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Cutthroat Jewish Education: Long Island

Cutthroat Jewish Education: Long Island

Charges of poaching leveled at L.I. Orthodox day school.

When a seventh-grade parent at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County pulled the familys teenager out of the Conservative school last summer, the parent took more than just the teenager to their new high school, the North Shore Hebrew Academy.

The parent also had a coveted prize in hand: Schechter’s class list, complete with students’ names, addresses and phone numbers, which the parent turned over to officials at North Shore.

What the administration there did with the list — target the Schechter students and their parents with two postcards one month apart inviting them to an open house — has touched off a firestorm of controversy in the Long Island day school world and led to a debate about the ethics of what North Shore did.

Was North Shore, a Modern Orthodox day school, poaching or simply exercising its free-market rights to recruit new high school students?

“I’ve never encountered this approach before,” said Rabbi Lev Herrnson, headmaster of Schechter, which has 500 students spanning kindergarten through high school. “We have received student lists in the past, but this is not the way we comport ourselves. We purchase lists from list services to ensure that we would never consider having inappropriate approaches to families on Long Island that have allegiances with other schools.”

Fouad Pouyafar, Schechter’s board president, said he was upset that “our families were targeted not once but twice with mailers, and that they targeted to the children by name.”

“That has generated great concern among our parent community,” he said.

But Daniel Vitow, headmaster of North Shore’s 400-student high school, said he wasn’t doing anything unusual in targeting eighth graders for postcard invitations to open houses at his Great Neck school. (North Shore’s early childhood, elementary and middle school programs enroll an additional 700 students.)

“It’s standard practice across the Jewish community,” Vitow insisted. “It’s a free-market economy. North Shore kids always get invitations from other schools. … Schools do what they have to do to recruit the best kids.”

But such a practice raises all kinds of ethical questions at a time when day school enrollment has been hurt by the economic downturn.

Rabbi Martin Schloss, director of the Division of Day School Education at the Jewish Education Project (formerly BJENY-SAJES), said flatly: “We never encourage schools going after another school’s students. … We don’t condone it and I don’t know that it is widespread.

“We do everything we can to prevent these kind of things from happening,” Schloss said.

Rabbi Ellis Bloch, secretary of the JEP’s Yeshiva Elementary School and High School Principals Council, said this group of nearly 100 Orthodox day school principals has been “trying to work out accommodations where we avoid poaching and also make sure that parents have a choice between schools.”

Vitow said he sent the postcards to eighth graders only because they might want to consider another school as they prepared for their high school years.

“Parents have a right to see and experience as many schools as they want in order to make a decision based upon what is in the best interests of their child,” he said. “This is the shopping season and everybody has a right to shop. I would never be so arrogant as to think that a kid is mine just because he went to my elementary school.”

“They need to develop a thicker skin,” he added. “It’s a sign of an insecure and immature administrator. … If a school is upset that another school is sending invitations to their students, it is incumbent upon them to make sure they are doing a good job.”

Rabbi Herrnson declined to say what action his school took after his students received the postcards. He said only that the list North Shore obtained had been clearly marked that it was to be used for school-related purposes only.

“It is our policy to keep the list internal,” he said. “As a matter of policy we don’t use other schools’ lists; it is not honorable or within the context of Jewish tradition.”

Vitow said he received a copy of the class list “that did not say anything about it being confidential.”

He noted that last week he received a “lawyer’s letter” from the Schechter school saying that “any further attempts to use the confidential information of Solomon Schechter without our prior permission will not be tolerated; govern yourself accordingly.”

Vitow said that after the postcard labels were made, “we threw out the list.”

Rabbi Bloch said that although it is “fairly common” for Jewish high schools to solicit eighth graders at other Jewish schools, he is aware of it occurring only when a child is actually going to change buildings — moving from a K-8 building to a 9-12 building.

“Normally if a you are in a K-8 school, you give your mailing list to all the high schools that request it,” he said.

But in the case of the Schechter school, its elementary school in Jericho is K-6 and its building in Glen Cove is a combined middle and high school, covering grades 7-12. Vitow told The Jewish Week that he was unaware of Schechter’s unique grade structure.

“Does a K-12 system see this as poaching?” Rabbi Bloch asked rhetorically. “Perhaps. But eighth grade is a time at which parents make choices to try another school. … I understand Schechter has to grow, but parents knowing there are choices makes the system more inviting.”

“I understand where Solomon Schechter is coming from,” he added. “They may perceive that the eighth grade is not such a critical departure junction.”

Asked about the fact that the postcards had the children’s names on them, Rabbi Bloch said he would be discussing the appropriateness of that at next month’s council meeting.

“This is an issue that a few principals have brought to my attention,” he said. “Should we outlaw it? Whatever we decide will be a gentleman’s agreement.”

Because Schechter is a Conservative school, it is not part of the council.

Vitow said this was only the second year he had sent postcards to another school’s eighth grade.

“I only started doing it because everybody was doing it. If I didn’t learn from other people, I wouldn’t have done it. If it’s good enough for the goose, it’s good enough for the gander.”

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