Current Day School Enrollment: The Glass is Half Full

Yesterday Avi Chai Foundation hosted a discussion on day school enrollment – the data, trends and implications. Drawing on information collected by several organizations, including AVI CHAI, PEJE, RAVSAK, SSDSA and PARDeS, a group of educators, journalists, funders, and communal leaders met, in person and virtually, for deeper reflection.

For background: earlier this year, AVI CHAI published a census of Jewish day schools for the 2008-2009 school that was conducted by Dr. Marvin Schick. Dr. Schick found a total of over 228,000 students in day schools. This represented an enrollment growth of 23,000 students compared with five years ago, and 43,000 from a decade ago. The majority of these students are in Chassidic and yeshiva world schools, which account for the majority of the growth in the last decade. However, as compared with 10 years ago, other Orthodox schools and the Community day schools have also grown. Non-Orthodox day school enrollment is up 5% from a decade ago, even after a decline of 2.5% over the past five years.

The question raised frequently in the press and around day school tables across the country has been how the current economic crisis is affecting day school enrollments. There were widespread predictions of significant enrollment decline, including in the Modern Orthodox sector.

The five organizations above have now collected data about the change in day school enrollment from 2008-2009 to 2009-2010. The Chassidic and yeshiva world sectors were not surveyed, based on the assumption the economic crisis would not have an impact on their enrollment. The increase in Centrist Orthodox schools supports this assumption.

Across the board, enrollment has dropped from 2008-2009 to 2009-2010. Many schools experienced a modest drop and some schools saw a modest increase. A few schools experienced significant drops. For schools with enrollment over 250, the decrease from the last was an average 3% – lower than many feared. RAVSAK, PARDeS, and SSDSA all had schools that actually increased enrollment. There have been a significant number of Modern and Centrist Orthodox schools with increased enrollment as well.

When looked as a whole, total enrollment in RAVSAK schools decreased, though the drop was greatest in the schools with enrollment under 100, where enrollment dropped over 7%. Larger RAVSAK schools (over 200) had an enrollment drop of 3.6%. Smaller SSDSA schools also experienced the highest rate of decrease (7.1% in schools with fewer than 150 students). The vulnerability of small schools has been well-documented, even in the best of economic environments.

Regional differences played a part with schools in the Midwest generally faring better – in fact Chicago area schools, of all denominations, reported a 4% increase!

The South, especially South Florida, appears to have suffered greater than average decreases across the non-Orthodox schools: 7% for RAVSAK, including two large schools who combined lost 300 students; 5.5% decrease for four PARDeS schools.

An additional factor in enrollment numbers appears to be availability of increased financial aid. SSDSA schools report a 14.9% increase in the amount of tuition assistance. Five of the 16 PARDeS schools benefited from Jim Joseph Foundation emergency aid. With the exception of Cleveland, each community in PEJE’s data reported increases in the amount of financial aid awarded. Boston’s 2% drop in enrollment benefited from a 24% increase in financial aid awards. Phoenix’s drop of 3.2% was accompanied by a 15% increase in awards amounts.

The complete Avi Chai Census of JDS in the US – 2008-09 is available for download.

Here’s more in an editorial from The Jewish Week:

Day Schools Weathering The Storm

Day schools are critical to Jewish continuity, with a proven track record of producing the leadership and backbone of the community. One way these schools can help persuade the overall Jewish community to take greater responsibility for providing such education is to showcase their teachers and students. Providing adult education classes on a wide scale would underscore the talent and resources within the schools and the benefits of a Jewishly literate society.

It is a relief to know that the enrollment drop has not been as great as feared, for now. But there is every reason to seize this opportunity to drive home the message that communities recognize their responsibility going forward.