Affordability

Elliott Rabin
Affordability

“The question is not whether we can afford to invest in every child; it is whether we can afford not to.” Marian Wright Edelman

So many factors play into parents’ decision about whether a day school is affordable. For some, the first step is committing to making their children’s Jewish education a top priority, while for others, it may be a matter of becoming aware of the school and opening their minds to learning about it. Some parents may visit the school, fall in love with it, and consider if and how they can afford it; others might be reluctant to cross the threshold entirely and deal with the financial issues. Our schools all have families who can easily afford tuition, families who simply cannot, and everything in between. Just as each person’s Jewish journey is unique, so too is each family’s road to a school and its reckoning with matters of affordability.

Articles in this issue weigh the theme from various perspectives. Some focus on the psychological aspects, such as the thought processes of reluctant parents and ways of lowering the burden of applying for assistance. Others present a range of approaches that individual schools and community agencies (federations and foundations) have taken. One prominent subject is the range of tuition models that are being test-driven throughout the field. A few authors focus on new initiatives for teachers and Jewish community professionals, each with a different emphasis or program component. 

Another part of the issue explores this theme from the perspective of teachers and what is commonly referred to as the “teacher pipeline crisis.” The starting question is, Is the profession of a Jewish educator affordable today? Do their salaries enable teachers to live in the neighborhoods where they teach—to afford a house and one or two cars, to raise children and save for retirement? And how pressing are these financial issues in deterring young people from entering the profession? The articles here do not address all of these matters but raise them and encourage others to delve into the research desperately needed in this area.

In the first section, authors describe initiatives from the vantage point of the field overall or within a particular community. Adler & Perla present Prizmah’s vision and work on tuition modeling, as well as our ambitions for expansion. Held offers lessons learned from years of working on school implementation of affordability models in Toronto. Rivkin describes a Seattle-based community foundation’s process of developing and rolling out a new, ambitious middle-income program. Kahn surveys federation-run and individual school initiatives in New York. In Greater MetroWest, New Jersey, Hindin advances the impact of small-scale affordability programs, and Mitzner updates the field on the range of government funding opportunities, which can lower tuition for families and across the school.

Articles in the second section explore matters of affordability from the perspective of school leaders. Siegel unpacks the psychological thought processes and nuances that she witnesses as an admissions professional. Lauchheimer, a board chair, shares a new system created to lessen the tensions and resentment that the invasive nature of tuition applications can breed. LeVine, a head of school, provides a road map for schools seeking to create a tuition plan. Rothblum offers the rationale, accomplishments and challenges of a new program for Jewish communal professionals. Lee-Zucker & Chandally’s essay on the lessons of biomimicry examines the notion of affordability in an entirely new light.

In this issue’s school spread, authors answer the question, “In what lies your school’s greater value?” The last section delves into the question of the affordability of the teaching profession and efforts schools are taking to support teachers. Lauer gives a cri de coeur from her perspective running a leading training program for Judaics educators. Brown sifts the language that teachers use to speak of their profession with students. Epstein describes an in-service program that aims to help teachers acquire training and credentials to advance their positions and salaries. The next two articles portray approaches to teacher tuition support: Shulkind & Breskal, a school with a full rebate for all employees; Abrams, a foundation-funded grant for communal professionals. Halzel’s school has created an endowment to help raise teacher salaries. And Grauer regards the growing deficit not just in income but in communal kavod. 

Returning to the initial quotation from Marian Wright Edelman, the great advocate on behalf of children’s rights and education, this issue asks what we can afford to do, and what we can’t afford not to do, in making Jewish schooling accessible and affordable for every Jewish family that wants it.


This issue heralds a new stage of HaYidion. Decades ago, the publication started as a newsletter (as the Hebrew name suggests). With the growth of staffing, HaYidion became a magazine with a professional look and feel. A few years back, we chose to enter the digital age and cut back on printing, while still focusing on a designed publication with an online reader. With this issue, HaYidion has abandoned the faux-paper look for an enhanced website, with greater options for photos, multimedia and visual pizzazz. Readers still have the option of printing each article or the issue as a whole—look for the printer icon at the top of each page. You’ll also find the author’s name linked to a page with the author’s picture, identification and writings on our website. Reactions or suggestions? Send them to us at editor@prizmah.org.

Powering A Data-Informed Field to Utilize Research

Odelia Epstein
Affordability

Looking back at how Prizmah’s research and data collection portfolio has evolved, I think about how we’ve turned to conducting field research that enables day school leaders and stakeholders to understand fieldwide trends and place what is happening on the ground in their schools into the larger context of regional and national trends. Through strategically implementing the use of pulse surveys, through deeper dives often involving qualitative research and through school benchmarking, we’re helping to grow a knowledgeable, data-informed, research-focused field of Jewish day schools and yeshivas. Our research and data collection efforts are part of a Jewish educational research ecosystem of researchers and practitioners who care deeply about Jewish education in North America.

Pulse Surveys, Deep Dives & Benchmarking

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The pandemic spurred a critical need for knowledge to support the decisions that day school lay and professional leaders were making and an urgency to understand the effects of the pandemic on many areas of school functioning. We began to field pulse surveys about how schools were operating during school closures and how the pandemic was affecting enrollment and development. School leaders expressed that the survey findings helped them feel part of a larger field of day schools. They learned that others were making decisions similar to theirs; understanding what other schools were doing helped them pivot and know about fresh ideas.

Daniel Weiss, head of school at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, shared:

During the course of the early days of the pandemic, Prizmah's pulse surveys allowed for our school to consider things that we had not previously considered and provided context to the decisions that we had already made. It was good for our board and community to see that the decisions we were making fell in line with those of other schools across the country. Additionally, the surveys provided us a deeper recognition that many areas of concern faced by others across the country were not concerns that we were addressing. It strengthened our resolve in the decision-making process to push ourselves further.

We continue to conduct pulse surveys, and our third enrollment report will be published shortly on 2022 enrollment trends. In principle, we are collecting data first and foremost to benefit and help schools, not sit on a shelf. We are committed to reporting back the findings with immediacy after the data is collected for optimal utility.

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For topics that necessitate a deeper understanding and an uncovering of multiple narratives and nuance, we’ve turned to qualitative approaches to research. For example in “Jewish Day School New Parent Study 2021,” 114 parents who transferred their children into a day school during the pandemic were interviewed. In “Unlocking Leadership: Obstacles and Opportunities for Improved Day School Volunteer Leadership,” researchers spoke to 60 individuals about their experiences on day school boards.

Through Prizmah’s partnership with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), benchmarking is another tool now available for day school lay and professional leaders. At Prizmah, we continue to grow the cohort of Jewish day schools and yeshivas participating in annual enrollment, development and financial benchmarking using the Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL) platform.

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Now used by more than 100 Jewish day schools and yeshivas, DASL allows schools to benchmark against other Jewish day schools and independent schools. It enables school lay and professional leaders to access meaningful financial and operational benchmarks to help with strategic decision making. We regularly aggregate and report on national benchmarks on salary, benefit and other data based on DASL reporting.

Prizmah partnered with BoardSource to develop a Board Self-Assessment tool that benchmarked the practices of day school and yeshiva boards against other schools of similar type and independent day schools. To share the findings beyond the set of schools that directly participated, we published a report of the major findings, “Jewish Day School Boards: Snapshots of the Field."

Prizmah as a Data-Driven Organization 

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At Prizmah, we believe in the concept of tocho kevoro, that our internal processes should reflect what we champion for the field. Just as we support and lead the field to be data-driven, we are a data-driven organization. We live this value by utilizing the data and research we’re conducting to inform the services we are providing to schools. It allows us to anticipate trends, address emerging needs, and hone our programs and services to support and lead the field. For example, “Learning Leadership Landscape: Experiences and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel,” a study designed to understand what learning opportunities exist for day school leaders, conducted by Rosov Consulting for Prizmah, outlined a conceptual framework on leadership capacities and dispositions. The conceptual framework informs our YOU Lead program design and focus, equipping leaders to succeed with the unique capacities and dispositions needed in our day school and yeshiva landscape. Being a data-driven organization, we also take program evaluation seriously and use it as a way to measure outcomes and inform our strategy.

Prizmah is dedicated to creating a strategic and systematic approach to research, data collection and knowledge sharing. We work to collect learning and insights from the field of Jewish day schools and yeshivas in order to inform, inspire and empower each individual and community. Through pulse surveys, qualitative research that provides a deeper dive on specific topics, and benchmarking, our knowledge, data and research about the field of Jewish day schools continues to grow. Lay and professional leaders are able to access critical research and data to help their schools thrive and flourish.


Prizmah Research

Enrollment

Enrollment Pulse Survey Report 2022 [Coming out soon]

Enrollment Pulse Survey Report, October 2021

Fall 2020 Enrollment Pulse Survey, November 2020

Development

Development Pulse Survey Report: Annual Campaign & Endowment Trends, March 2022

Development Pulse Survey Report, March 2021

School Closure and Opening Planning

Fall 2020 Planning: Second Pulse Survey Report

Fall 2020 Scenario Planning Survey Report

Deeper Dives: Qualitative Research

New Parent Study 2021 

Unlocking Leadership: Obstacles and Opportunities for Improved Day School Volunteer Leadership

Learning Leadership Landscape: Experiences and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel

Thought Leadership: Hebrew Education

Benchmarking 

Jewish Day School Boards: Snapshots of the Field

2020-2021 Employee Benefits Report  (Network only resource)

Portrait of Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivas: 2020 Benchmarking Report

More on Financial and Operational Benchmarking

Year in Review

Year in Review: Data and Reflections on Jewish Day Schools & Yeshivas 2022

Year in Review: Data and Reflections on Jewish Day Schools & Yeshivas 2021

From the Board Chair: A Collaborative Approach to Affordability

David Friedman
Affordability

Leading Prizmah’s board has numerous rewards, not least of which are the relationships I have been fortunate to share with some of the most passionate and forward-thinking investors in Jewish day schools. On our board, we have representatives with significant knowledge and experience from many communities across North America who have taken a collaborative approach to strengthening their schools and to ensuring their long-term sustainability through endowment and other similar initiatives.

In fact, collaborative approaches are exactly what is required for addressing challenges that are larger than any one school or even one community. Affordability is just such a challenge, and I am very pleased that this issue of HaYidion is devoted to the topic. At this tide-shifting time of enrollment growth for most schools, it is essential that we address affordability and excellence, critical components of any discussion of enrollment and the ultimate successful impact of our schools. 

Day schools, while offering significant value, remain costly for many families. We cannot take for granted that without work on affordability and continued dedication to educational excellence, the enrollment increases that emerged from Covid times will continue. Concerns about affordability cut across all sectors and denominations.

As thrilled as I am to raise awareness around affordability and its complex dynamics, I am also optimistic that by drawing attention to the topic, we can encourage more collaboration at the community level. I truly believe that there are resources that could be available from individuals, foundations and other sources to support this, once plans are established and the right focus is developed at the community level.

Prizmah is here to help unpack the nuts and bolts of what works, to build relationships and to make connections among those who are in a position to design, fund and implement bold strategies that make our schools more affordable to more families. There are steps to be taken and hard work to do, and we, as a team, absolutely can make a difference.

From its founding, Prizmah always has been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of school economics and affordability. Day in and day out, we focus on admission and retention and on the training of development professionals, because these capacities can provide a direct benefit to the bottom line of any school’s budget. However, we all realize that more can and must be done.

For many years, I have served on scholarship committees at Jewish day schools and witnessed firsthand the sacrifices that some families are required to make in order to choose a day school education for their children. I remain convinced—and hopeful—that by having the right people working together, we can put bold ideas into practice and thereby ensure that more families see a day school education as a realistic and desirable option.

From the CEO: Good Cause for Optimism

Paul Bernstein
Affordability

Believing in Jewish day schools makes one an optimist. No matter the changing tides or trends, day schools and yeshivas remain our greatest investment for a vibrant Jewish future. The dramatic turnaround that many schools experienced in recent years, as more parents sought out and stuck with day school education, highlights the intrinsic value of our schools and their essential role in the lives of families and communities.

