By Paul Bernstein

Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools just completed a 2020-21 survey of enrollment in Jewish day schools and yeshivas – and a majority of respondents reported an increase in admissions and enrollment this year. Overall, schools reported an average 2% increase, particularly among non-Orthodox schools (whose average was 4%). Schools also reported that an average of 40% of new admission inquiries came from students who had not inquired before and were not known by the school.

The survey also highlighted some worrying data. A number of respondents, most notably but not exclusively among Orthodox schools, experienced a decline in enrollment. 74% of Orthodox schools also reported an increase in tuition assistance requests from new students, indicating challenges of affordability, no doubt exacerbated by economic uncertainty. Meanwhile, 47% of non-Orthodox schools report increases in requests for tuition assistance.

Patterns of enrollment vary regionally and even within relatively close geographies – as has been widely reported. Manhattan schools, for example, have struggled with enrollment challenges due to COVID, while certain schools in surrounding suburbs have experienced growth.

This leaves me with a number of questions, but one overall: is the enrollment growth we observed a COVID blip, or can/should we see this moment as a launch point for sustained growth in Jewish day schools? And how do we support those schools and families who are struggling?

It is no secret that in general, day school enrollment outside the Orthodox world has been declining. The most recent AVI CHAI 2018-19 census of Jewish day schools reported a 9% drop in enrollment in non-Orthodox schools in the United States over the previous five years, a fact sadly consistent with longer term trends.

What explains the positive indicators we found? Well before the pandemic took hold, day schools were doing a much better job of demonstrating their value proposition. More and more people throughout the Jewish community (and beyond) recognize that day schools are a hub of educational innovation, in areas like STEAM, differentiated instruction, and whole child learning, to name just a few. Across North America, the central role day schools play in a thriving Jewish community has been documented, time and again. We see this most starkly in smaller Jewish communities, where a day school can be an “anchor” institution, essential to the continued existence of the community itself.

COVID has amplified the strengths of Jewish day schools – academically and communally – and has spotlighted the power of a (Jewish) values-driven education, and the focus on social and emotional health. Day school faculty and staff continually go “above and beyond” to maintain the best possible experience for students and families.

It is not just that so many of our schools are open when public schools and many other independent schools nearby operate on a hybrid or remote model. I believe that what we are seeing in this year’s enrollment spike is a result of the enormous communal investment in day schools and in our teachers in recent years. The value of our schools is coming through at this time, and it is incumbent on all of us who care about day schools to do all we can to ensure that this is in fact not a blip, but rather a moment to catapult our schools forward.

What can we do to leverage this moment and ensure that the trajectory for schools follows this year’s new direction, including addressing the deep financial challenges we all experience?

For starters, we need to double down on student retention. Prizmah’s Retention Institute December 14-16 will focus the efforts of school professionals on all they can do to keep families invested. Growing enrollment starts with families already in the door.

Second, we need to keep telling the amazing story of a Jewish day school education. Everyone at a school can be an ambassador, and social media makes this easier than ever. On any given day there are so many great stories that happen in every classroom. At a time when even the most upbeat spirits need lifting, video clips of engaged and happy children or examples of achievement and learning can be truly inspirational.

Third, we must keep focus on the tremendous financial costs involved in day schools. Affordability remains a critical challenge. We must promulgate creative tuition models and best practices in fundraising for the near- and long-term so that our schools can operate in a fiscally responsible way while fulfilling their moral obligations to all families seeking serious Jewish education. Ultimately, we are feeding the “virtuous cycle” where excellent schools generate increased enrollment, in turn attracting greater resources, which allows us to invest in affordability and even more excellence.

More than anything, we need to convey the inherent value of a Jewish day school education for our collective Jewish future. The increase in enrollment that we are witnessing tells us something important about how much schools matter. We are seeing first-hand just how much families, teachers, communal leaders, and funders are willing to sacrifice so that these schools continue fulfilling their mission.

We hear so much lately about “essential” businesses or employees. Just as political and public opinion has reached a degree of unanimity about the priority for keeping schools open as much as possible, we in the Jewish world recognize just how “frontline” our day schools and teachers are for our current lives – and for the sustainability of our community for years to come.

Paul Bernstein is CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

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