COVID’s Silver Lining for One Jewish Day School

Pre-COVID photo

By Lisa Feingold, Susan J. Levine, and Rachel Zivic

When COVID-19 fully reared its ugly head in March, we wondered if our small Jewish day school, Kellman Brown Academy, would even survive.  With a student body of 116 children from fewer than 80 families, many of whom receive some form of tuition assistance, we were worried to say the least. But this pandemic has proven to be a blessing for our school in many ways. This year, we enrolled 57 new students, the single largest enrollment increase in the school’s 60-plus years! 

How did this happen? And what are we doing to ensure that this “blip” is not a “one and done year” for new students?  

To put our situation into perspective, it is helpful to understand that Kellman Brown Academy, like many other Jewish day schools, is situated in a relatively affluent suburb that boasts strong public schools, supported by high property taxes. Until now, no matter how outstanding the quality of the education we deliver, it has been extremely difficult to compete with the “free” education offered by our local public school system. Even though there is widespread acknowledgement across our South Jersey community that our academic curriculum is excellent, our physical facility is top notch, the special programs that make the school unique are unparalleled, and our educators are superstars, we have long faced an uphill enrollment battle. Over the last decade our enrollment has been on a downward slide, from a high of just over 200 students to our pre-COVID level of 116.   

Looking back, we believe there are a number of COVID-related factors that have propelled new families to our school, some of which we controlled and others not. They include:

  • Successful pivot to a high quality remote learning experience in the spring. When we closed school on Friday, March 13, we knew that we had to transition quickly. Over the course of a weekend and a “snow day,” our faculty was able to put together a robust remote learning experience for students in preschool-middle school that evolved and improved over the course of the next three months. All of a sudden, our hidden gem started getting attention. Throughout the spring as public schools faltered, our school shined. 
  • Failure of the public school system to meet the COVID challenge. While some public school parents welcomed the move to fully remote learning in the spring, and more recently, to hybrid learning in the fall, many are bitterly unhappy. They want their children safely in school, five days a week. Instead, their children have been in the classroom only four days since March.
  • Commitment to in-person learning, 5 days/week with fully remote learning options for those who require them. We are all on the same page – faculty, administration, and board – that children belong in school.  Our faculty and staff show up every morning ready and willing to carry the burden of the tremendous constraints of carefully constructed health and safety protocols. The things that used to be simple are now incredibly complex; every moment of every day is choreographed through the lens of the guidelines and guidance we have received from medical professionals. And yet, they are able to balance all of this with creating an atmosphere of joyful learning in a nurturing environment.
  • Advance planning. Although we couldn’t truly know what would happen, our school leadership team and board early on began developing an array of what-if scenarios based on the information that had begun to trickle out from local, state, and federal health officials. Among the issues we began to explore early on were the impact of reduced class size to accommodate social distancing, quarantining requirements if individuals were exposed to the virus, capital improvements to our HVAC system to meet more stringent air quality concerns, the minimum number of students needed to sustain the school, how to absorb the added costs of becoming COVID-ready. 
  • Consistent and clear communications. In early July, we held a webinar sharing our plans for reopening in the fall. We spoke about social distancing, classroom configuration, staffing, scheduling, and more, and we ended the evening with an infectious disease specialist, all of which inspired confidence among returning and prospective families that our school was on the right track.

Over and over again, as our policies and protocol have evolved, we have found that consistent and clear communication has set our school apart. As it became more apparent over the summer that our local public schools were not able to demonstrate clear plans for returning to school in the fall, our phone continued to ring. It has continued to ring even as school got underway, with families asking if we still have space available.

  • Flexibility. The “can do” spirit of our faculty has allowed us to move classrooms into different spaces such as our chapels when needed.  We’ve done this twice since the start of the year. It has forced us to consider what really makes our classrooms work: is it the physical space, the curriculum, or the teacher and in what order? It has also forced us to make thoughtful choices about when to move a classroom and impose upon the teachers and when it is necessary to leave well enough alone.

While we are extremely proud of the choices we have made to this point, we are mindful that the future will still bring challenges, especially once Covid is tamed. Most likely, we won’t get another opportunity like this to grow our enrollment in such a significant way. With this in mind, we are working harder than ever on a variety of fronts in order to retain not just our new students, but all of our students, employing the following strategies.

  • Welcoming families into the mishpachah. Our efforts to retain these new families and build a sense of community began even before the first day of school.  From connecting new families with veteran “mentor” families to offering virtual meet & greet opportunities for students and parents before school began, we have strived to focus on the goal of helping the entire family acclimate smoothly to their new home at KBA.

    In addition, we are strong proponents of family events to build community.  During the fall, we offered socially distant outdoor events as well as virtual events for different target audiences such as moms, dads, and families with young children. We continue to partner with our local PJ Library chapter to attract a wide spectrum of families to our community events.
  • Building partnerships between educators, students, and their families. Every year, each student’s family receives a phone call from a teacher within the first six weeks of school to start building a strong partnership.
  • Creating a strong feedback loopWe created a survey tailored to our new families asking for their feedback on a variety of areas. We have since followed up on the concerns and issues that were brought to our attention, and will continue to do so.  
  • Delivering consistent, clear, and frequent communications of our evolving health and safety policies, with links to relevant and helpful information (CDC guidelines, quarantine requirements for travelers, etc.).
  • Offering substantive grants to new families to encourage retentionWe understand that for many of our new families, the choice to enroll in private school this year was affordable as a one-year commitment. In addition to creating a stellar educational experience, and to help make a second and third year at KBA more affordable, we were able to harness the generosity of both a local foundation and a national foundation to create a significant per student (not per family) grant aimed at retention.
  • Providing referral discounts. Our school offers families discounts off tuition for each student they refer. Word-of-mouth has always been a major source of new families for us, and we created this program to “reward” families for their help.   

Like many other outstanding Jewish day schools, we have longed for an opportunity to share what we’re all about with families who, under normal circumstances, would never have considered a Jewish day school. The COVID pandemic has given us this unique opportunity to do so, and we continue to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to leverage this opportunity to strengthen our school. This is our moment – and we are determined not to let it pass us by.

Lisa Feingold is director of admissions, Susan J. Levine is president emeritus, Board of Trustees, and Rachel Zivic is head of school at Kellman Brown Academy in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Originally published on Prizmah.org; reprinted with permission.