Day Schools Weathering the Storm

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The most surprising finding from a new census of Jewish day schools for the current academic year is that while enrollment has declined, the drop has not been nearly as steep as many educators and communal officials had predicted.

At a meeting on Tuesday here convened by the Avi Chai Foundation, representatives of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and community day schools discussed why and how most schools were able to retain students at a time of serious economic recession and what lessons can be learned going forward.

There was a sense expressed at the meeting that the schools were able to prepare for the ‘09-‘10 academic year by cutting budgets and stepping up fundraising efforts. But there is concern that long-term, the best and

perhaps only way to assure that day schools survive and flourish is by having communities share the financial burden instead of parents bearing the expense of tuitions alone. (The average day school tuition nationally is about $15,000, and can be twice that in some New York schools.)

The study, based on an Avi Chai census and data from each of the denominations and a group of community schools, found that more than 228,000 students were in day schools, an increase of 23,000 from five years ago and 43,000 from a decade ago.

Among the highlights of the findings: larger schools (250 or more students) experienced an average drop of 3 percent; smaller schools were harder hit; South Florida suffered the greatest decreases (the nation’s first Jewish charter school opened there last year); and emergency and other financial aid increased significantly.

Several educators at the meeting stressed that rather than be overly distracted by the possibility of new Jewish charter schools, day school officials should focus on providing quality education, first-rate lay and professional leadership, and collaborate with other schools on cost-saving measures wherever possible.

Day schools are critical to Jewish continuity, with a proven track record of producing the leadership and backbone of the community. One way these schools can help persuade the overall Jewish community to take greater responsibility for providing such education is to showcase their teachers and students. Providing adult education classes on a wide scale would underscore the talent and resources within the schools and the benefits of a Jewishly literate society.

It is a relief to know that the enrollment drop has not been as great as feared, for now. But there is every reason to seize this opportunity to drive home the message that communities recognize their responsibility going forward.

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