How Is This Article Different From All Other Articles?

[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of 21st Century Sustainability.]

by Rachel K. Slaton

For those particularly interested in the future of Jewish day school education (our assumption is that you fall into this category), you’re probably saying, “Hundreds of articles have been written on day school affordability/sustainability just in the past few years and they all, on balance, are saying the same thing. When is someone going to give us something new, something adaptable, not just a “band-aid” or an example of how the 2nd largest Jewish community is already leveraging millions in foundation and individual donor dollars in support of day school education?”

Believe me. I hear you and you aren’t going to like my answer.

There is no silver-bullet. In all likelihood, there will never be one solution that will work for every community and here in the City of Angels, we don’t pretend to have all the answers (despite what you may think!) We do know that a sustainable school MUST be an affordable school, and an affordable school MUST have sustainability in mind.

Our goal here is to share some general ideas that, if implemented with the real support of a community behind them, can begin addressing the issue of day school sustainability no matter the budget-size of the individual school or the number of day schools in a community or even the presence (or lack) of a central agency.

Here are three key components of the Los Angeles Affordability Model that may provide a framework for progress in your community:

1) Jargon Helps Few and Confuses Most (Define your Terms!)

a. Affordability – For every community the cost of living, not to mention the cost of Jewish living, is very different. It is essential to define affordability based on the reality faced within your community and identify the population for whom affordability is a real issue.

What is your reality? Is there a middle-income contingent that is being priced out of the school? What percentage of families is on financial aid and has that number changed in the past 5 years? What is the real cost of Jewish living?

Use statistics, chart tuition levels compared with enrollment, mind the budget- gap, and determine what it will cost to provide an excellent Judaic and secular curriculum. Define affordability for your community. Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, and National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) have created tuition calculators – check it out!

b. Sustainability – is not synonymous with “keeping the doors open”. We need to have honest conversations about the future of the day school(s) and how it does or doesn’t meet the needs of the community. Be prepared to listen.

Questions to ask include: How many students are enrolled in Jewish day school compared to the total number of Jewish school-aged children in your community? How many empty seats are in your Jewish day school(s)? Does your full tuition cover the cost of education? What are the parents of school-aged children looking for in a primary and secondary education? How many schools are needed in the community?

Some hard decisions may have to be made to maximize communal resources and deepen the educational experiences provided. Refer to the recent publication by PEJE and Measuring Success for an example of what parents are saying about day schools.

2) Find your Champion – On both a financial and a psychological level, you must have a group of leaders who are ready and willing to commit their money AND their voice to the cause. This can be done in a variety of ways – here’s how it manifested in LA:

a. Communal Endowment Fund – this fund serves two purposes: 1) incentivizing schools to raise endowment funds by providing a 1:4 match on all dollars raised and 2) establishing endowment as a communal priority by engaging a number of communal partners (Federation) and donors

b. Tuition/Infrastructure Grants – thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation, LA was able to provide significant tuition assistance for middle-income families at Jewish High Schools while providing scaffolding for the schools to create a development infrastructure that will enable them to sustain the level of financial aid after the grant ends (#3 will describe elements of that support).

In any community, large or small, you have to find your champions and you have to engage partners in the conversation (whether or not your community has a central agency for Jewish education). If you can’t find a champion, you should refer back to #1b and start making some tough decisions.

3) Endowment or Bust – Endowment is imperative to the viability and sustainability of any nonprofit organization, especially day schools. Endowment must become part and parcel of the overall strategic development plan and there must be an infrastructure for cultivating the types of donors that are predisposed to making an endowment or legacy (planned) gift. When you’ve identified your champion(s) here’s what to do:

a. Hire a Development Director – Without a consistent, thoughtful development plan coordinated by a competent professional, you’re going to continue to barely break even on your Gala Dinner and wonder how you’re ever going to increase financial aid to meet the ever increasing demands of your community. A professional Development Director is as vital to the school as a brilliant science teacher or becoming a 1 to 1 iPad school.

If you can’t crunch the numbers to get a development professional on board now, make sure that the Head of School is focused on development and is being supported through coaching or professional development. Surround him/her with all of the champions you’ve identified. Then, start thinking very seriously about hiring a development professional – going without one and leaving your Head of School to run this effort alone is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

b. Prepare for Battle – Changing the culture of giving in a community is hard work and will move at a glacial pace at the beginning. Arm yourself with the facts (refer back to #1A and B); leverage resources from national organizations and foundations like NAIS, PEJE, AVI CHAI Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Yeshiva University; connect with other communities that are making inroads; create concentric circles representing your core team, your lay leadership, your parent-body, and your broader community and spread the message outward.

You may also be asking “how can I get my board “on board” with raising money we can’t even touch when we struggle to make payroll every month?” I’ll refer you back to #2 and remind you that changing the culture is hard, but it’s nigh impossible if you don’t have a champion who will provide a vision, attract his/her champion-friends, and work with you and your development professional to craft a message and paint a picture of what it would be like to be out of emergency mode.

A final thought for moving forward: I implore national organizations, foundations, and communally minded donors to pay attention to those smaller communities and “one-horse towns” that, with a relatively nominal investment, could ensure the future of an entire community. Consider a model that infuses cash and scaffolding now to enable a community to become self-sufficient through endowment development.

In an effort to address this issue, in the coming year BJE will be sharing lessons learned from the various sustainability and affordability initiatives here in Los Angeles. Keep an eye out!


In the video below, Miriam Prum Hess, Director, Center for Excellence in Day School Education at the BJE, discusses the role of their central agency in assisting their local day schools with all types of affordability issues.

Rachel K. Slaton is the Associate Director of BJE’s Center for Excellence in Day School Education, overseeing the agency’s day school sustainability initiatives in support of 39 Los Angeles Jewish day schools. Previously, she served as the Coordinator of Generations LA, a day school endowment and legacy development program working with seven elementary day schools to launch strategic, sustainable endowment and planned giving campaigns. Rachel holds a B.A. in International Studies from Southwestern University (TX), a Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. in Jewish Nonprofit Management from Hebrew Union College. You can follow her on twitter @Money4DaySchool.

Miriam Prum Hess is Director, Center for Excellence in Day School Education at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education. During her 8 year tenure, she has worked with 39 Los Angeles day schools to make Jewish education more affordable and sustainable, establish operational and educational best practices, and develop joint purchasing/cost cutting initiatives. Miriam also created JkidLA/Concierge Program, enabling families to navigate and connect to the entire spectrum of formal and informal Jewish educational opportunities which are “right for them.” Miriam has a Masters and Honorary Doctorate in Jewish Communal Service from HUC and a Masters in Social Work from USC.