Smallness is embedded in the Jewish day school world, the inevitable consequence of geographic and denominational diversity. For each of the four censuses, approximately 40% of day schools have less than 100 students. Smallness is self-perpetuating because a small school has a limited curriculum and limited facilities, and this feeds the perception in homes of marginal religiosity that it is preferable to send their children to public school that are tuition-free and have a substantially wider range of educational offerings and extracurricular activities.
– Marvin Schick, A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States – 2013-14 (The Avi Chai Foundation, 2014)
There were very few surprises (in my opinion) to what came out this week in the census of Jewish day schools. That doesn’t render the situation any less sober, however. The data from the census matches with our (Schechter’s) data with regard to small schools. We can spend hours and hours debating the merits of varying affiliations for small, non-Orthodox Jewish day schools. (In fact, we have!) But in some ways the truth is both more simple and more challenging: Large schools in large Jewish communities are doing well. Small schools in small Jewish communities are struggling.
That’s the story.
I know this firsthand having been a head of two small (let’s redefine “small” here to being less than 150 students, in which case, the percentage climbs well over 50%) Jewish day schools. I know the challenges, the frustrations, and – sometimes – the successes. In small schools, you sometimes feel like Sisyphus, but now with two conjoined boulders of “enrollment” and “fundraising” that you keep trying push up that hill – with a razor-thin margin of error that larger schools just can’t understand.
I remember my first or second summer in Jacksonville when, due to the economy, we had three families move out of town. Three families. Not a big deal right? Well, those three families paid full tuition on their 11 children. Do you know how big a hit to enrollment and budget 11 full-pay students is in a school of 130? To live and die on each child, on each donation, on each Federation campaign, on each Federation allocation meeting, that’s life in a small school. To be doing well by percentage (of Jewish families from the community enrolled, of parents contributing to the annual campaign, etc.), but being on the brink by reality (it costs a lot of money to run a good school), that’s life in a small community.
I know this firsthand, now, as the head of a network with a preponderance of smaller schools. I receive the requests for support. I see the impact on the dedicated professionals and committed parents. I hear the stories of triumph and despair. I feel the joy of intimate Kabbalat Shabbat and the power of community small schools provide. I meet the families whose lives have forever changed through their participation in the Jewish life of small schools. I meet the families whose lives have forever changed by the closure of their small school.
The economics of the ecosystem in the Jewish day school world at present create a situation where the resources available to help schools are too cost prohibitive to make available to the exact schools who need them the most. And so schools who are doing well are provided with a path towards doing even better…and schools who are struggling are kept on a path towards a destination unknown.
It isn’t for lack of effort, by the way. In the same way that it just costs a lot of money to run a “good” school…it costs a lot of money to provide schools with “good” resources. I see this every day. We do not lack the knowhow (or more accurately, we do possess some knowhow) or the desire. We do lack the means. The foundations can only fund so much, the networks can only fund so much, the program providers can only charge so little, and the schools only have what they have to contribute.
It can feel at times like we are chasing our tails while our schools sit by and struggle to make do with less and less.
We can do better.
We have to do better because the future of our schools and with them, our people, depends on it.
What will it take?
A vision based by research and funding unlike that which we have ever produced would be a good beginning.
We don’t lack for vision. Or visions. And there has been some (a little) research. But in many ways we continue to operate on faith. Here is how I expressed it as the head of small school back in 2011:
With increased competition from Hebrew charter schools, independent schools, and suburban public schools AND a perilous economy – we have to brand Jewish day schools as being the kind of school most likely to provide a high-quality learning experience – that we are the future of SECULAR education because we are JEWISH.
Totally flips the script on prospective parents. “Too Jewish?” No such thing. Parents looking for excellence in secular education should be more concerned with “Jewish enough?”
To be financially sustainable really only requires two consistent streams of revenue: tuition and fundraising. You can only increase tuition revenue by adding students. You can only add students if you have a great product. And I absolutely believe this to be the case. But as a philosophical concept, it doesn’t really help. Because all I’ve done is suggest that if you want your school to be really successful it should be a really good school.
You don’t need me to point that out.
No you don’t.
If you don’t believe there is an answer it is hard to keep going. Fear comes often from a place where you feel you have no control. If I can just do the right thing, the right result will follow. If I just make my school good enough, people will come and donors will give.
How do you know?
What if they don’t?
What if we have great schools and people still don’t want to come? What if the permanent costs for sustaining excellent small Jewish day schools cannot be supported by the communities who need them most?
This is an issue beyond network and beyond politics. This will require all the collective wisdom and capital that can be mustered. This is why Schechter is working so hard to specifically meet the needs of small schools. This is why I am so pleased to see this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference theme of “Systems Intelligence” and why I am thrilled that the NAJDSC will have sessions that explicitly focus on meeting the needs of small schools. This is why I am so pleased to work with such great colleagues at other networks, foundations, agencies and organizations who are equally committed to getting it right. This is why I have optimism despite the data.
We are committed to working together with our colleagues at other networks and with funders to address the needs of our small schools. In order to be a system not of “have’s” and “have-not’s”, but of “have’s” and “soon-to-have’s”, we are going to need all the intelligence that’s available.
Let’s get to work.