What Would Make Day Schools More Attractive to Non-Orthodox Parents?

Among the many decisions involved in raising children, how to educate them is one of the crucial ones. It will influence their growth – intellectually as well as socially and morally. It will also orient them toward a certain set of values, identity, skills, and sense of community.

For Jewish parents, there is an additional layer of consideration in educational decisions: how to ensure your children grow up with a Jewish sense of values, identity, skills, and sense of community.

Jewish day schools of all types – Orthodox as well as Reform, Conservative, and community day schools – provide one answer to this conundrum of how to raise kids Jewishly. Non-Orthodox parents have a wide array of choices and factors in choosing schools for their children. They consider geography, finances, culture, math and science excellence, arts options, plus Hebrew School on top of a public school education.

Given this complicated array of factors and choices, the AVI CHAI and Steinhardt foundations are wondering how to make day school an option that rises farther to the top for more non-Orthodox families.

What would convince more non-Orthodox parents to decide in favor of day school? Is it an issue of a need to boost the schools’ image to align it with what the parents are already searching for to instill their children with Jewish identity? Is it a problem of marketing and reaching the target audience most likely to sign up? What ways are there to take advantage of existing trends, social networks, or current day school constituencies in recruitment efforts? Are there incentives that would be meaningful?

This blog post kicks off an exciting thought experiment. We are asking you, our readers, and people across the social web, to answer the question: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents? More specifically, without changing the core educational program, what characteristics, features, selling points, functions, additional program offerings, or other ideas do you have that could make day school an attractive independent school choice for non-Orthodox parents?

Do you have ideas that could influence parents’ decisions on these questions – from your own experiences as a parent making them, as a child who was influenced by them, or as someone simply interested in issues of Jewish education? What strategies do you think will work? Please respond here on this blog, on your own blog, or in the AVI CHAI blog or facebook group [link to group].

We’re excited to hear from you!

Cross-posted to The Avi Chai Foundation Blog.

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  1. Valerie says

    We got very lucky as our daughter was accepted to the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. It may not be an option for all non-Orthodox Jews but for those who are like my family — unaffiliated, secular Jews — this school was everything we wished for. Our child comes home with great pride for the State of Israel and her Hebrew is beyond amazing. The Jewish values/religion component is easily complemented by Jewish after-school/Sunday school. We are so grateful to everyone behind HLA!

  2. debra levenstein says

    My children are now 24 and 27 living on the east coast; but we weren’t always on the east coast and they weren’t always so independent.

    As a graduate with a MA in Jewish Education from JTS it was always my plan to rock the world of supplemental Jewish education. I soon learned that the best holistic Jewish education was a day school education and that is where I placed my children. By this time we were in the mid-west, St. Paul. The community Jewish education programs were interconnected, housed under a single roof, The Talmud Torah of St. Paul. The day school provided a wonderful base and integration of secular and Jewish education. As a parent interested in such matters for her children it was a perfect setting.

    It was expensive. And while my husband worked in the setting the education was affordable but after he left, well it was unmanageable and I had to request financial assistance. I did so for my children but was greatly dispirited for having to do so.

    The two elements that I believe attract parents to send their children to a Jewish day school are 1) strong integrated curriculum (proven by the ongoing success of the graduates with regard to college choices) and 2) affordability. We know that fundamentally living a Jewish life is expensive (starting with maintaining a kosher home) and then there are the education costs. Make it easier for families who might otherwise choose a strong educational experience but for the expense- make it affordable. Then keeping a kosher home becomes manageable and the foundation is laid.

  3. says

    Speaking as an urban pulpit rabbi (90’s on the Upper West Side and the last decade in Center City Philadelphia) some thoughts: Given the expense of Jewish Day Schools only the most committed suburban Jews will choose Jewish Day School over the good public schools in the affluent suburbs where most of them live. I don’t see anything that will change that. Urban Jews pose a different problem. If their children get into one of the top magnets (Masterman in Philly for example) then they resemble their suburban counterparts in the sense that cost of day school is prohibitive.
    However I believe there is an additional problem for urban Jewish families—and I speak now of affiliated families whose children, in addition to all their extracurricular activities, send their children to supplemental Jewish synagogue schools anywhere from 2 to 6 hours/week. For many of these committed Jews, Jewish days schools are too Jewish (and it is utterly and outrageously counter productive to argue that they can’t really be committed Jews if Jewish Day Schools are too Jewish). That is, the day schools are too Jewish in the sense of too traditional and/or, just as important, these parents are committed to diversity. The latter factor may be a major reason why they did not move to the suburbs. They believe in urban living as a quasi-ideological commitment and that commitment includes a commitment to diversity. Many of my youngsters who pay for private school will pay tuition to a Quaker School, an Episcopal School or a secular school in the name of diversity before they would pay for a Jewish Day School. That is how important diversity is to these parents.
    This is where the Hebrew Charter School movement may really play a role. As public schools, they cannot be religious. Also, the best of Hebrew Charter Schools make a conscious effort to attract non-Jews. This may make them attractive to urban Jews who would not consider a day school for both diversity reasons and financial reasons. There is real potential there, because even a secular Hebrew Charter school will strengthen Jewish identities among their Jewish students, even if they still require a supplemental synagogue school to round out their Jewish identities. However, the supplemental school experience will be much less taxing since students will not have to “cram” Hebrew into the limited hours.
    An additional approach, which to my knowledge as not been tried, but when I’ve mentioned it informally, many have found exciting is a multi-religious private school. The school might be Jewish-Protestant (perhaps Episcopal)-Muslim or Hindu. Students would take generic secular subjects together and separate out for religious studies, with perhaps a “religion appreciation course” somewhere in the curriculum where students learn about their sister religions.
    Of the two problems–the too Jewish problem (again the latter being a problem for committed Jews, strange though it may sound) and the financial the problem—the former is insoluble via the day school. Even for those for whom tradition is a plus, the barrier of cost is unlikely to be susceptible to solution in a day school setting despite the perennial on-again-off-again discussions of lowering the cost of Jewish Day School. Both of these problems are solved through the Hebrew Charter School.

  4. says

    The monetary expense is an important consideration but it is not the only one. Here are two others:
    (1) The school has to reflect the family’s values — that is, not communicate the message that authentic Judaism means orthodoxy.
    (2) The quality of the secular education is of critical importance. Many parents will choose a quality secular school over a Jewish school whose secular curriculum is not as good.