By Shawn Evenhaim
The future of the Jewish people depends in part on the future of Jewish education. It is more important than ever to instill our children with pride in their heritage and the knowledge to support it. A study from Brandeis University and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, “The Impact of Day School,” found that students who attend Jewish day school are twice as likely to say that being Jewish is important compared to other Jewish students.
Yet, Jewish Day Schools across the country are seeing significant declines in enrollment. According to Builders of Jewish Education, Los Angeles has experienced a 14 percent decrease in enrollment among community day schools in the last five years, mirroring a 9 percent decrease nationwide.
We need to revolutionize the way our Jewish Day schools operate. Now is the time to make the changes necessary to ensure that these schools are accessible to all Jewish Americans, from coast to coast. Right now, in Los Angeles, there are fewer than 10,000 children enrolled in Jewish day school education, out of more than half a million Jewish residents and 150,000 Israeli-Americans.
Jewish families are willing to pay for private school education, but the value proposition must be clear and powerful for them to choose this option over free, public schools. Why is it that many Christian schools have significant enrollment of Jewish students? It is often because many provide excellent educations at a fraction of the cost of most Jewish schools. To compete in today’s market, we must bring down the cost of Jewish day school education.
Part of the problem is that Jewish Day Schools have significant fixed costs, given that their curriculum includes general studies, Judaic studies and Hebrew language. In recent years, this has been compounded by declining enrollment, which drives up your costs per student.
Until now, Jewish Day Schools have typically set tuition higher than the cost of each student’s education and provided financial aid to those who couldn’t afford that price. Several years ago, at Kadima Day School, where I serve on the Board of Trustees, we sought to tackle the challenge of affordability. My wife and I provided a tuition assistance grant to lower tuition to between $10,000 and $12,500 for families with annual incomes of up to $250,000.
Enrollment numbers increased, but still we saw challenges in recruiting.
Why? Many parents making six-figure incomes do not see themselves as “financial-aid families.” At the same time, for these families, the cost of putting multiple children through Jewish Day school with annual tuition skyrocketing to well beyond $30,000 a year was untenable.
Kadima Day School is now implementing a bold new model to address this issue in a way that will lead to increased enrollment and create a more sustainable financial model – a model that we believe can be replicated in day schools across the country.
Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, Kadima will reduce tuition up to 11 percent for preschool families, to $11,600, and by an average of 43 percent for elementary and middle school families, to between $13,900 and $14,900. This major reduction will make Jewish Education accessible to many in our community and will eliminate the complicated, time-consuming and sometimes uncomfortable process of applying for financial aid.
This change will foster a sense of equality and pride for all families who attend the school. There will no longer be a separate group of families that face an onerous financial aid process. Those who can afford to contribute to the school beyond tuition will do so in the form of philanthropy. And we will continue our efforts to assist those who cannot afford the reduced tuition by helping to identify outside scholarships and support.
Since announcing the model, Kadima has already seen a 200 percent increase in enrollment year over year. We’ve also found most of those whose tuition will go up plan to stay at the school.
As we bring down tuition, we will increase enrollment, and lower our cost-per-pupil. At the same time, Kadima is implementing a range of changes to make our educational model more strategic and cost-effective. We will adopt integrated and differentiated learning, and improve our hiring and training practices to deliver Jewish education in an entirely new way. The net result of all these changes will be much greater financial sustainability for Kadima over the long-term.
The bottom line is simple: to make Jewish education an attractive option for more families, it must be both excellent and affordable – one cannot be sacrificed for the other. This new model makes that a reality for a much larger segment of the community – and is a better way to get the most families into Jewish education.
For too long, we have been talking about the crisis facing Jewish education. We need to face difficult truths and embrace the need for radical change. The time for action is now.
Shawn Evenhaim is a Jewish philanthropist, real estate developer, and a past president and member of the Kadima Day School Board of Trustees.