The Check Is in the Mail: Reflections on a Quarter Century of Jewish Day School Tuition

by Arnie Samlan

Back in June, I wrote the final tuition check of my day school parenting career. This gave me the chance to reflect on having seen so much of JDS: as a parent, a student, and teacher, and a rabbi.

My journey started in 1967. I joined the day school world as a seventh-grade student, when I was dropped into Ida Crown Jewish Academy after attending the public schools of Skokie, Illinois. It progressed through my high school career, on to occasional substitute teaching jobs while in rabbinical school, to my days as a rabbi encouraging congregants to consider day school education, and through my years as a day school parent and Jewish educator.

In time, I’ve gotten to know quite a few day schools up close and personal. Here are some reflections about my experience.

  • As a middle-school student arriving in day school from a good public school system, some of the general studies were a repetition of what I had learned in earlier years. The discrepancy between the general studies in a good public school and a day school was that great. In some schools, it still is. But there has been huge improvement over the years on the whole.

Advice to parents: Be brutally honest: Is your day school providing the education you want your children to have? If not, get involved and make change happen.

  • As a parent, I drove past certain day schools to get my kids to the day schools that I thought would be best for them. And I transferred my kids when I thought a JDS wasn’t meeting their needs.

Advice to parents II: Choose your child’s day school wisely. Know what it is you want from their education and make sure you’re a smart shopper. Your children are your most precious gift. Demand quality. And if you’re in a community that doesn’t have multiple day schools to choose from, get involved in your child’s school and demand high quality.

  • As a day school student, I had my good days and bad days in school, as in life.

Advice to students: Identify the good days as they happen and commit them to memory. Based on my own kids’ experience, you’ll find that you have gained a great deal from your day school education. It might take you years to fully grasp the gift you’ve been given. But you will.

  • As a rabbinical student, asked to step into teaching roles, I was fortunate to have principals who felt that it was important to supervise teachers, even substitutes, and to encourage them to grow into quality teachers. The best schools want their teachers to be professional. Unfortunately, some schools do not demand professionalism, or may only demand it on one side of the curriculum.

Advice to teachers: Teach in a day school that wants you to excel and is willing to invest the time and money in you.

  • As a rabbi, helping to recruit students (and families) for day schools, I was fortunate to see the impact those schools made on my families. At the same time, there was a sacrifice: I often lost highly motivated students and supportive families from the religious school I headed at the synagogue.

Advice to rabbis:  Be gutsy! If you believed in day schools enough to send your own children, encourage others to follow your lead. At the same time, keep being supportive of your synagogue’s education program.

Finally, my list of what day school education did for me, my children, my family, and my community over the years:

  • Taught and reinforced for me the Jewish language (including Hebrew) I needed  to become an active part of the Jewish people
  • Connected me to other Jewish individuals and organizations
  • Gave me a frame of reference for world repair work of Judaism
  • Introduced my kids and myself to the world of Jewish texts, classical and modern
  • Provided me and, later, my kids, with a community based on shared values
  • Surrounded my kids with educators and staff that really cared about them and, in the best cases, understood their lives
  • Delivered to my children high-level educational experiences, both in the school as well as through interschool and even national activities
  • Furnished my kids with the college and Israel guidance to help them continue their general and Jewish education successfully

Over my 45 years of relationships with day schools, I’ve seen the idea of day school education gain greater acceptance. At the same time, some of the old challenges remain, and new ones have emerged. We don’t yet know how the demographics of the American Jewish community or the continuing economic crisis will impact day schools over the long haul. I look forward to continuing my involvement in helping to think through these issues – not only now, as a fellow Jewish educator and community leader, but also some day (I hope), as a grandparent of day school students.

Rabbi Arnie Samlan is founder of Jewish Connectivity, a consulting and Jewish life coaching practice. His website and blog are here. He tweets @JewishConnectiv. His podcasts can be heard here.

cross-posted with PEJE blog