How we talk about our day schools
The upward trend in enrollment is a precious opportunity for all who care about day schools to both celebrate and to focus on building a strong Jewish future
Prizmah’s recently released Enrollment Pulse Survey Report underscores the impact of enrollment growth in the North American Jewish day school field. With 146 schools responding (more than half of the schools in the field), the data supports the same trend: For the first time since 2008, there is a measured net enrollment increase in North American Jewish day schools. In both of the last two enrollment cycles, we have seen growth.
As reported in this data, as well as in the study Prizmah released earlier this month, “Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which studied the mindsets of newly-enrolled Jewish day school families, new students are planning to stay even after the pandemic benefits of being in-person are no longer relevant. Increases were seen across denominational and geographic lines, with a net gain of 3.7% from September 2019 to September 2021. The data is clear, and as someone who has scrutinized the findings these past few weeks, and who has spent my career in the world of Jewish day school admission, I see six key takeaways for Jewish day schools, their supporters, and communities to consider. To build on the momentum of #Jewishdayschoolstrending, we need to recognize, communicate and actualize the value of Jewish day schools intentionally.
- Day schools are the beating hearts of their communities. Strong Jewish day schools are anchor institutions, attracting talented leadership and creating a hub of vibrant Jewish life that extends deep into the broader community. Community engagement and investment create strong schools, which in turn build more vibrant communities, both locally and globally.
- Explorations into tuition affordability models can no longer be seen as an experiment to consider, but rather should be a standard of operations in order to continue to grow the field. We must pursue long-term goals to make the cost of attending day school within reach for more families. The new “alternative” tuition models that have proven effective in recent years should become the norm. Affordability plans can and should make the value of day schools a critical factor.
- Jewish day schools provide an excellent educational experience; they will need to continue to invest in rewarding innovation and showcasing creative and thoughtful approaches to learning at all levels. Families who transferred to day schools during the pandemic were pleased by the academic excellence they found. One family said, “Academically, it has been an improvement: more rigorous, more challenging, more individualized attention.” Another noted: “The facilities are wonderful—computers, STEM room. All the add-ons—I wasn’t expecting all of that.” These realities should be showcased in order to support the high perceived value of a Jewish day school education.
- The vibrancy of Jewish day schools comes from their holistic approach to educating and nurturing students, and building powerful communities and relationships with families, faculty and staff. Far from institutions for only the elite, day schools and yeshivas care about all aspects of a learner on their pathway to success. New Jewish day school families were thrilled to find that their new schools were not only educationally sophisticated, but they supported a deep sense of community and welcomed a range and inclusiveness in Jewish learning.
- Intentional engagement activities for families with young children who are involved in other vibrant Jewish experiences help more to see and appreciate what a day school can offer. The impact of programs like PJ Library cannot be underestimated. According to the Enrollment Pulse Survey, the number of schools partnering with other community organizations grew from 38% to 53% in the last year, no doubt contributing to sustained enrollment growth. PJ Library, synagogues and federations are the top reported organizations with which schools can engage to continue the growing recruitment trend.
- Day schools have a growing opportunity to be a hub for the entire Jewish community. For some families, day school is their primary organizational or religious affiliation. Leveraging the opportunity to deepen connections throughout the community will serve day schools, and their families, well. When day schools play this kind of active role in the life of the community, they fulfill their potential as true centerpiece organizations.
The upward trend in enrollment is a precious opportunity for all who care about day schools to both celebrate and to focus on building a strong Jewish future. We will use this learning, and the clear, established value of a Jewish day school education, to help both schools that have grown their enrollment and schools that may be struggling to capitalize on the rising tides to seize the moment. We understand the complicated dynamics of community competition and relocation trends due to current events, as well as the need to share even more widely the impact of a Jewish day school education, and we are fortunate to be able to anticipate the needs of the field through consistent research and tracking in order to help all schools and communities thrive.
As we change the way we talk about our schools and deepen our connections by investing in building relationships with all who hold influence in our community, there is a clear promise of sustained growth and opportunity in the North American Jewish day school field.
Amy Adler is senior director of catalyzing resources at Prizmah.