Montreal Takes Communal Day School Capacity Building to the Next Level

By Dr. Harry Bloom

The good news: Jewish day schools remain an extremely good investment. Knowledgeable community leaders understand the high return that Jewish day schools provide by graduating Jewishly literate, passionate, proud, highly educated, socially conscious Jews. Thus they make great efforts to support Jewish day schools. That support has traditionally taken the form of per capita funding or financial grants for tuition support programs.

Recently, however, large communities have been matching funds from national foundations, including The AVI CHAI Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, to engage day school support organizations – such as PEJE, the YU School Partnership, and the Jewish New Teachers Project – to offer communal capacity-building programming to their schools. Such programs typically involve a combination of training initiatives featuring subject matter experts, coaching, and professional program management. While these programs are still young, early returns suggest significant benefits are materializing for participating schools, and that Federations and local foundations are finding them to provide very attractive returns on the philanthropic dollars invested. The proof: repeat grants to either build on successes in existing schools or expand the work to new schools.

The Montreal community’s Federation CJA Generations Fund, under the professional leadership of Natana Shek Dor, Director Generations Fund at Federation CJA, has been very successful at augmenting communal capacity building. Montreal’s program embodies the kind of systems thinking that would make systems thinking legend Peter Senge proud. Thinking big and expansively is enabled by $60 million in endowment funding secured by Federation CJA’s Generations Fund, in partnership with major donors and the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, in support of a day school community of 3,600 students in supported schools within an overall Montreal Jewish community of about 90,000.

Here are the key elements of the Montreal program:

1. Middle-income tuition caps/freezes that provide long-term reassurance to these economically essential families, demonstrating that day school affordability is here to stay. Additionally, these families receive, at the kindergarten and high school entry points, $1,800 incentive grants.

2. Supplemental funding to schools to provide a safety net to encourage them to implement annual tuition increases, in support of excellence, without jeopardizing the tuition caps/freeze. Shek Dor says that the Generations Fund “pays the school the full difference between the tuition freeze and the actual cost of tuition with up to 6% /year,” thus helping to ensure investments can be made by the schools to promote sustainability and quality.

3. Start-up funding for excellence grants. These grants, which are managed by the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre (BJEC), allow schools to invest in top-notch people as Heads of School, Development Directors, Admission Directors and Marketing Directors. This is a truly unique part of the Montreal equation. The Generations Fund allows schools to conduct searches for, and mentoring of new hires in, these key positions because it believes that by “getting the right people on the bus” – in the parlance of Jim Collins, of From Good to Great fame – academic excellence and sustainability enhancing programs and processes will result. These are not no-strings-attached grants, but schools have significant latitude documenting the outcomes they expect to achieve and must report on whether those outcomes have been achieved and account for shortcomings.

4. Funding for participation in proven capacity building programs, which include the new PEJE National Revenue Programs Atidenu (Recruitment and Retention), Governance and Fundraising Academy, and Generations National (Legacy and Endowment), with the goal of providing the new leaders noted above with tailored plans, training, and coaching to achieve their visions.

The early returns are promising. Montreal’s kindergartens are full for the first time since 2006, and the middle income and incentive grants are cited in parent research as key factors in new enrollment. Invaluable middle income full pay (assuming cap-related tuition levels) families in the day school system are increasing. Parent perceptions of day school quality are rising as is fundraising. These are the early indicators of success. Surely there will be bumps in the road as Montreal’s community and schools partner in pursuit of the trifecta of excellence, sustainability, and affordability. But this seems like a model that should be a beacon for other communities to follow.

Dr. Harry Bloom is Strategy Manager, Day School Sustainability at PEJE.

cross-posted at Blog