Jewish day schools are well positioned for further success: Enrollment across the field is up—and the vast majority of families that joined because of Covid have stayed; our schools excelled during Covid—strengths that neither were created by the pandemic nor will disappear as it passes; the perceived value of day schools is increasing; and we are seeing more new, significant investments in our schools by philanthropists than we saw in recent times. Being an optimist and witnessing the new trajectory for our schools gives me, and Prizmah, the opportunity to set a course for ongoing and increasing impact, partnering with schools, communities and philanthropists.

What will our schools need in order to maintain the positive enrollment trends and to ensure that those who have not experienced that growth also benefit? What can our fieldwide perspective provide to support and sustain growth? We believe strongly that this is a decisive moment for day schools, and we are driven to carry out an agenda that positions the field for long-term stability.

Affordability, the theme of this issue of HaYidion, is a critical factor for day schools and yeshivas. With current data showing stable enrollment alongside forecasts for economic uncertainty, now is the time to ensure that all families are able to continue to choose our schools. As we compile and review diverse tuition models, we also must analyze and evaluate what is working and how. 

We also need to tend carefully all the elements that have contributed to current enrollment growth: strong community relationships, positive perceptions about our schools, and professionalized recruitment and retention operations. Prizmah’s work in this area will deepen in the coming months. 

The day school value proposition has never drawn more attention than in these years of growth. We know that for families to continue choosing day school for their children and for funders to continue supporting our institutions, they have to believe that the sacrifice and investment are well placed and “worth it.” We are continuing to tell that story, most recently through the voices of dozens of alumni.

Finally, we know that the heart of what makes our schools work is the classroom, and we must infuse our schools with a steady stream of talented educators who foster the day-in, day-out wonder of learning support them through their careers. Educational excellence makes or breaks a school, and the achievements of our existing talent pool are largely responsible for bringing us to this new era. We need to discover and design strategies to retain and recruit teachers who can fulfill their sacred calling with all that they need to be successful.

At Prizmah, thanks to the support of investors and optimists across North America, we are positioned to partner with all who share our sense that the best is yet to come for day schools and yeshivas. As we harness the momentum of recent growth, we aspire to develop and promote resources to sustain that positive trajectory for years to come.

On My Nightstand: Books that Prizmah Staff Are Reading

Affordability
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HBR Guide to Data Analytics Basics for Managers

Running a school or organization, now more than ever, there is a need to be able to make sense of numbers. This Harvard Business Review book is a guide for business managers who don’t have a data background to be able to make data-informed decisions. Each chapter is written by a different author with varying expertise in the data analytics world. Learn how to gather the right information, the difference between data and metrics, and how to analyze data to make decisions and communicate your findings.

When you’re not a data scientist, you have to rely on those who are the experts. This book helps you ask data experts the right questions to have a better understanding of what you’re looking at. For example, asking what assumptions are behind your analysis can give one a deeper understanding of the limitations of the data. While this book is written for the business world, there is still a lot to take away for people with oversight of an organization’s finances and test score data. 

Review by Odelia Epstein

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Zabar’s, A Family Story, with Recipes, by Lori Zabar

Lox, family, history; family, history, lox. No matter which way you look at this book, I knew I could not go wrong.

I lived on the Upper West Side of New York City for 10 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. To this day when I visit, a trip to Zabar’s, the legendary appetizing store, remains a favorite activity, sometimes to purchase delicious Jewish specialties and sometimes just to gawk. For the past 26 years I have lived in Tampa, and we just don’t see this in central Florida.

Lori Zabar tells a beautiful tale of her family, beginning when her grandparents immigrated to the United States, and the incredible work that went into building this iconic NYC brand. Yet what stood out for me was how dedicated they were, and still are, to family. Not many family-owned retail food businesses can boast that they have the fourth generation still heavily engaged in the operations. I was also very pleased to learn how committed the Zabar family was to the creation of the State of Israel and to many other Jewish organizations to which they shared their success. Synagogues, day schools, camps and social service providers were all the beneficiaries of some connection to the Zabar family. 

In short, this book provides a lovely insight into an immigrant success story, even as it surrounds the reader with the flavors and aromas of walking into that orange and white building at 80th and Broadway. 

Review by Amy Wasser

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Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World, by Daryl Van Tngeren

This book is easy to read, has practical applications and is based on hard data and research. I am enjoying being pushed out of my comfort zone. Essentially, Dr. Van Tongeren explains that true humility is knowing yourself and loving yourself, so that you have the confidence and inner strength to remain open and curious about what you do not yet know. In today’s society of growing fear of the “other” and a real avoidance of confrontation or exposure to new or radical ideas, the author posits that the only attitude to extremism is actually humility. 

One of our greatest teachers was Moses, whom the Torah describes as “more humble than anyone else.” A funny way to describe being humble, if you think about it… But when you think about humility in the way this book suggests, then Moses was, indeed, able to receive wisdom from all sources, and is someone who we might consider as a role model for us as teachers: to know ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses so that we can be open to learn.

Review by Rachel Dratch

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The Disappearance, by Geneviève Jurgensen (translated by Adriana Hunter)

This memoir is a brutally honest and powerfully written account of a mother’s unending grief at the shocking loss of her two young daughters in an automobile accident. The story is told through a series of letters written by the author to a friend 12 years after the death of her children. The intervening years have done little to soften the blow of that phone call informing Jurgensen of the unimaginable accident.

This haunting epistolary memoir is Jurgensen’s attempt at remaining tethered to a world bereft of her daughters: Mathilde, age 7, and Elise, age 4. With each letter, Jorgensen seems to obliquely ask whether and how it is possible to live a life in the shadow of such immense loss. In letter after letter to her friend, Jurgensen’s wish is not for her own “closure,” not a desire to overcome her suffering and grief. She well knows the pain of her loss will never end; rather, she is determined that her friend (as well as all readers of this unforgettable book) will comprehend the depth of her loss through knowledge of who these two young girls truly were.

The Disappearance is a meditation on managing to live with grief and loss, and as Jurgenson’s memoir makes clear, perhaps suffering was the last way she could continue to love her children. Despite the violent end of their short lives, on the pages of this book they are once again seen in their full humanity—we witness their pain, love, fragility, strength, and ultimately, through their mother’s perseverance, most of all, their courage.

Review by Ilisa Cappell

The Cumulative Impact of Targeted Tuition Programs

Rebecca Hindin
Affordability

There is no one solution to solving the “tuition conundrum.” In Greater MetroWest NJ, we have spent the last decade and a half supporting our day schools and will continue to seek ways to optimize our funding for maximum impact. Families and schools we work with will still tell you that affordability is a challenge, but that it is not a limiting factor to a quality Jewish day school education. Part of our success has been a multilayered approach to communal support for day schools over many years and trying new programs without the fear of failure. (Spoiler: We have failed a few times and have lived to tell the tale.)

A mix of remarkable philanthropy, excellent leadership and school collaborations have led us to a position of longstanding and successful affordability initiatives. Our community has become well known for our Tuition MAX middle-income affordability plan, which caps tuition at a reasonable percentage of income for families earning between $150,000 and $325,000. This is the foundation upon which we have based all supplemental affordability programs.

Thanks to the vision of the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation and leading philanthropic families, we also have put smaller and more targeted programs in place. These include grants for families to move to Greater MetroWest and enroll in day school, and incentives for families to switch from public or private independent school. We have invested in legislative advocacy and teaching excellence and supported multiple other micro-grants over the years to allow the schools to offset tuition costs. These programs have strengthened all four schools in our area—Golda Och Academy, Gottesman RTW Academy, Jewish Educational Center/Bruriah/RTMA and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy—and overall this support has stabilized enrollment communitywide.

Supporting Professionals Within Our Community

One particularly meaningful and impactful affordability program is our recently launched Jewish communal professionals grant. When schools reopened in 2020 and as our Covid-related funding priorities subsided, we asked how we could continue to support the affordability needs of our community by targeting more sub-groups within our community. Supporting the families of our communal professionals rose to the top as being among our clearest priorities. 

JCP grants and discounts have been a feature of individual school budgets for decades, supporting clergy, teaching staff and occasionally communal professionals more broadly. This benefit is a tactic that our schools too have long used in varying ways. 

In 2021, the Zalik foundation in Atlanta spearheaded a community initiative to support Jewish communal professionals who enroll their children in a Jewish high school. (See article in this issue.) This first-of-its kind award has contributed significantly to the field by showcasing the possibility that large-scale JCP grant programs offer.

In the fall of 2021, we rolled out our first tranche of grants to a very limited group. This funding awards Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation employees with grants to local Jewish day schools. Unlike other JCP programs, families are first assessed by the schools for either scholarship or middle-income Tuition MAX grants, and some families pay full tuition. Once contracts are settled, the grants awarded through this program cover a portion of the family’s remaining responsibility. This grant does not cover the difference in cost between the full tuition cost and the family tuition obligation. Rather, this grant offers meaningful relief to these families for their portion of tuition beyond what the schools determine to be fair for that family. In the first two grant cycles, professionals were awarded up to $9,000 per family, based on number of children enrolled and part- or full-time working status. The application process is simple and straightforward, and our decision was to make the program not needs-based, which honors and respects our colleagues. 

Jewish communal professionals are often underpaid sectorwide. Typically, they are actively engaged Jewishly, both in the professional and volunteer spheres. Supporting them honors our partner colleagues for their work in advancing Jewish causes and makes our schools more affordable for an important segment of the community. We are proud to offer this benefit to a hard-working group who collectively drive our mission forward, in reflection of the work that they do professionally and personally. 

This grant reinforces the importance that our Day School Council (the leadership body who steward our communal day school dollars) sees in Jewish Communal Professionals being a valued cohort among day school families. We believe that affordability should not be a limiting factor to enrollment for JCPs. We intend to continue to support this cohort and promote day school enrollment within the organization.

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Reaping Rewards

The JCP grant has had a secondary value in helping the federation and foundation hire the best possible candidates for the job by getting us over the finish line in hiring. Recently when hiring for a critical position, the offer of a Jewish Communal Professional grant helped us finalize negotiations for an exceptional Jewish Communal Professional who already had children in a local day school. Similarly, we believe that this grant offers continued incentive to current employees, helping us retain top talent.

Recipients have conveyed their deep appreciation and acknowledgment of the impact this grant has had, and many have expressed that this provided them with meaningful financial relief. We heard from a few colleagues who have shared details of increased gifts to their day school as a percentage of their grant, feeling that they had the capacity to do so and an interest in passing the generosity forward. We are proud but not surprised, because this is a group that will continue to recommit to Jewish education. 

Lingering Challenges

While this program undoubtedly has had a successful start, it is very limited in scope. Our pilot program has been welcomed by those who have received it but is not scaled large enough to see an impact on enrollment. As we consider next steps, we welcome feedback from the field through deliberations on the best way to distribute incremental dollars to communal professionals in our community beyond the federation and foundation structure. Some ideas include smaller grants awarded by lottery or first-come, first-served, either to professionals working for agencies affiliated with our federation or a broader definition of JCP as anyone working within Greater MetroWest. 

Questions linger, such as whether the grant will be applicable for part-timers, day school employees, clergy and professionals receiving JCP grants from the school itself, and how we address the concern that it is a benefit that not every employee can partake of. One component we hope will remain the same is the lack of requirement of disclosures or to be need-based. This reflects the spirit by which it was intended and maintains a level of dignity and honor of those who receive it. 

The Power of Small

For maximum impact, affordability programs that cover hundreds or thousands of students and make big waves are necessary and revolutionary. Programs like these have been the basis of our success over time. However, we challenge our colleagues in communal leadership positions to consider the impact that smaller affordability programs with budgets between $10,000 to $100,000 each can have in the absence of local enormous change-making initiatives, generating a meaningful difference for small segments of the community and sustaining our schools one small program at a time. 

Consider that one program for Jewish communal professionals, plus one program for families moving from public or private independent schools, plus one program for local Russian-speaking families, plus one program for families moving to the community (all by example, since each community has a unique formula) equals a strategic, broad-reaching affordability tapestry that can be built and reinforced. We contend that these programs can build deep roots and create strong foundations—and stronger schools. Communities without the capacity to run huge tuition overhauls should not be discouraged but should instead consider the impact that smaller programs such as these can have over time.

