there were two sets of mergers. Kramer said the biggest question now is enrollment. "If a school closes, it's, at least for now, the end of the story," he said, offering a somewhat bleak outlook. According to Kramer, enrollment at community day schools in the US and Canada is down by about 7%. But despite the numbers, he said enrollment is actually better than he expected when the economy started to unravel. At that time, he and colleagues anticipated that as much as 10% of schools would close, with remaining schools seeing enrollment drop by 25%. "We were really panicked," Kramer said. Instead, schools have had a wide range of experiences. Somehow, some have grown, even as others have lost as much as 30% of their student body. The majority have remained relatively stable. "The majority are those who left for economic reasons, actual or perceived," he said. His theory is that many stayed because of three factors: previous efforts to retain students, proven value in community day school education and a commitment by families to the community day school model. "Anybody can leave a school, it's not that hard," he said. "Leaving a community is heart-wrenching and some would suggest totally untenable." That philosophy is what has led to huge increases in financial aid requests. Scott Goldberg, director of Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership, said there has been a 20% to 25% increase in the amount of financial aid doled out. By and large, those seeking assistance are middle-class families who traditionally did not need or ask for help. "I have heard the word 'millions' in the context of financial aid in the past 90 days in the way I have never heard the word 'million' used before," said RAVSAK's Kramer. Jewish education has been marketed to the "Jewish everyman," he noted. "We've taken an elite product and marketed it broadly to a diverse community that is largely middle class," he said. "There's ramifications for that. Not everyone can afford it. As costs go up and the availability of family cash goes down, there's a gap. The local and regional leadership had been worrying about the economic factors for a very long time." According to Goldberg and a colleague at Yeshiva University, Harry Bloom, schools are being hurt by faulty operating models that rely heavily on donations and often lack long-term plans. According to Bloom, among 65 schools recently surveyed, a quarter were relying on donations for half of their operating costs, he said. "In a recession, when donors are under pressure, that is a precarious position to be in," he said. Come spring, some of those schools could be living hand to mouth in terms of compensating their faculty and other costs, Bloom said. "We expect that the situation in schools will get worse in the second half of the year as the tuition deposits they got and the tuition payments get used up," he said, adding that it was important to work with these schools. "Literally, they could run out of cash." On New York's Long Island, the YU Institute convened 16 schools and focused on energy-conservation measures. It turned out that in one part of Long Island, schools were spending up to $400 a year per student on energy. The institute is also consulting with schools on an individual and communal level, putting out white papers and offering Webinars that address things from operations to teaching skills. Bloom said the quality dimension is critically important because otherwise people tell themselves, "See, it's not worth it." Bloom and Goldberg touted community collaborations, as well. In January, multi-denominational schools and educational institutes will come together for a conference emphasizing collaboration. "We've been doing parallel processes," said Kramer, noting that schools were being asked to do more with less. "Full steam ahead became a risky game." Now, people are asking themselves, "Is there someone who does a program in another sector?" he said. Other solutions also have come to the fore. Attention is being paid to two Hebrew charter schools, one in Florida and one in New York City. Earlier in the year, the Orthodox Union proposed a bare-bones model of a day school that gained little traction. "There's no shortcut to running a good day school," said Rabbi Josh Elkin, executive director at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. "What happened last year is simply the number of people who needed financial assistance to be able to deal with the tuition grew dramatically. "Despite the challenges they've felt, there's been a remarkable resiliency," Elkin said. "The day school model is not broken." Indeed, he described several strategies used by schools: broadening the donor base; tapping alumni; establishing community endowments; and using federation and foundation gifts in addition to planned giving campaigns. "If you add it all up and you see what was done in communities, is it enough? No," he said. PEJE is investing more heavily in community endowments, he said. But for now, schools are relying on philanthropic gifts, such as a $10 million scholarship endowment funded by the Helen Bader Foundation, and $11m. in emergency grants to families by the Jim Joseph Foundation. But Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer at the Jewish Education Service of North America, recalled attending a conference a few months ago and meeting families strained by day school tuition. "I don't want to be cavalier about this, it has severely strained the day school world, but to this point hopefully it has not been the kind of real disaster that some people had feared," Woocher said. "What that doesn't account for are the individual families." "It's one thing to talk about the impact on the school. They're hanging in there. It's another to talk about the stress on individual families," he said. RAVSAK's Kramer echoed the sentiment. "For every kid who we lose from the system, it's an extreme tragedy by my measure," he said. "The family who leaves a day school, it might be a hard journey to come back."