Carolyn and Don recently found out that they won a highly competitive lottery. They’re excited, of course, but the news has also precipitated some serious questioning on their part about their religious and educational goals — for themselves and their three young children.
And at a time of sky-high day school tuitions, the questioning likely resonates with many families here as they weigh the risks and rewards of their educational choices.
You see the lottery Carolyn and Don won was for admission to next fall’s first-grade class, for the couple’s oldest child, at the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, opening this fall. The youngster is currently a pre-schooler at a popular and much-admired Jewish day school close to where the family lives, in the New York area.
The parents are very happy with the local day school their son attends. “He’s speaking Hebrew at home,” says his mom. “He’s becoming a mensch — the program works.”
The only problem is that she estimates tuition next year for first grade, along with building fund and other expenses, to be more than $20,000. And with two younger siblings soon to follow, that could mean more than $65,000 a year in tuition for the young family. Of course the charter school, which offers an hour of Hebrew language study a day and some exploration of the culture and history of Israel, is free, and offers admission as well for siblings of those accepted.
Carolyn and Don are not the parents’ real names — they requested anonymity in return for speaking openly on a delicate subject. But the issue they are struggling with at the moment is very real. Namely, just how much is a day school education worth, and how do you measure it?
A great deal has been written about the day school tuition crisis, often on a communal policy level. But the conversation I had with Carolyn provided me with an insight into how one family is calculating the nexus between education and lifestyle, which includes finances, peer acceptance and religious continuity.
“We discuss it endlessly but we haven’t gotten there yet,” Carolyn told me.
She said Don has a good job and makes about $200,000 a year, so they may not qualify for a tuition break. Their parents are not in a position to help out financially.
The couple is reviewing several options, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses, they say. For example, there is a new blended-learning day school opening in a neighboring community this fall, a long-term possibility for the family, and they’ve applied there. Tuition will be under $10,000, which is appealing. And as a teacher herself, Carolyn sees the trend among day schools moving toward more such schools, which she says offer a more dynamic classroom. But “it’s still untested,” she worries, reluctant to have her children become educational “guinea pigs.”
The Harlem charter school would give the couple’s children an opportunity to interact with classmates beyond their own Orthodox community, and Carolyn says she and Don have talked about providing additional Jewish content by sending the kids to an afternoon Hebrew school or hiring a rabbi to tutor them at home several times a week.
The financial savings would be substantial, but the couple is concerned about segmenting their children’s educational and social lives — one part secular, one part Jewish — and would prefer the more natural environment a day school offers. Plus, after a full day of classes in the charter school, they fear the children may resent more time spent studying Torah and the biblical commentaries.
If the children went to the charter school, “they wouldn’t have the real skill sets that a day school provides” or the immersion experience of being in a strong Jewish environment every day, says Carolyn, adding: “My biggest concern is Jewish identity. We want a Shabbat community where the kids can interact and play with friends they go to school with.”
One compromise the couple has considered is sending their children to the charter school for a few years — it will offer kindergarten through fifth grade classes — saving well over $300,000 during that time, and then transitioning them into day school for sixth grade.
But Carolyn notes that she and her husband are ba’al teshuvas (newly Orthodox), so they are particularly interested in finding a school that can give their children the foundational Jewish education they themselves didn’t have growing up.
“A child’s moral compass and lifestyle” may be set by fifth grade, she says, making the transition to day school all the more difficult.
Such concerns lead the couple full circle, back to the local day school where their older son attends kindergarten now. But they worry that spending such a large percentage of their income on day school education would make a deep impact on their finances, and possibly beyond.
“What do we have to sacrifice?” Carolyn asks. “What else is lost? Will it create tension in the home? A lack of shalom bayit [family harmony]?”
They worry about whether the tuition burden of day school will force them to modify their housing plans, cut back on vacations, and impact on their future retirement.
Carolyn and Don have discussed their dilemma with a few close friends but say that there is still a stigma in their community to consider the charter school alternative.
“We still straddle both worlds,” Carolyn says of herself and Don, each of whom have chosen an Orthodox lifestyle but value their strong secular education and want the same for their children.
“We don’t want to settle” for less on either front, Carolyn says.
So far, she acknowledges, she and Don have come to one conclusion: “There’s going to have to be a huge compromise somewhere.”
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