Designing an Affordability Program for Jewish Professionals, with Extra Dividends

Amanda Abrams
Affordability

The topic of Jewish day school affordability, especially as it relates to Jewish professionals, educators and clergy, is not new. Ten years ago, in a piece titled “Moral Costs of Jewish Day School,” the author asked what becomes of our Jewish communities if middle-class families are squeezed out of Jewish day school. Five years ago, a Jewish professional in Miami wrote an opinion piece describing her experiences as a working parent unable to afford Jewish day school tuition for her children, despite the priority the author placed on Jewish education. Earlier this year, an article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy raising the question of whether Jewish professionals can afford the programs and services they dedicate their careers to support.

For decades, day schools across the country have offered Jewish professional discounts, employee discounts or “under the table” deals to individual families, often to maintain dignity that can be eroded through evasive tuition-assistance processes. And yet, despite the myriad articles and growing number of Jewish professionals, educators and clergy who find day school tuition unaffordable, there have been too few strategies deployed over the past decade to meaningfully address day school affordability for this specific population. 

When the Zalik Foundation leadership began exploring ways we might help address the pre-pandemic challenge of declining day school enrollment in our Atlanta Jewish community, Jewish professional discounts was not our first idea. However, as we researched and attempted to learn from the investments and experiments schools, communities and foundations have deployed the past two decades, it became evident that single-focused tuition assistance strategies may successfully prevent further enrollment declines. 

Nonetheless, there were questions about current programs—whether they meaningfully grew enrollment, enhanced the financial position of schools, freed budget dollars to redirect to academic and co-curricular excellence, or left recipients feeling appreciated or grateful. We also discovered an aversion to risk, fears of investing dollars that wouldn’t yield the intended results, and therefore several well-intended strategies not implemented to the fullest degree possible. Unsurprisingly, strategies were often abandoned after a few years.

Jewish Professionals as Influencers

Our exploration led to a simple hypothesis: If we could grow the number of Jewish professionals, clergy and educators sending their children to a Jewish high school, that might inspire congregants, donors and community members to do the same. Through their work at congregations, JCCs, federations, summer camps and other communal organizations, these individuals interact with and provide guidance to much of the population in our Jewish community who could be sending their children to a Jewish day school. When Jewish professionals don’t send their children to Jewish day school, community members take note. One parent shared, “As a member of a staff, it is easy to talk about the amazing benefit of a Jewish high school education. However, if you want to provide your child(ren) with this education and are unable to do so, it is more difficult to push and support it.”

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Atlanta Jewish Academy

The professionals being charged with promoting Jewish education or the value of Jewish community to children and families are often unable to access a Jewish education for their own children without sacrificing financial stability, which, unfortunately, many do. If we want families to choose Jewish day school, then we should remove the barrier preventing them from leading by example. 

The Program

From conversations with Prizmah, Atlanta Jewish day schools, our local federation, foundations and Jewish day schools around North America who deployed various affordability strategies, we concluded that we needed to experiment with a multifaceted approach—one not solely focused on affordability and not attempting to address the full K-12 day school enrollment. Instead, we opted to use high school, a limited runway of four years, to test our hypothesis. In addition to providing a finite time horizon, we recognized high school as a critical time in a teen’s life when identity is being formed, long-lasting social relationships are forged and prior Jewish involvement is often pushed aside. 

The Jewish Community Professional High School Tuition Grant (JCP Grant) provides children of full-time Jewish community professionals, rabbis and clergy with a grant covering up to 50% of tuition at an eligible SAIS or SACS accredited Atlanta Jewish high school. The student is guaranteed the grant for the duration of high school, contingent on at least one parent remaining a full-time employee at an eligible Jewish nonprofit organization. Employment status is re-verified each semester, and schools make independent admissions decisions. The funds that the three participating schools were previously allocating toward discounts and tuition assistance, established through a baseline analysis before the program launched, must be redirected toward investments intended to drive enrollment or enhance excellence. Additional criteria impact participant eligibility.

Rather than offering a straightforward Jewish professional discount, we attempted to deliver what David Bryfman, in a 2020 episode of his podcast “Adapting,” referred to as a “triple investment, one that gets more kids to Jewish day school, helps Jewish professionals earn a better living and enhances a school community.” We invited other philanthropists in our community to join the Zalik Foundation in supporting this experiment. We saw this as a responsibility and an opportunity for co-investment; the wisdom and feedback we received from other philanthropic investors helped inform the way we structured and implemented the program.

Impact So Far

Regarding day school enrollment outcomes, early learnings indicate the JCP Grant has had the greatest impact at Atlanta’s community high school, the Weber School, where enrollment of children of communal professionals grew by 50% in the freshmen class and by 5% overall compared to a baseline of two years ago. Although we have not seen the same impact on enrollment at the other participating high schools, one of which primarily serves the Modern Orthodox community and the other of which is an Orthodox girls’ high school, we have heard from some parents that they would have needed to move their children to public high school had it not been for the grant.

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Temima School

Among Jewish professionals, the reaction has been profound. We asked parents whose children received the JCP grant to share feedback following the first year of the program. One responded, 

The funding offered by the JCP grant is the first time I have ever been thanked in a practical way for my service in the Jewish community. I have worked for the Jewish community for 25 years and, without a doubt, this is the single most impactful show of appreciation I have experienced.

One participating school received complaints from a few parents who felt it was unfair the child of a Jewish professional, regardless of the parent’s position or income, would receive the grant. The donors who contributed to the JCP High School tuition fund felt strongly the program should be income-blind. Jewish educators, clergy and professionals work tirelessly on behalf of our Jewish community. They put in long hours, sacrifice higher-paying positions at for-profit entities, and are often treated without the respect and dignity they deserve. Their title and accompanying salary are irrelevant when it comes to showing gratitude for the work they do.

Some heads of school shared when they have previously tried to introduce significant Jewish professional discounts, upwards of 40%-50% off, their boards were unsupportive. Instead, under the table arrangements or discounts that could not be widely marketed felt more comfortable to leadership. However, these covert deals do not reach the professionals who choose to opt out of Jewish day school rather than request a special arrangement that feels inappropriate or, to some, unethical. 

The decision to be needs-blind was non-negotiable. It led some potential funders to not support the initiative. Yet the words of gratitude from recipients underscore the importance of this program: 

Working as a Jewish educator or at a Jewish nonprofit is a career choice made because of personal devotion to causes greater than oneself. For many, choosing this path represents sacrifices endured by the entire family. Offering tuition relief through this grant is an incredible statement of thanks and conveys deep appreciation.

Freeing Funds for Excellence and Growth

The Zaliks came up with the idea to require each participating school to redirect budget dollars previously allocated to discounts or tuition assistance for Jewish professionals to be reinvested as a pool of “risk capital.” These funds are to be redirected toward investments intended to enhance excellence or provide incremental tuition assistance to drive growth, over and above what the school previously provided. The reinvestment plans need to be approved by the JCP oversight committee prior to disbursement of JCP grants at the beginning of the school year. 

Heads of school told us that, typically, when operating budget dollars are “freed up” from a prior use (such as paying off debt, ending a deferred executive compensation plan), the boards of schools, fulfilling their fiduciary duties, tend to reallocate these dollars toward a reserve fund, deferred maintenance or other needs that are important, but don’t typically provide a source of risk capital. We also learned many of the secular private schools in Atlanta have six- or seven-figure funds set aside for the specific purpose of educational innovation and experimentation, all with the intended purpose of enhancing the academic and co-curricular offerings at the school. 

Since the JCP Grant was launched in March 2021, more than $1.8 million dollars between the three participating schools has been reinvested toward initiatives intended to grow enrollment and enhance academic excellence. Funds have been used to hire new personnel, expand roles of part-time professionals, purchase curriculum, enhance travel education, expand co-curricular offerings, provide innovative professional development and extend incremental tuition assistance, which drives enrollment.

Redeploying funds previously spent on tuition assistance or discounts toward academic and co-curricular opportunities may seem a counterintuitive strategy to address day school affordability. The beauty of the JCP Grant is that affordability is being addressed in a creative way and for a specific population of individuals who work on behalf of our Jewish community.

Attracting Talent

The final goal of the JCP Grant is to help attract and retain Jewish professional talent. Our schools, organizations and synagogues are only as strong as the individuals who lead them. In today’s competitive market for talent, it’s not easy to find nor keep knowledgeable, inspiring, capable professionals. We know of several cases where the grant was the main or a significant motivating factor for someone taking a new role at a Jewish organization. Jewish professionals have moved to Atlanta so their children could receive the grant, and former Jewish early childhood educators have returned to the classroom because of the grant. Several therapists, marketing professionals and administrators left their positions at for-profit entities and accepted a job at a local Jewish organization so their child would receive the grant. 

When assessing the effectiveness of the scholarship as a retention tool, it’s more challenging to know if someone was considering leaving their job and chose to stay because of the JCP Grant. One parent shared, 

I can’t express how much the grant has meant to our family and enabled me to continue giving back to the Jewish community through my work. Before this grant, we were talking about how we would continue to maintain our financial responsibilities given the modest salary I earn as a Jewish professional. The grant alleviated some of that stress at exactly the right moment.

While we didn’t set out to address the day school affordability crisis in Atlanta, we did attempt to make day school more affordable and accessible to a targeted population that influences individuals and families in our Jewish community. This is a population that is often underappreciated, under-compensated and less inclined to step forward and request financial assistance to attend day school. The structure the Zalik Foundation principles set for the JCP Grant has benefited Jewish professionals, created a source of risk capital for schools to reinvest toward excellence and served as a tool to attract and retain talent.

With the approval of funding for a second cohort of students who began day school in fall 2022, we will have another data point to assess. It is our hope that other donors, not just in Atlanta but around the world, will see the benefit of making a Jewish day school education more accessible to Jewish professionals, clergy and educators. We are proud to have taken this risk in Atlanta. While recognizing that it’s still early to call it a success, we remain committed to learning and sharing the program’s results with others who are interested. 

At worst, we have some wonderful, committed Jewish professionals whose lives will have been made a bit easier and whose children will have been able to attend a Jewish high school. We consider that a success worth celebrating unto itself.

The Economics and Psychology of Affordability

Orna Siegel
Affordability

Affordability is less about policy and more about building a positive Jewish future that acknowledges the psychological and emotional impact of the deep financial sacrifices that families make to educate their children. Both schools and families succeed when those within your range of affordability feel positively about paying tuition. By engaging regularly with the data, you can gain a better understanding of your market, address the common pain points and plan more effectively for the future.

While it is true that affordability is an economic question that can be answered with quantitative data to determine if families have the financial resources to pay tuition, it is equally a psychological question that requires qualitative data to answer. Tracking the cost of living in your area, the other educational options families consider (along with the associated price tag), what your families value most, and the common “financial stories” of your families can help schools determine for whom they are affordable and develop strategies to address issues of affordability. Using the steps and guiding questions below, schools can begin to build a proactive affordability strategic plan that balances both the economic and psychological needs of families.

How do I determine if my school’s tuition is affordable for my market?

Start by determining if enough families can pay tuition for your school to be sustainable. Tools like Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL, dasl.nais.org) and MarketView (marketview.nais.org) can help you learn more about affordability for families in your area. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) asserts that to be viable, 15% of mission-appropriate families in your catchment area must be able to afford full tuition. By looking at your current financial aid applicants, you can calculate at what income and asset level a family becomes “full pay.” MarketView will allow you to see how many families live in your area and the number of children, in total and by income band, to calculate what percentage of them can pay full tuition. While the information in MarketView does not include religion, these data can give you a general sense of your school’s affordability for your market. Cross-referencing these data with census records or any Jewish population study that has been conducted in your area can add additional nuance to your understanding. 

Fit plays an important role in determining affordability. Your school might be affordable for the top 15% of earners in your area, but this does not mean that these higher-income families will choose your school. Some schools require test-entry and cultivate a culture of exclusivity, others focus on diversity, or on special-educational approaches or programs. Jewish day schools pursue excellence, but that is balanced with our missions which regularly seek to serve the largest number of mission-appropriate students possible. Families with greater resources have more choice and flexibility to find a school that is most aligned with their values. Many Jewish families who can afford tuition may not be values-aligned and therefore, not in our market (even though we may wish this weren’t the case).

