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Day Schools Try New Ideas

Day Schools Try New Ideas

At New Jersey conference — the first collaboration by all the movements — educators seek ways to lower costs, engage families.

Teaneck, N.J. — A little-known foundation based in the Philadelphia suburbs is piloting an adult Jewish education program for parents of local day school students, one that aims to increase parental buy-in for the day school system while also easing some of the tuition burden.
The Kohelet Fellowship is providing a tuition credit of $1,000 for individual parents and $1,500 for couples at four Jewish day schools in the Delaware Valley in return for participation in 16 weekly phone sessions with a Partners-in-Torah mentor over the course of the school year.
The program doubles as “an opportunity for the school to fundraise,” said Holly Cohen, associate director of The Kohelet Foundation. “For the parents of means who don’t need the incentive, schools can ask parents to donate the money back to your school.”
The tuition incentive program was but one of the more innovative ideas unveiled at the first-ever North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference held in Teaneck, N.J., this week. The three-day conference brought together nearly 600 educators and lay leaders at community, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish day schools. It was the first joint conference organized by the major day school networks from each of the denominations: the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools.
The theme of the conference was “Thriving in a New Reality,” and many of the workshops and plenary sessions focused on the affordability crisis, fundraising in difficult economic times and improving teacher retention. New media and technology are playing a more significant role in day schools, with several sessions devoted to Web 2.0 tools that enhance the teaching of Bible and Gemara, as well as teaching using games-based learning and 3-D virtual worlds.
Though many predicted that the economic crisis would result in a “day school exodus,” total enrollment for Jewish day schools, outside of the fervently Orthodox community, has dropped only 3 percent so far. Still, Hebrew-language charter schools pose a threat to nearby day schools, and financial aid requests are on the rise. The decision to host a joint conference was made primarily due to the “economic reality” and the worry that “if we each hosted our own conference, we might all suffer,” said Elaine Cohen, associate director of education at the Solomon Schechter Day School Association.
The heads of the four partner organizations were adamant that cutting costs in a way that would reduce the quality of day schools is not an option. “It’s a path no one wants to go down,” said Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute for University-School Partnership. “Excellence is expensive,” said Cohen. “And we can’t afford to be anything less than excellent.”
In addressing the day school affordability issues, PARDeS’ executive director, Jane West Walsh, admitted that day school membership organizations “need to find more resources for scholarship funds” and “do a better job making the case for why day schools matter.”
“The money is there — we just need to go find it,” she said.
Despite several sessions on board development and the importance of governance and transparency, the heads of the day school conference refused to reveal the budget for the conference, claiming that expenses and income generated from the event “are not yet finalized.”
In a keynote address on Tuesday, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, praised the collaboration among the day school networks, while also laying out the top three areas that need to be improved upon: inspiring heads of day schools, enhancing board leadership and achieving financial sustainability. “If we maintain our focus on these strategic priorities … 40 years from now, 2010 will be viewed as the moment for Jewish day schools,” he said.
At the conference, the Institute for University-School Partnership revealed recommendations for increasing day school affordability, based on research culled from a survey of 70 Jewish day schools representing a variety of denominations and regions. “One major reason day Jewish day school expenses have outpaced inflation is because … schools have increased the number of specialists,” a pamphlet outlining the findings reports.
Harry Bloom, director of planning and performance improvement at the Institute, told the crowd about one day school that identified a million-dollar savings potential by increasing its student-to-faculty ratio from 7.2-to-1 to 9-to-1. Another suggestion was to increase economies of scale by teaming up with neighboring schools to purchase goods and services, such as insurance and books.
The Institute’s findings also revealed that only 25 percent of day school board chairs strongly agreed that they had developed a financial plan for the next three to five years. “We’re in an affordability crisis; not having long-range financial plans doesn’t make any sense,” lamented Bloom.
In an effort to improve affordability by increasing school capacity (in addition to its program encouraging parents to engage in adult learning), the Kohelet Foundation has launched The Tuition Incentive Program for Subsidizing Yiddishkeit (TIPSY) initiative. The foundation has worked with several lower schools in the greater Philadelphia area to determine cost per child, assuming the school operates at full capacity. The school then agrees to lower tuition to cover costs while targeting new students, and The Kohelet Foundation promises to provide funding to make up any losses incurred should the class not reach full capacity.
At Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J., for example, TIPSY has helped lower kindergarten tuition by approximately $4,000 per student and first-grade tuition by $3,500, said Sandy Brown, former board president. “By the time the child gets to second grade, they’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid and the parents figure out [how to pay tuition].”
David Magerman, president and founder of The Kohelet Foundation, which was one of the sponsors of the conference, says this is just an experiment, one that works best in schools that are half full. The idea wouldn’t translate well among many day schools in the greater New York area that are already at or above capacity, he said. “We need more creative models for making Jewish day school education affordable.” n

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