Middle Income Day School Affordability out on the Western Frontier

by Sandy Edwards and Miriam Prum Hess

Day school affordability for middle income families is critical to the ability of day schools to grow their enrollment and to attain financial sustainability. Day schools and communities are beginning to develop donor-funded programs and tuition strategies as Dan Perla explored in Middle Income Affordability Programs: A Promising Frontier in Day School Affordability, (eJewish Philanthropy December 16, 2011).

Another venture in this landscape is Los Angeles Day School Affordability Initiative, a demonstration model in five Jewish high schools (Milken, New Community Jewish High School, Shalhavet, and YULA Boys and Girls High Schools) that not only is designed to stabilize and to incrementally increase the enrollment of students from middle income families attending these five high schools, but to build the capacity in the schools to support day school education through endowment development.

The Initiative was developed in response to a number of environmental factors which mitigate against high school students of middle income families being able to afford enrollment in Jewish high schools in Los Angeles. These factors include: the exceptionally high cost of living in Los Angeles, the escalating annual Jewish high school tuition fee, which currently is an average $28,989 for these five Los Angeles high schools, and limited financial aid dollars available at the participating five high schools.

The Jim Joseph Foundation awarded a challenge grant to create a demonstration model project that provides tuition support to an estimated 370 new and current students over a period of six years, as well as capacity support and matching funds to the schools to build an endowment fund to enable them to continue to provide financial assistance to the students beyond the term of the initial funding.

A centralized strategic approach to implementing the initiative model is spearheaded by the Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). Coaching and conversations with school heads, key Board members and the fundraising staff at each school to support their creation of an endowment efforts appears to be yielding initial results. The five schools have all met or exceeded the first year endowment fundraising benchmarks. In addition, four of the five schools are engaged in capital campaigns in addition to annual campaigns, all of which have benefitted from changes in the way the schools are approaching fundraising.

The components of the demonstration model as it is being implemented includes the consortium of five schools, the BJE provides the scaffolding, the targeted group of middle class students (based on good information/data about the students and the Jewish community demographics), marketing and recruitment of students, professionalizing resource development, collaboration with PEJE’s Leadership and Fundraising Academy and expansion to elementary day schools through the PEJE/AVI CHAI Generations program, and the role of the funder.

The guiding assumption for the initiative is that substantial tuition assistance for teens from middle income families will lead to an incremental increase in enrollment at the five Los Angeles high schools. The middle income population often did not apply as they did not think they would qualify for tuition assistance. Educating the schools about the need of this population and making parents aware of the availability of funds was a critical first step. While the actual enrollment since the initiative commenced in 2009 has only increased in two of the five schools, the other schools believe that given the current economy downturn, the initiative has helped prevent further enrollment erosion. Equally significant is the level of acceptance of the model and the progress the schools have made in building fundraising capacity.

The early evidence from an independent evaluation by the Evaluation and Training Institute (ETI) of the LA High School Affordability Initiative suggests a promising approach that will yield lessons from the western frontier for adaptation to other communities and schools.

Sandy Edwards is Associate Director, Jim Joseph Foundation and Miriam Prum Hess is Director, Center for Excellence in Day school Education, Builders of Jewish Education, Los Angeles.