Getting curious about these values and priorities is critical to understanding your market and both the economic reality and psychological perception of affordability. As the director of enrollment and tuition assistance at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, I read about 375 applications for tuition assistance each year. One theme that parents communicate through this process is that tuition reifies a family’s financial, educational and religious priorities. These priorities are deeply personal and are not shared between households, or even between parents/guardians of the same child. Therefore, schools sit in the tension between a universally applied financial aid algorithm and the very real and personal financial narratives that are true (and different) for each family. For schools that seek to maximize net tuition revenue goals, addressing both personally defined affordability and collective equity are central to maintaining and building a healthy school community. 

How do values and priorities play a role in affording tuition?

When two families with similar financial profiles are asked to pay the same tuition, one may enroll and the other may say that it is unaffordable. By investigating the psychological perspective using quantitative and qualitative data from financial aid applications, you can further model affordability for your families. Analyze how families allocate their money at different income levels and how that can inform your strategy around affordability. 

  • What percentage of income are families willing to pay toward tuition at different economic strata? Families with higher salaries and assets often wish to pay a smaller portion of their income toward tuition than lower-income families due to lifestyle expectations. How can you plan for these differences in willingness to pay?
  • Have housing costs risen sharply in your area? If so, it might mean that families who have lived in the area for a while may have significantly smaller mortgage/rent costs than those who have moved in recently. How can your school tackle these different economic realities within your community?
  • What role are student loans for parents or college costs for older siblings playing in the affordability equation for families? How can your school proactively address the strain of student debt for young families who have bright professional futures?
  • How do diverse religious commitments affect a family’s perception of what is affordable? A religiously committed family and a secular family may place a different financial price tag on the religious education your school offers. How can you equitably attend to these different sets of values?

The more aligned a family is with the school’s mission, the more likely they will be to perceive the school as affordable and worth the inevitable sacrifices. Knowing this can help predict the likelihood of a family to enroll or remain in the school long term and can guide financial aid committees to use professional judgment when adjusting financial aid decisions to support enrollment goals.

How do I develop a proactive strategic plan for affordability?

Below are four categories to consider when working to build and sustain a healthy school community.

Price setting. While the actual amount of tuition may only rise a few hundred dollars each year, pay attention to those increases relative to income growth. Even if families love the school and are having a positive experience, tuition may feel less affordable with each passing year. When looking at historic data of income versus tuition, calculate the rate of growth rather than actual dollar increases to better understand the impact on affordability. When tuition outpaces incomes, school leaders must collaborate around how to address the increasing gap between tuition increases and what families can afford in order to be sustainable.

Place in the market. The question of affordability is highly localized. Whether or not families perceive your school as affordable is not only about the absolute cost of tuition, but where your school sits in your market. The perception of affordability is relative to the other options families would realistically consider. If the total cost of attendance is not reflecting the place you want to inhabit in the marketplace, then that is another area for the school leadership to consider. If your school is in high demand, then raising tuition is unlikely to affect enrollment, whereas if a school is declining in enrollment and net tuition revenue, then tuition increases may need to be moderate or low. NAIS defines these tuition increase options as relative to the Consumer Price Index: high (>CPI +2), moderate (<CPI +2), or low tuition (CPI or +1). This approach may lead boards to approach tuition setting by prioritizing market demand over the budgetary goals of the school, which can put a strain on sustainability and a school’s ability to pay competitive salaries and improve the program. 

Value. Collaborating among enrollment, financial aid, marketing, teachers and administrators is vital so that when you speak with a parent who is upset about affordability, it is in an ecosystem where the value of the school community is continually articulated and reinforced. Ensuring that families recognize the strength of your STEM program, have pride in the middle school basketball champions, and heard that several seniors got into top-tier universities can help diminish some of the anxiety in these conversations. Even if parents are sincerely concerned about paying tuition (which may cause them sleepless nights), oftentimes they would be even more upset if they didn’t believe that their child was in the school and learning community that is making them happy now, supporting and optimizing their development, and preparing them for a bright future. 

However, according to ISM’s article “How Private Schools Can Prove ROI to Families,” “Families love to hear how well the school is doing—but they care much more about whether their own children are thriving.” Therefore, before having financial aid conversations with families, check in with principals or teachers to learn how a child is doing in the school. If a student is struggling, then parents may not be experiencing the school as worthy of the financial sacrifice. 

Priorities. Affordability is a fluid concept. One year, a family believes your school is affordable, the next year, the school is unaffordable although their family size, income and asset levels remain constant. What changed? For some, a family member may become ill; others may be unable to keep up with home maintenance while also paying tuition. Maintaining close relationships with families can help you support and plan for these types of shifting priorities. You can use qualitative data collected through letters that families submit as part of the financial aid process, conversations with current and prospective parents, and exit interviews to help you better understand and address both value and priorities of your school community overall.

One approach is to develop personas to understand both the financial and emotional impact of tuition on different types of families. In a 2018 study, NAIS asked parents how they feel about paying tuition (note: They could check off more than one answer): 54% said they were satisfied, 47% reported feeling stressed, 37% were thankful, 34% worried, and 23% said they felt overwhelmed. It is useful to understand the profile of the satisfied and thankful family versus the one who is stressed and overwhelmed. Creating personas can help schools know who finds your school affordable (and why) so school leaders can more effectively communicate value, create impactful marketing strategies, and ultimately attract and retain more of those types of families. If very few families in your school and your larger community feel positively about their tuition dollars, then schools need to dig deeper to better meet the values and priorities of their population.

How do I make difficult financial aid decisions when my mission is to serve Jewish children?

As people who work in mission-guided organizations, we often wish that our schools could serve every admissible student, but that is not realistic for tuition-dependent schools. Leaders must acknowledge that schools often cannot meet 100% of demonstrated need for all students. This may be an absolute, i.e., there is a minimum amount of tuition required for each student, or your school may determine that the budget can support only a certain number of chesed students. 

For families who require financial support beyond the program’s defined thresholds, my school prioritizes current families who have had a financial crisis. This fits within our mission and core values to care for those within our school community and try to maintain stability for the children of parents who are often suffering from illness, job loss or some other hardship. This also means that our school is not affordable for some families applying to our school for the first time. 

While it is painful for us to turn away these mission-appropriate students, remaining disciplined and steadfast to our strategic goals—both for enrollment and net tuition revenue—is central to the whole community’s health and well-being. In advance of every tuition assistance season, schools should grapple with the question, For which families will my school not be affordable? so the tuition assistance committee is prepared to make the hard decisions and stick to them.

Teacher Salary Endowment

Avi Halzel
Affordability

I am often asked what keeps me up at night as a head of school. While I admit to being a pretty sound sleeper, I do worry about teachers. I have the highest level of respect and gratitude for teachers everywhere, and especially for those I’ve gotten to know through my work at Denver Jewish Day School. Teaching is really hard work, and it only seems to be getting more challenging and demanding. 

I believe that teachers in the United States are underpaid and undervalued. That is especially true in many Jewish day schools, where teachers are typically valued more but make less than their counterparts who teach in the public school systems. The smaller class sizes, strong school culture, meaningful values and importance that the community places on education make it worthwhile for some teachers to accept less money to work in a Jewish day school or independent school. 

More recently, we have seen an increase in the number of teachers deciding that the benefits of working in a Jewish day school don’t outweigh the opportunity to teach in another school for a higher salary. This is especially true as the teaching market becomes more competitive and the disparity in salaries becomes greater. 

The answer, of course, is to increase teacher salaries. The question is: Where does the money come from to increase salaries significantly enough to have a real impact? Trying to increase salaries significantly through the annual operating budget at our school is not going to get us where we want to be. 

A Creative Approach

Our school was ramping up for a capital campaign in 2020 just before the pandemic began. Like so many others, we soon switched to remote learning, which left our buildings unoccupied. Raising money for facilities was not going to work at that time. 

The board of trustees and campaign leadership decided to change course and focus on raising money for a new endowment fund dedicated to increasing teacher salaries. The Raise Your Hand Campaign was launched with great excitement, even as Covid challenged us all like never before. 

The initial goal was to raise $4 million to fund a teacher salary endowment fund. The proceeds from the endowment fund would be used each year to increase teacher salaries beyond the typical salary increase that is paid for through the annual operating budget. The fundraising work took time, as we had to relearn how to ask for major gifts in a virtual format. Nonetheless, the solicitations were generally met with excitement, as people were pleased to hear how they could support increasing teacher salaries in a meaningful and ongoing way. Our solicitors found that people really care about the teachers at Denver JDS, and the request for a major gift to support them resonated with many. 

What We’ve Learned

When we hit the $3 million mark, an alumnus of the school stepped up and offered a dollar for dollar match up to $1 million towards the teacher salary endowment. The donor wanted to see us meet our $4 million goal and exceed it by $1 million. The initial challenge was limited to a two-month period last May and June. This ignited a great deal of urgency. Our team of lay and professional leaders raised $718,000 in two months, which was matched by the donor. We are grateful that the donor has agreed to match the remaining $282,000 whenever the money comes in.

We have now raised almost $5 million for the endowment. Moving forward, the proceeds from the endowment will be used each year for the sole purpose of increasing salaries. 

We learned that people really care about our teachers, their children’s teachers, and some are willing to donate substantial amounts of money to help make sure that teachers earn a more competitive salary. I find this very reassuring, and I believe it is something that can be replicated in other schools. 

Now that we will soon have more money to distribute to our faculty, how that money is distributed must be carefully considered. Should the money be split evenly between all teachers? Should it be weighted more toward the higher-performing teachers and if so, how are those teachers identified? Or perhaps a hybrid approach? These are things that we are working on now and should be considered by any school that wants to take a similar approach to increasing teacher salaries. 

Lastly, we have learned that to truly reach our goals for our teachers, we will need to continue to grow the teacher salary endowment fund. Four or five million dollars might have increased our teacher’s salaries enough three or four years ago, but the market is even more competitive now. We need to continue to grow our teacher salary endowment so that we can truly pay teachers what they deserve for the long term. Thankfully, with salary endowment fundraising systems now in place, we have the ability to continue to build this important endowment and we are determined to do so.

 

How Should Teachers Talk About Their Incomes?

Gavriel Brown
Affordability

Only a few days away from a senior trip a few years ago, my inquisitive and rather nosy seniors began asking me about lifestyle affordability as a teacher: “Why did you go into teaching if you knew your salary would be this low?” “Why do you work a second job?” and, of course, “What do you make?” While sidestepping concrete numbers, I walked them through my thoughts.

That conversation sticks out not because of how personal the questions were; seniors are always curious. Rather, I remember it particularly because one of those seniors had confessed to me earlier in the year that he, too, wanted to be a teacher. As I answered questions about why I chose education as a career path, I could see him quietly watching how his peers reacted to my comments. His face vacillated between despondent and assured. I must have said the right things, because on a visit a year later he was still committed to becoming a teacher. Phew. 

Encouraging Students

That conversation made me think carefully about how teachers talk about money and their incomes inside the classroom. These conversations can mean a great deal to students. Teachers who talk constructively about the meaning in their careers might spark a lifelong interest in their student. Or a discouraging impression might just snuff it out. 

Literature on how students choose their career fields suggests that students are in the “exploration stages” during adolescence. Students ask themselves fundamental questions about potential careers: Is this a job that I think I will like? Do I have role models in this career? Donald Super, author of The Psychology of Careers, found that high school students search for reasons to explore or reject certain career fields and adult role models. Our own classrooms—not undergraduate programs, not new teacher mentorships—are the first stops in the next generation pipeline of teachers.

If we are honest and passionate about our life choices with our students, we may just plant the right seed for a new crop of teachers a decade later. However, if we are despairing or displeased about our lifestyles in front of students (conversations I have certainly overheard), how can we hope to raise the next generation of committed teachers? 

As Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study found, most teachers are driven by a belief that “teaching is a special mission.” Service comes before salary in their hierarchy of needs. Indeed, an international review of 41 studies focusing on teacher career motivations by Irish researcher Manuela Heinz suggests that altruism, service-oriented goals and other intrinsic motivators were the primary drivers for teachers. This comes as no surprise. Teachers are comfortable sharing these ideas with their students. Students, likewise, understand that this is one of the key “perks” of teaching.

The Heinz review found that teachers think of extrinsic motivators beyond salary, of course. When asked to articulate important benefits of teaching, teachers cite family time, job security, benefits, and religious or spiritual motivations as factors in their career calculus. How might we change the perception of teaching as a fulfilling career? Emphasize the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Seems simple enough, yet a deep dive into these motivators uncovers complex societal dynamics.

Why Teachers Downplay Their Profession

Lortie suggests that teachers often minimize these extrinsic factors because “many people both inside and outside teaching believe that teachers are not supposed to consider money, prestige, and security as major inducements.” In other words, society has pressured teachers to articulate the intrinsic—not extrinsic—upsides of their jobs; best to emphasize the selflessness and not the summer vacations. 

This pressure contributes to a need to complain to non-educators about the extrinsic downsides of teaching. “If I complain about my salary,” a teacher might say to herself, “I am really showing how inherently important teaching is to me.” Or, “If I tell students that teaching doesn’t pay,” the thinking might go, “I am emphasizing how selfless and altruistic I am!” This is, perhaps, an uncharitable characterization of how teachers might talk about salaries. Yet this thought process is documented by Harvard researchers in “Barely Breaking Even: Incentives, Rewards, and the High Cost of Choosing to Teach.” Teachers spoke self-deprecatingly about their incomes to highlight the perception of teachers as service-oriented. They recast their low incomes as a price to pay—the opportunity cost—to work with students. 

Interestingly, this Harvard research also suggests that self-deprecating talk might be motivated not only to shape outside perceptions of teachers as selfless, but to shape teachers’ personal conceptions of self. This talk can be used to reassure teachers of the suitability of their career choices. Teachers who complain about their salaries may be assuring themselves of their own self-worth and respectable life choices. “It’s not about the income, it’s about the outcome,” they might say to themselves (and their classrooms). “I made the right choice to be a teacher and I don’t really care about the salary.” 

These sentiments resonate deeply with teachers, and many research studies on teacher career choices have uncovered these same patterns of thinking. Many of these issues, of course, are addressing the perennial and valid issue of low teacher pay. The problem is the way these sentiments may be perceived by impressionable students who might write off this career as even a remote possibility because of what they heard from their teachers. 

I have observed teachers speak about their salaries (in broad terms) in front of classes or in less formal settings on a few occasions. I cannot speak to the teachers’ state of mind when they articulated many of the above ideas. However, I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the self-deprecation and even self-pity. I have no doubt that the high schoolers sitting in those classrooms picked up on those feelings as well. 

Instead of emphasizing the important balance of interpersonal, altruistic and extrinsic benefits to teaching, one teacher made an off-handed comment about their inability to afford a new car. Rather than articulating the trade-offs and personal commitment to teaching, I heard a teacher say that he could make more money “working in a fast-food restaurant. And I wouldn’t have to deal with all your drama.” Ouch.  

Changing the Message

How, then, should teachers talk about their incomes? Teacher pay is an existential issue for the longevity of the field. But the research collated by Heinz and others we have seen suggests that teachers find fulfillment in their careers because of a variety of factors, with income and affordability as just one of the factors. Therefore, teachers could answer this question by reframing the question. Instead of emphasizing income, teachers might instead shift the conversation to the variety of factors that led them to this career and sustain them in this work.

Teachers might share with students the thrill of engagement with generations of students and centuries of ideas. They could talk about the centrality of education within Judaism and how they help continue these grand conversations. They might talk about working daily within a community of learners. They might speak about changing the educational trajectories of individual students. They might emphasize the yearly cycle of teaching: summers to recharge, September chaggim to renew and refresh, Purim mesibot (parties), May tekasim (ceremonies), to remind us of our communal priorities. 

For some educators, these values were put into sharp focus only after leaving the classroom. Last year, I had the chance to interview several experienced teachers from Jewish schools who had left the field during the so-called “great resignation.” As part of those conversations, I asked these teachers what, if anything, they missed from their classroom days. Their answers helped me understand what makes this career unique as compared to other work, and why they were driven to this work in the first place. Some of these ex-teachers were making more money. The majority had a more forgiving schedule. Yet they all felt something was still missing. 

The elementary teacher from the New Jersey area, now working remote in HR, felt her days were “far too quiet.” “It was nice at the beginning, but now I feel a little lonely.” She liked feeling the energy of young students, especially “tefillah and Friday Shabbat programs.” A teacher and junior administrator who now works for a Jewish nonprofit, said she felt disconnected: “My impact is one step removed from the action.” One high school teacher, now working in real estate in Florida, said he still missed the connection to students and the thrill of teaching new material. In fact, he was looking free up some time in his schedule to possibly teach next year.

At a time when our students—and sadly, our teachers—are increasingly looking or being pushed toward high-paying careers given the pressure of our community, educators might offer an honest and well-rounded articulation of their personal values vis-à-vis their career choices. When we find ourselves in these conversations—in bus rides, in the classroom, on a senior retreat—we might have a future educator listening.

Who Will Pay Our Teachers?

Aviva Lauer
Affordability

Listen to this recording, Who Will Pay our Teachers

Audio file

Here’s the good news: All of the participants of the Pardes Day School Educators Program—a unique pre-service teacher training program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies that I have the honor to direct—who graduated and were on the job market this past spring got multiple offers and took positions about which they were excited and passionate. 

Here’s the great news: Most of them negotiated for starting salaries of about $65,000. That is unprecedented in a field where novice teachers are generally offered $50,000 or less per year.

Here’s the bad news: I believe that that higher average amount is a complete anomaly. 

Let’s back up and start this story again.

There has never been a more glaring scarcity of Jewish studies teachers in day schools. Last March, an esteemed group of Jewish educational leaders, members of the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies for Jewish Education, published a piece in eJewish Philanthropy entitled, “Who Will Teach Our Children and Grandchildren?” They wrote about the very real teacher shortage that is affecting Jewish institutions such as day schools, congregational schools and early childhood centers. They asked:

What can we do to find solutions to this crisis? How might we as a Jewish community work together to ensure that there will be well-trained and inspiring teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?

At the time, I predicted that within a decade from now many schools will have fewer than half the number of Jewish studies teachers needed to teach our young learners the content, skills and relevance of Jewish text, culture, lifecycle and values. From whence this prediction?

Every single day, for months at a time each year during the “season,” as I like to call it, my team and I receive emails and phone calls from day schools and supplementary schools, asking us to recommend a teacher to teach fifth-grade Tanakh/middle school rabbinics/11th-grade Jewish history/teens Israel education course/second-grade JS. Take your pick. It’s every single day. The schools are desperate for candidates for these positions. In May, we received an email from a very well-respected day school asking if we could recommend someone for a particular position, for which they had not one candidate, despite having publicized the position in all of the right places.

There is a pipeline, in potential. As the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) has shown, there are institutions doing the holy work of training Jewish educators both pre- and in-service, and doing it very well. Including my own institution.

But herein lies the problem: young people do not want to even consider a career in which, after graduating with a master’s from a prestigious program, they can expect to be offered less than $50,000 a year in a major city. That after four years of teaching, they can’t hope to earn more than $60,000 in a town where, in order to thrive, one needs a salary of $95,000.

What’s the point? If they want to be Jewish educators, and don’t feel the need to stay in the day school world, they can earn upwards of $80,000 in national organizations without the master’s or certificate. Or they can leave the field altogether.

I make sure to keep careful records of what teachers are offered for their first teaching jobs, what they are able to negotiate for, and if I can, I check in with a sample size of alums a few years later to find out where they are at, salary-wise. I also keep track of what experiential educators at different organizations can expect to earn in their first jobs.

 And this is a painful thing. I spend my life trying to convince people to become Jewish educators, especially day school teachers. I believe with all my heart, from all my experience, that maintaining good Jewish day schools with excellent Jewish studies teachers is a vitally important part of a thriving Jewish world. But when alumni who are working as teachers, long-time teachers, tell me that they are struggling, that they just can’t make it work, that they just don’t want to make it work anymore, I can’t in good conscience push them to stay in the field. 

Would I advise my own child to stay in a field that won’t pay them anything near what they are worth? Would I try to convince my own child to stay in a field that doesn’t allow them to go on vacations like others do, to send their kids to summer camp like others do, to buy houses like others do, to easily enroll their own children in their own day schools? I would not. I could not.

And now, to the anomaly of 2022. I submit that this past year, the situation became so difficult for some schools, that they were willing to pay excellent candidates an average of $65,000 per annum. I would add that I heard from one administrator how inappropriate they felt teacher candidates were acting, pitting different schools against each other in order to negotiate up. I absolutely sympathize with that administrator and the schools themselves; they don’t (all) have the money to pay their new teachers $65,000. And a moment of desperation, getting their boards to agree to such salaries, can’t keep repeating itself every year. Hence, my prediction of 2022 as an anomalous year vis-à-vis salaries.

As such, what I know for sure is that we cannot afford to simply ask, “Who will teach our children and grandchildren?” We must ask instead: “Who will pay teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?”

I put it to you here: I believe that if starting teachers would earn $70,000, and could expect pay raises accordingly over the years, we would have a pool of candidates for teacher training and then for the positions our schools are so desperate to fill.

In 1999, Birthright Israel was launched. Over the past 23 years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been put toward this hugely important endeavor. A fraction of that amount, if put toward the salaries of day school, supplementary and early childhood teachers, could solve this crisis. And change the field of day school teaching to one of prestige and aspiration, rather than scarcity and avoidance.

So today, I put out the call to our communities’ funders and ask once again:

“Who will pay teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?

What We Can Learn from Ants: Pooling Our Resources in Resilient Communities

Andrea Lee-Zucker
Leemor Chandally
Affordability

Imagine you are walking along a wooded trail. When you slow down and look around, you notice that everything is so alive. Trees are growing high into the sky with sunlight soaking into their leaves, and vines are running up the tree trunks, sharing the benefit of the trees’ height for their own growth. On the ground, the earth is moist. Dirt and fallen leaves are melding into compost, feeding the plants and animals around them. Beneath your feet—under the ground—roots and mycelium extend for miles, like unseen digestive systems and neurological networks sustaining and renewing life. When you look closely at the trees, you see a daddy long-legs searching for aphids and tiny ants walking in a trail, carrying what look like crumbs. The air is humid and smells like rain. Everything is teeming with life. 

This wooded trail sits at the edge of town, yet even as the urban environment presses closer and closer, it thrives, discovering abundance within its bounds. Each and every organism, no matter how small, plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Even in this challenging world, the system is resilient. 

Considering nature’s genius and its innate capacity to thrive, we as Jewish day school leaders and community members would be wise to mimic its ways to build upon our school communities’ ability to flourish. While day schools have a wealth of values and resources to leverage in their own communities, they continue to experience stress-breeding fear of depletion and a general sense of scarcity with regard to resources. How can we challenge our own perspectives to enable us to more fully realize our prosperity?

Biomimicry

“Biomimicry,” a term popularized by Janine Benyus, biologist, author and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, is an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. In her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Benyus reminds us of the essential truth that “life creates conditions conducive to life” and that in nature we find the ultimate teacher to guide us toward designing healthy and regenerative ecosystems that are capable of renewing themselves. Through biomimicry, we can develop new processes and systems, improve existing ones, and shift our perspectives to uncover solutions to problems we have long perceived to be difficult. 

Like nature, the Jewish people have been creative and resilient through the most challenging circumstances, and Jewish education has been a central technology supporting this adaptation and survival. In The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks explains that throughout history, when most of Europe was illiterate, “Jews maintained an educational infrastructure as their highest priority. It is no exaggeration to say that this lay at the heart of the Jewish ability to survive catastrophe, negotiate change and flourish in difficult circumstances.” Already, we see that the Jewish people, part of nature, self-sustain in a manner parallel to that of the wooded trail. We have a working set of principles and tools for surviving and thriving, with education at its center, which we can unlock even further through the application of biomimicry.  

