Some days, I feel naked without a name badge. Jewish conferences come thick and fast in our calendars. It is inspiring to participate in the gathering of so many people who care so much about our Jewish communities and our Jewish future. As I represent the day school field (it says so on my name tag), I have felt like a kind of lightning rod (no Chanukah pun intended!) at these conferences for questions, comments, and ideas for Jewish day schools.
Without having kept formal score, the most frequent topic people raise with me is about day school affordability. “Can’t you figure out some way to make the schools more within reach for the average Jewish family?” At conferences attended by our most passionate and dedicated Jewish leaders, Jewish day school remains a topic many approach with ambivalence, most often due to the cost of tuition, and misperception that day schools are only for the Orthodox or the extremely wealthy.
At Prizmah, we are working hard to unpack the affordability issue and identify effective strategies for schools and communities. We recently partnered with Measuring Success to conduct in-depth interviews and surveys to learn more about the spread of creative tuition programs such as flexible tuition-setting, sibling discounts, initiatives for middle class families, et al. Specifically, we wanted to understand better the impact of these programs on day school enrollment. Reliable enrollment growth is the “gold-standard” indicator of financial sustainability.
After 16 interviews and surveys from 74 schools, we learned a lot, and we look forward to sharing the full report in the coming weeks. What stands out, though, is this: creative tuition programs are more likely to have an impact on enrollment when they are part of a cohesive community effort. Put another way, when a community comes together in a serious way to make day school affordable across the diverse population segments, such as in the MetroWest New Jersey Tuition MAX program or Montreal Federation CJA’s Generations Fund CAPS program (click the links to learn more), there may be real impact on enrollment trends across schools, at least over time. Moreover, these efforts tie affordability initiatives to systematic efforts to enhance quality at the same time.
We presented these findings recently to five Chicago-area day schools as part of a JUF-sponsored workshop on alternative tuition models. We plan to conduct additional workshops in communities such as Toronto and Bergen County, N.J. If your community would like to host such a workshop to learn more about cross-school affordability initiatives, please contact my colleague Dan Perla, Senior Director, Financial Vitality, who leads this study with community colleagues Dan Held and Chani Greenwald from the Toronto CJE.
To me, this finding is one of the messages of Chanukah. When we placed our lit Chanukiyot in the window so as to “publicize the miracle,” we put our values front and center for all to see. Cohesive community efforts to address affordability in day schools work, I suspect, because these programs put day schools right out in front of the community.
There is no doubt that day schools are places where miracles small and large take place every day. Our responsibility is to shed light on those miracles and, in so doing, to make outstanding Jewish education a reality for every Jewish child. Prizmah will continue unpacking and sharing the findings of the recent research with the intention of seeding more cohesive community efforts to tackle affordability. We do this, as expected, through deep and lasting partnerships across schools and communities.