In Pirkei Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” What can we learn from the bees and the ants, from the trees and mushrooms growing from the ground? How does life create conditions conducive to life? The Biomimicry Institute identifies six overarching principles, found in just about every organism and ecosystem on earth, that reveal the deep patterns in nature that lead to a successful and sustainable existence on this planet: (1) evolving to survive; (2) adapting to changing conditions; (3) being locally attuned and responsive; (4) using life-friendly chemistry; (5) being resource efficient; and (6) integrating development with growth. We also learn from nature that it uses only the energy it needs, fits form to function, and counts on diversity and cooperation as mechanisms to flourish. How can we start to take the lessons of nature and apply them to Jewish day schools while also embracing a systems approach, so as not unintentionally harm one part of the system while trying to improve another?

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A biomimicry approach would essentially ask, How does nature perform X function? For example, as we think about unlocking latent resources in Jewish day schools we would ask, How does nature leverage existing resources to create value? The next step would be to search for organisms or systems in nature that perform that same function and to emulate their strategies.  

In this case, we will focus on industrious and resourceful ants, which have outlived so many creatures on this Earth. In Proverbs 6:6-8, King Solomon suggests that the ant should be a guide for the right way to live: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” 

In Tasmin Woolley Barker’s book Teeming, she calls ancient, networked, adaptable beings like ants “superorganisms” and explains that they “succeed by gathering and curating tiny scraps of value that aren’t worth the effort for other creatures.” Superorganisms like ants aggregate bits of things like wood, leaves and water, transforming what might have seemed useless into compilations of great worth. In this way, they are able to accumulate wealth, which spirals into expanding circles of abundance for each generation that follows. Ants perform this work in an egoless manner, chemically connected, in a decentralized system where they focus on specific roles that engage their innate abilities, with a common goal to serve the greater good. 

Mapping Talents and Passions

Applying the lesson of the ant to our schools, we discover the potential in aggregating our tiniest resources and talents into something far more substantial than each of its parts. Our schools tend to have top-down structures where administrators, boards and committees design detailed plans, reaching out to employees, vendors and volunteers to fill preconceived roles. What would happen if we flipped this approach on its head and instead sought to learn about community members’ self-identified passions, interests, and organic and available resources? What latent potential might we unlock if we mapped everyone’s “easy gives” and “light lifts”? 

Envision a school community that harnesses the strengths, skills, passions and resources of its members to create exponential opportunities for growth, improvement and regeneration. For example, imagine sending an opt-in survey to all of the parents, grandparents and allies in your community. What might you learn if each person shares their zones of genius, in-kind offerings, extended networks and obtainable resources? School CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software systems may track individuals’ professions, donor history and notes but do not generally track and map what each person truly believes to be their gifts and things they want to give.

Countless times, we have heard the call of parents begging to help and not being tapped for their true skills and places of mastery. There’s the marketing professional who would love to help improve school marketing materials, the child psychologist who can serve on the mental health committee, the nonprofit leader who would make the most extraordinary student speaker, and the parent of unknown profession or personality whose gifts and resources you might never know about without asking. We know some of these parents and family members, and we tap into some of their talents. However, there are others calling, feeling unseen, unheard and unable to share. 

They are often blocked by the obstacles of a top-down system or barred from helping for the fear of too many cooks in the kitchen. This statement is not an admonition as much as it is an excited prompt to uncover every tiny scrap of beautiful possibility and astounding diversity our community holds and to move to a more decentralized system of leadership so there is always a pathway toward contributing. By embracing diversity and decentralization, as exemplified by the ants, there would be cascading benefits that grow in unforeseen ways over time.

Using feedback loops is a way to be locally attuned and responsive to the community. Just as ants run on information, so do we. By creating easy ways for community members to receive information and give feedback, action can then be taken in response. This way, it becomes easier to know what is working well and to build on it, and to know what is not working well and to adapt and respond.

Aggregating the easy, available and organic gifts of community members not only has the potential to unlock latent potential and regenerate resources. It also would help people—regardless of their place as staff, student, parent or ally—feel valued for their “whole selves” and feel connected across the school community. This sense of growing trust, connection and being valued by the school is likely to result in more traditional resource sustainability and abundance through higher levels of student retention and philanthropic giving. By expanding our understanding of resources to extend beyond money, we can discover new types of currency flowing through our school ecosystem.

Thinking Differently about Affordability

As we discover new forms of currency, we will also uncover new ways of paying for or “affording” day school education. In the great circle of wisdom, these “new” ways are actually ancient in nature, calling upon practices like barter, trade or exchanges of value, and cooperative wealth-building. If we look at affordability only in financial or dollar terms, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Entrepreneur Ethan Roland, founder of Appleseed Permaculture, explains that there are eight forms of capital, which we can work with to create more resilience: intellectual, spiritual, social, material, financial, living, cultural and experiential. For instance, one person’s introduction via social capital could be the next major donor to the school. How do we value that? One new family’s intellectual capital could save money or enrich the school’s education in enormous ways.

Could these barters of other forms of capital change our picture of affordability? Imagine, also, having a school’s families and community members plant a farm on an extra acre of school property with produce that can either be sold or used to decrease student meal costs. These ventures would not only be the responsibility of the administration. They would be community-distributed responsibilities. The potential seen by the community in ways that are self-organizing could be the key to unlocking a new way of driving toward increased affordability. Like the blessing over the wine, where we bless the fruits of the vine, we see the potential of the fruit to take on new forms.

In today’s world of exponential technological development and competition for resources, we have the opportunity to build resilient communities that are capable of adapting to changing conditions. As Woolley-Barker notes about ants, “Together, they sense and respond to their environment faster and more efficiently than any managed hierarchy or independent individual could on their own.”

Discovering the benefits of biomimicry and emulating nature’s genius requires no high dollar fees. It teaches us to do more with less by leveraging existing resources. Rather than placing the power to change in abandoning the old for the new and investing in expensive “advancements” (as we tend to do), we can find the resources and wisdom that are sitting right in front of us and within us.

Tapping into Our Superorganism

The key to nature’s designs and to Jewish day schools flourishing is a culture of regeneration, capable of renewing itself with whatever is available. Let’s remember to start with potential, not problems, and to work with what we have rather than what we are missing. 

The Jewish people are among the most ancient, sustained peoples on the planet. Without a doubt, we are a superorganism. We have profound experience developing resilience and self-sufficiency through every angle of challenge. A core to our spiritual resilience is not only the Torah but our sacred charge for it to be the tool in our perpetual quest for truth, le-dor va-dor. Like the ants’ chemical communication of needs, our discussion of Torah values fuels our intergenerational growth.

In Bereishit 1:29, God says, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit—to you it shall be for food.” God has made it clear, we have everything we need. The possibilities for our future are abundant and exciting when we choose to look and perceive through the lens of nature, remembering our place in the intricate web of life and fulfilling our role to the best of our ability.

Remaking Jewish Day School Affordable in Seattle

Melissa Rivkin
Affordability

In April this year, 18 Samis Foundation trustees gathered on a rainy Pacific Northwest morning to face a stark reality. Enrollment rates in Seattle area Jewish day schools, pre-pandemic, had dropped almost 41% over the previous decade, even as the area’s overall Jewish population in the Puget Sound region continued to grow. The drop represented an extreme example of nationwide, pre-pandemic trends across Jewish education.

The seven members of the Samis Day School Subcommittee laid out the case for the foundation to turn this story around. The final decision lay in the hands of the full board. Following a year of planning and research, it was time to vote on one of the most significant funding initiatives in the foundation’s history. After two decades of funding Jewish day school education and watching worrisome downward trends continue, would the board vote to double down and commit to a bigger, bolder vision than ever before? 

They did. The result was the Samis Foundation Day School Affordability Initiative (DSA). Over a million dollars in funds were set aside for the first year of our pilot to provide grants to day school families who earned too much to qualify for traditional scholarships but too little to comfortably afford the soaring costs of tuition. Six months after launching the initiative, here are five lessons what we have learned so far.

Discovery and Planning: Learn from What’s Already Working  

Funders considering their own initiative should be prepared for a long-haul effort. Prior to the trustee vote, the committee invested a full year in the planning process, researching communities that had successfully confronted declining enrollment in their day schools across North America and beyond. We also worked closely with Prizmah to learn from the field, with a particular emphasis on communities that are in their second and third generation of middle-income affordability. 

Although the communities studied ranged from large metropolises like Sydney and Toronto to smaller cities like San Diego and West Hartford, there was a common denominator. Interventions that worked took an integrated approach to improving quality, accessibility and affordability. 

The time invested in this research provided invaluable insight into the need to create plans for a community-wide approach, building collaboration and partnerships while funding quality initiatives alongside the affordability work. 

Simple Formulas, Localized to Community Conditions

The simpler you can make your formula for calculating eligibility, the better. Simple programs are easy to communicate, easy to understand, and easy to apply for. But simplicity alone is not enough; you also need to localize the formula to your own community. 

The Day School Affordability Initiative eligibility formula was based on formulas used successfully elsewhere but localized to meet some unique aspects of life in Seattle. For example, research showed that Seattle families making up to $350,000 actually qualify as the upper limit of middle income, because the cost of living is so high. So Samis set this amount as the upper limit. All families below this threshold pay no more than $15,000 per child or 15% of their adjusted gross income for all children, whatever is less. 

Other local adjustments include the elimination of a net asset test due to local skyrocketing housing costs that would leave too many families disqualified. Research also showed that about 30% of families had children in other non-Jewish tuition-paying schools, early childhood through college. So the DSA Initiative took that into account. The entire application form is built in JotForm, fits on one page and can be completed in about 10 minutes.

The Perfect Time to Start Is Now

Many families need help right now, so the sooner you get started, the bigger the impact.

There was significant debate over whether to launch immediately after the funds were approved, three weeks before Pesach, or wait until the fall to optimize for the admissions season. The trustees affirmed that they would not wait a year to impact families. 

“The pandemic had been rough on everyone, and this was a tangible gift Samis could share with the community now,” says Maria Erlitz, trustee chair of the day school subcommittee.

The decision to launch in April meant missing the full admissions and recruitment cycle for the 2022-2023 school year, but that decision was validated when the results started rolling in. Applications from families who had never applied for financial aid before were 67.5% higher than anticipated. 

Every Funding Plan Needs a Communications Plan

Along with the funding initiative itself, don’t forget to create a plan and a budget for communicating your initiative to the day schools, existing families and the wider community. 

Communications planning began as soon as it became clear the initiative would go forward. With only a few weeks before Pesach to go, “we wanted every family and educator in the community talking around the seder table about this game-changing funding for Jewish day school education in the Seattle area,” explains Samis CEO Connie Kanter. 

The race was on to develop a strategy that educated school leadership on the program and gave them the tools and information they needed to pass that knowledge on to current and future day school families. 

Samis worked with Rumble Marketing to build a comprehensive communications toolkit that included a series of web-based roadshow events, a dedicated website page with an eligibility calculator, an online Q&A page to support information sessions with families, a press release, social media campaign and offline promotional collateral that included printed conversation cards distributed to the community for use on the Pesach table. 

Taking Stock

Measure results, and expect the need to update details and do additional outreach based on hard data. Less than six months after launch is too soon to measure results, but preliminary metrics are trending positive for Samis’ goals of reducing financial burdens and increasing affordability.

  • Current day school families who qualified exceeded estimates by 10%.
  • Average award is 10% higher than projections.
  • Additional enrollment is up 3% (compared with a projected flat rate due to late rollout).

It’s too early to measure how many families were retained or attracted to day schools by the April launch. Samis will work with the Rosov Group to evaluate this program over the next few years and share findings with the field.

Future Adjustments

Plans must always be adjusted based on experience, data and trends. As the fall arrives, it has become clear that we need to invest in additional strategic outreach efforts to families outside the day school community in order to reach long-term enrollment goals. This plan is still in the works, so we look to next year to see how meaningful investments in affordability ultimately impact the development of a vibrant, sustainable future for Seattle’s Jewish day school community.

Valuing Our Precious Resource: Tuition Remission for School Employees

Sarah Shulkind
Tarryn Breskal
Affordability

Any secondary school (public or private, religious or secular) is only as good as the people charged with bringing its mission to life. At Milken, our faculty, administrators and other staff are everyday heroes—people whose passion, talent and experience help broaden students’ horizons, brighten their futures and transform their lives. They are essential to our school’s positive outcomes, and valuing them as a critical resource means identifying opportunities to invest in their ongoing success.

To that end, in 2021 we overhauled our tuition remission policy to cover 100% of tuition costs for all full-time employees. We made this decision for reasons both practical and philosophical, and it was a shift whose positive ramifications are already being felt across our school community.

Up until the 2018-19 school year, our tuition remission policy was more limited in scope. The percentage of tuition depended upon length of employment, with 25% being remitted beginning at date of hire and 50% following five years of continuous employment. Only senior administrators received a 100% tuition remission benefit; for everyone else, securing additional funds toward tuition meant applying for need-based financial aid.

The policy was generous, but it was also insufficient. Our salaries always have been competitive, benchmarked against our peer schools to maintain our position at the leading-edge of the market. Yet with skyrocketing housing costs and rising inflationary pressures, our faculty and staff were increasingly forced to do more with less, and for those with school-age children, the burden of affording their portion of Milken tuition was becoming harder and harder to carry.

Deciding to Change

In light of these growing challenges, we determined to engage in a dual self-examination: a detailed financial analysis, and a more conceptual cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. Our goal was to find a path forward vis-à-vis school financing that would reduce the pressures facing some of our employees and help them feel even more intrinsically connected to our community. In the process, we hoped to bolster recruitment and retention by enhancing the ability of our employee-parents to send their children to our school. 

Because we are in the business of teaching how Jewish ethics and traditions can inform students’ day-to-day lives, we are committed to ensuring that ethical framework is reflected in all aspects of the running of our school. That means honoring our employees, respecting their contributions and making them feel valued. Just as we want each of our students to be seen and heard, so, too, do we prioritize efforts to position our fellow team members to thrive. Our thinking went something like this: As we work to create a tightly knit family, it should be incumbent upon us to do what families do—to offer meaningful support that furthers each member’s ability to meet his or her individual needs.

There was another compelling reason to move in this direction, as well. All too often, as we lament the lack of interest in, or affiliation with, the Jewish community from the broader Jewish public, we are simultaneously failing to serve the very people who are most passionate about their involvement. Neglecting this cohort undermines our larger efforts to expand the population of engaged American Jews.

At Milken, we conceived of the dilemma in this way: If we are not doing our best to capture the generation of young Jews whose parents (i.e., our employees), through their career choices, have demonstrated their passion for Judaism, how can we credibly expect to attract other people for whom there is naturally a much higher bar to entry? Fully funding tuition for the children of our employees would send a strong message about our seriousness when it comes to making a Jewish day school education as broadly accessible as possible. In other words, there was a clear alignment of interests: What was good for our employees could also be good for our effectiveness at driving enrollment and thus, ultimately, advancing our vital mission.

Looking at Impact

Our next step was to look at the math. What we found was startling: Since many employees who were receiving limited tuition remission were also applying for and receiving need-based financial aid, school employees were only paying, on average, 12% of total annual tuition. That meant Milken was already covering most of the cost for each of these students; we were just requiring employees to jump through onerous hurdles (the need-based tuition assistance process is time-consuming and rigorous) to get there.

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From this perspective, the benefit of adopting a 100% tuition remission policy for full-time employees was obvious. For this additional investment on the part of the school, we could generate a tremendous amount of goodwill from our employees, who would realize significant annual savings relative to income. We felt confident this would result in more students and in an increased sense of loyalty to the school, and our hopes have been borne out. In 2018-19, we had 20 staff kids enrolled; by 2022-23, that number had more than doubled, to 42. 

The change also has been instrumental in putting our school on the radar of top talent in the field, who frequently evaluate job offerings through, among other things, the lens of premium benefits packages. A faculty parent shares, “My family deeply values Jewish day school education, but there would be no way we could financially sustain sending our children to Milken. The new tuition remission policy has allowed us to take advantage of the amazing Milken resources, my kids have a wonderful Jewish community to lean on, and I am a lifelong ambassador for this amazing institution.”  

Ensuring Buy-In

Having decided to refashion our tuition remission policy, we then turned to sorting out the particulars. Although we were committed to offering universal, comprehensive tuition remission, we still felt it was important to have some level of employee buy-in. We accomplished this in multiple ways. First, we instituted a waiting period. New employees are required to be at Milken for a year before they are eligible for tuition remission. We also determined that, with the school fully paying for tuition costs, employee-parents would be responsible for expenses related to new student fees, security fees, and trips and activities that are charged separately from tuition.

Separately, and as an addendum to the policy, we built in a section focused on 50% tuition remission for clergy from other congregations. Employees remain our primary focus, but in a similar spirit we recognize the value in assisting other Jewish professionals as they attempt to carve out a financially sustainable existence while dedicating themselves to the good and welfare of the Jewish community.

Today, a full 40% of Milken families, including employees, receive tuition assistance, and tuition assistance comprises 23% of gross tuition. These are big numbers, and sustaining them requires an equally big commitment to engaging the community (from parents and alumni to foundations and other charitable organizations) in meaningful philanthropic partnership. But in our estimation, it already has been well worth the effort. The fruits of our labor are all around us. We see them in the swelled ranks of students in our halls; we feel them in the renewed energy of our employee-parents; and we experience them in the strengthened sense of community that results from every member feeling as if he or she truly belongs.

Experiments in Affordability Programs: Major Findings

Daniel Held
Affordability

Jewish day schools are special, but they aren’t unicorns. Indeed, enrollment is driven by the same market forces that impact all consumer decisions. Perceived value is weighted against price. In short, affordability and enrollment are intrinsically linked.

When UJA Federation of Greater Toronto released its 2015 strategic plan, enrollment in Toronto’s non-Orthodox day schools had been shrinking for the better part of a decade. Driven by this harsh reality, the plan called for Federation to

“make Jewish [day school] education a key focus of this strategic plan in order that our educational infrastructure continues to strengthen our community into future generations. Our efforts will be concentrated on the issues of affordability, particularly for middle-income families, and increasing enrollment across the system.”

At the outset, we clarified roles. Schools are responsible for teaching and learning: the core of perceived value. Federation took the lead on cost and affordability (in partnership, of course, with the schools). While perceived value is critical to the equation, this article will focus on what we’ve learned about cost and affordability.

Over the past seven years, we adopted an iterative approach of research and pilots, testing pricing models to drive future affordability interventions. Among others, we tested penetration pricing, interest-free loans, capped tuition models and universal tuition drops. Most significantly, in 2017 we launched the TanenbaumCHAT Affordability Initiative at our community high school. The program was a universal tuition drop, reducing fees by nearly a third. To date, grade 9 enrollment has doubled, from 175 to 350 students. In 2021, we launched the Generations Trust Scholarships, an endowed tuition cap program for nine elementary schools, and have seen kindergarten enrollment increase by 14%, more than 100 students.

While the affordability equation requires schools to successfully ensure educational excellence, the pricing principles that affect families’ enrollment are key. We can have the best schools, but if families think that tuition is out of reach, they won’t enroll (or even inquire). Each community and each school is unique: Their target populations place value on education in different ways, the factors weighing on family’s choice of school and the alternatives they weigh differ, and the cost of living varies based on geography and other factors.

Notwithstanding these differences, we have found that there are common elements in creating effective pricing models.

The long line of sight. It’s hard on a child and hard on parents to switch schools midstream. When a family decides to enroll their child in kindergarten, they are looking not just at the coming one or two years but right through to middle school and later. Similarly, when families enroll a child in ninth grade, they are making a decision for all of high school. In considering the cost of Jewish day school education, families need to know that they are going to be able to afford tuition for as long as they choose to send their children to day school.

This has two important implications for scholarship programs. First, penetration pricing—reducing tuition for the first one, two or three years—alone doesn’t have a strong impact on enrollment, as parents start considering how to afford Grades 2–8 even before they enroll their children in kindergarten. Second, while we can continue to assess and adjust scholarships based on a family’s changing financial situation, parents evaluate their eligibility for scholarships multiple years in advance.

The unique psychology of middle-income families. Historically, most scholarship programs have targeted lower-income households. However, over the last 10 years, there has been significant growth in programs targeted at middle-income families. One particularity of this group is that in the rest of their lives, they are considered affluent. These families typically qualify for a mortgage, pay their shul dues, make a gift to their Federation’s annual campaign, and are likely in the top five to ten percent of earners. And yet, because of the cost of tuition, they must put out their hand to ask for help, often for the first time. The thought of asking for help is challenging, and too many don’t know where to start or how to ask.

To ameliorate this challenge, we have learned that it’s important to create a scholarship system that is simple to understand, quick to assess one’s eligibility, and easy to access. We have found that simple infographics, anonymous calculators to test eligibility, a streamlined application, and maintaining strict confidentiality are key strategies to encourage applications from middle-income families.

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Held

Day schools operate on a demand curve. Like all products, day schools sit on a curve. At a higher price, fewer students will enroll; at a lower price, more students will enroll. This generalization entails important consequences for affordability programs.

  • The size of the scholarship matters. When we charted scholarships and discounts at schools across North America, we found that some offered little financial benefit to families. In many cases, the benefits of sibling discounts, referral benefits, Jewish communal discounts and early registration discounts measured up to hundreds of dollars on a tuition bill in the tens of thousands of dollars. In short, our research has found that these programs do not have a significant impact on enrollment as they don’t significantly reduce the bottom line cost for families. Comparatively, scholarship programs that meaningfully reduce the out-of-pocket expense for families will encourage greater enrollment.
  • Elasticity of demand differs. While some families view day school as one of many options, including public, independent or charter schools, other families are only interested in sending their children to day school. In constructing scholarship programs, it’s important to consider the price sensitivity of the parents. For many in the former group, demand is elastic, and therefore, they are more price-sensitive. For many in the latter group, they will “make it work,” stretching far to pay tuition.
  • Perceived value can move the demand curve to the right. Perceived value has a direct impact on the demand side of the pricing equation. High perceived value will move the demand curve to the right: More parents will be willing to pay for a quality day school education. Low perceived value will move the demand curve to the left.

There is risk in playing with pricing. We’ve had much success in our most significant affordability initiatives. We’ve also failed forward multiple times. Tuition makes up the vast majority of a day school’s revenue and, while the benefits to families and to the school can be significant, it can be scary to tinker with the most important revenue stream for a school. Philanthropy can be a critical partner in offering risk capital, enabling traditionally conservative institutions to experiment.

It takes philanthropy, and it takes a Nachshon. Day schools are driven by generous philanthropy. This is certainly the case when it comes to affordability initiatives. Providing new scholarship funding, sheltering the school from financial risk and ensuring the long line of sight require significant philanthropic leaders who will be partners in bringing a shared vision to life. At the same time, from our experience, it requires a philanthropist to be the Nachshon, the first to jump in and lead the way for others to join. With early successes, or at least early learnings, it is easier for others to join the effort and keep moving the ball forward.

Stand on the shoulders of others. In 2014, when the Greenbook on Day School Financial Sustainability and Affordability was published, we could count the number of middle-income programs on two hands. Today, they have flourished across schools and communities. In Toronto, we have been fortunate to lean on other schools and communities who have done this work, learning from their successes and their challenges. We have found day school leaders to be remarkable and generous thought partners, eager to share their experiences and think through new situations. It’s worth the time to learn from each other.

Day schools are sitting on a high. Coming out of the pandemic, enrollment has grown in many schools, philanthropy is flowing, and perceived value is high. Given that affordability initiatives have a greater impact on enrollment when launched from a place of strength rather than a place of challenge, now is the moment to move the needle.

Launching A Jewish Communal Professional Discount Program: Motives and Lessons

Erica Rothblum
Affordability

In October 2021, we announced the realization of a long-held dream: Anyone who works full-time in a Jewish nonprofit would be eligible for a 50% tuition discount. This would apply to our full-time teachers (who previously got a 30% discount until they had worked at the school for 16 years), to current families with at least one parent at a Jewish nonprofit, and to any incoming family. People could still apply for tuition assistance on top of the 50%, but the first half of tuition would be an automatic discount. 

There were several reasons we had worked so long and hard to procure this tuition for our Jewish communal professionals.

As a value statement. One of our school’s core values is “Living a Jewish Life/זהות יהודית.” We speak a lot to our students and families about what it means to live a Jewish life; for some people it means living in Israel, for others it means living a shomer Shabbat, shomer kashrut life, and yet others emphasize a connection to Jewish culture. However, we do know that most of Jewish life would be impossible without those professionals who work on behalf of our people. Ultimately, if we say that we value Jewish life, we want to support those who are dedicating their life’s work to enhancing our community. 

As a practical statement. Most people who work for the Jewish people cannot afford to live among the Jewish people. In Los Angeles, especially in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood where our school is situated, starter houses are $2M. It is rare that someone can pay for kosher food, synagogue membership, a home in the neighborhood, and Jewish day school on a Jewish nonprofit salary. 

As a recruitment tool. Families in which one parent works for a Jewish nonprofit are generally mission-appropriate families. We already offer robust tuition assistance to those in need, and it felt like a good use of our resources to help these families take a second look at our school, once cost might not feel like such a hurdle.

The Process

The idea lived as an aspiration for several years, and the pandemic put a hold on some of our loftier goals while we managed our day-to-day existence. However, in the summer/fall of 2021, after participating in Prizmah’s three-session workshop on tuition affordability, our board and school leadership team acknowledged that the time was right to begin this work officially. There were two factors that helped us to turn this dream into a reality. 

First, our school was growing. From June 2020 through the fall of 2021, the school’s enrollment increased by 18%. This growth helped us to have more financial stability when considering how to launch an aggressive affordability program. 

Second, our team was strong. We had recently hired new directors of finance and institutional advancement, both of whom would play pivotal roles in designing the program, creating its financial models, and marketing it. These two key positions, filled by the right people, made the board leadership feel confident about the decisions that would be made.

Lessons Learned

We are now in the first school year of the program’s implementation. There have been some true positive outcomes, as well as some lessons learned that, with hindsight, showed what we might have done differently.

Enrollment. Seven families (representing 15 children) joined the school as a result of this program. Many of the Jewish professionals shared that they only dared to look at the school because of this program. 

Retention. Twenty-one current Pressman families (representing 42 children) benefitted from the program. Many of these families, who were already receiving tuition assistance, told us that they now can feel confident about staying through their youngest child’s graduation because of this tuition affordability program. 

In several cases, the families previously paid in full and more, even generous with their tzedakah beyond tuition. In these cases, we reached out about continuing to pay full tuition and counting the other 50% as a tax-deductible donation. While most of the families were generous in continuing their support, we did ultimately lose some revenue on which we could previously rely.  We have calculated that the increased enrollment helps to compensate for some of this loss, but we had not anticipated all of the shifts in our planning.

Statement of values. Probably the greatest benefit from the discount is the loud statement of what we value as a school. One parent wrote to us:

As the child, grandchild, sibling and spouse of Jewish communal professionals, I am absolutely floored by this incredible initiative. This is such a beautiful testament to the values of the school and meaningful effort to enhance our Jewish community. We are tremendously grateful to be at Pressman this year and feel very blessed to be a part of this. 

Philosophically, we always strive to live our values. From a practical perspective, this statement of values is good PR, and that PR hopefully creates a positive feedback loop that grows our enrollment.

Staffing. When making the discount available for every Jewish communal professional, we wanted to make sure our staff received the same benefit; we did not consider that staff should have a greater benefit. We had two highly valued staff members who left our school for other positions in the Jewish community, and their children, who are still enrolled in our school, still receive the tuition discount. While these staff members might have left anyway, our program currently gives no added incentive to work at Pressman instead of another day school or nonprofit. We are considering changing that in future years.

Marketing. Now that the program has launched, our next challenge is to be precise and strategic in using this program as a recruitment tool. When launching the program, we sent a press release to all Jewish communal professionals already in the Pressman community as well as to the heads of Jewish nonprofits in Los Angeles. Our next step is to make sure that all Jewish professionals know about this opportunity, which will require additional research, outreach and targeted marketing than we have done so far.

Ultimately, this feels like just the beginning. We hope that our small pilot program for Jewish communal professionals will be a launching point for a larger affordability program for more families in our community. We are grateful to the support of Prizmah in helping to turn our value into a lived reality.

Do We Honor Our Teachers Enough?

Seth N. Grauer
Affordability

Without question, the high cost of living, especially within the larger Modern Orthodox Jewish community, is likely the most significant factor discouraging many within our community from considering teaching as a profession. Our community has a standard of living that generally requires dual-income families with two high-paying salaries, and as such, finding teachers (both general and Judaic studies) from within our ranks continues to be a massive challenge. 

Nevertheless, I believe there is an element unique to our private Jewish day school world that is within our control to rectify and change. In my observation, the status of teachers in our community has declined over time, discouraging idealistic young people from entering the profession. To address the challenges of the teacher shortages that we face across the field, issues of pay and status need attention hand in hand.

Below, I would like to briefly outline a few systemwide challenges that we have experienced in Toronto before delving into this additional, little-discussed factor that I believe exerts a greater impact then we realize on why we are having so much difficulty finding teachers.

The Great Reshuffle

During Covid, many teachers have retired for a variety of reasons. These include health issues, uncertainty about the future, exhaustion, emotional burnout, being asked to do things they aren't trained to do as well as overall challenges with the balance of home management and professional lives.

This has meant that after Covid, schools have been left with a lack of teaching staff. The Ministry of Education in Ontario temporarily changed the legislation in an attempt to ease the burden by allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom for extended periods without jeopardizing their pension or other benefits. 

Ontario-specific Challenges

In 2015, Ontario began to overhaul its teachers college by halving the number of students admitted and doubling the amount of time necessary to obtain a degree and full teacher certification. At the time, a teacher surplus caused novice teachers to spend years teaching part-time, waiting on lists for full-time positions. The Ministry of Education estimated that roughly 9,000 newly qualified were graduating each year and only 6,000 gained full-time employment. As a result, the government limited the supply of new teachers. 

Fast-forward to a post-Covid world in which Ontario schools confront a crisis exacerbated by all of these changes. Furthermore, this more stringent certification by the Ontario College of Teachers is required in the public system and preferred in the private schools, creating a high bar of entry into the profession. 

Private School–Specific Challenges 

The teaching profession (especially in Ontario) has become very much union-controlled, and this creates an inherent disadvantage for private schools looking to recruit teachers. The public school boards with their high levels of compensation and benefits have become the gold standard for any teacher graduating teachers college. Unions have helped teachers in public schools enjoy the peace of mind of a well-protected job; private schools are having a harder time competing each year. This has left private schools, and especially Jewish private schools, to look from within their own communities for teachers. 

In truth, Jewish private schools have always looked from within to hire teachers, both in general and Judaic studies; their success in recruitment derives from those teachers feeling mission-aligned and a sense of fulfillment by teaching within their community. Vacation time during the Jewish holidays as well as an early dismissal on Friday have certainly helped. 

However, there is one additional factor that certainly exists within the larger Modern Orthodox community and likely within the traditional Jewish day school world as well that I believe is strongly contributing to the dearth of teachers within our own ranks: the way we treat our teachers and the unfortunate lack of honor and respect they are often afforded. 

Our Most Significant Challenge: Honoring Educators 

I grew up in a home where both my grandfathers were rabbis, one a school principal and the other a pulpit rabbi. I was raised in a world in which I heard so many stories and compliments about my grandfathers, who both not only had an incredible impact on me but on generations of children and families.

I am loathe to stereotype and generalize, but if one grows up in a chareidi community in America, the most important individuals in the community are often the melamdim. Parents and entire communities give great respect, praise and honor to teachers and rabbeim, and especially to the first and second grade rebbes.

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Grauer illustration

In that kind of environment, it becomes perfectly normal for a child to say, “I want to be a teacher when I grow up.” When they see and hear their own parents and surroundings giving unequivocal support, love and deep respect to Torah education in general and to Torah educators in particular, it comes as no surprise that these children consider these teachers to be true role models.

Talmud Torah and melamdei Torah in particular are raised on a pedestal for all to look up to. They are often the ones who receive Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur, and they are frequently asked to open the ark for Ne’ilah, read pesukim for Ata Hore’ita on Simchat Torah, and afforded other honors that come along with their Torah knowledge, stature and specifically position.

Indeed, possibly the greatest leader the world has ever known, Moshe—who led the people out of Egypt, who received the Torah from God Himself on Sinai, who worked miracles, who spoke to God “face to face”—is known for eternity as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe, our teacher.”

Can there be any greater aspiration for a Jewish parent or child?

Evidently there can.

Because if a child grows up in a home and a world in which teachers, of Jewish and secular subjects alike, are often openly criticized, maligned and ridiculed, he or she absorbs those messages, which then become part of the culture. Unquestionably, these messages then have a major impact when these young people come to choose a profession.

Yes, our teacher shortage is linked to everything mentioned above, including of course the high cost of living and tuition in the Orthodox world and the level of wealth that is needed to simply survive within our communities. Nevertheless, we should consider to what extent our children aren’t growing up with dreams of being a teacher because they don’t see teachers idealized and praised within their homes and communities.

Our parents are often by and large more likely to push their children to become hedge-fund managers, attorneys and engineers before considering teaching. As mentioned, much of this is driven by economics and the unparalleled high cost of entry within our world and our communities, and this is a reality that is hard to overlook, but I wonder how much of it is also driven by how teachers and educators are sometimes perceived.

The current dearth of educational talent within our communities didn’t happen overnight, and the issues cannot be solved easily. It has taken at least a generation to uproot the idealistic view of the rabbinate and Talmud Torah, or just teaching in general, and it will likely take at least a generation to rebuild it. After all, it takes children 20 years or so before they enter a profession.

Now, though, is the time to change our attitudes.

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Grauer illustration 2

If we want to fill our schools with incredible teachers, especially those from within our communities who personify our values by living within our hashkafah, we need to encourage more of a culture of honoring the second grade rebbeim and the fourth grade math and science teachers. We need to show our genuine appreciation in private, at home, and in public to our high school history, art and computer science teachers. This will have an impact. Here are a few specific and practical suggestions for consideration. 

Encourage greater appreciation from our parents. At a recent opening school program, a colleague and friend, Rabbi Rafi Cashman, head of Netivot HaTorah Day School in Toronto, suggested to his parents to put a notice in their calendar to, on a regular basis, send an email expressing a sincere message of hakarat hatov to a teacher. He elaborated on its positive impact and meaning to the recipient because teachers fundamentally are in the profession to make a positive and lasting impact. 

Encourage synagogues and community organizations to give greater honors and find more opportunities to recognize educators. This may seem trivial, and of course so many of our teachers are very modest, unassuming and not looking for public recognition, but the impact is felt in a far greater way on the community and our youngest members than even on the educators themselves. Our young students see their teachers being placed on a pedestal, and this creates a lasting impression.

Consider ways to give educators within our community opportunities for additional compensation. This could come in the form of scholar-in-residence opportunities (not necessarily going outside our communities, rather than looking at home talent that is often overlooked), joining panel discussions more, consultancy possibilities for other schools, or other creative ideas. 

One final piece to consider is how important it is to recognize that educators also have private lives, and if we want them to develop within our communities, we need to not see them as employees 24/7. Many educators report that every time they go to the supermarket, shul or even to exercise in the local gym, some take it as an opportunity for a parent-teacher conference. Part of giving them greater honor is to recognize that they don’t work privately for each and every parent all the time. Part of respect is respecting their time, privacy and desire for normalcy within a community. Consider inviting them over more for Shabbat meals and avoiding speaking about their jobs the entire time.

Of course, it is important to emphasize that it is not easy for private Jewish day schools to compete financially with many other lucrative professions, but if the private Jewish day schools not only have vacation time around chaggim and early Fridays on their side, but a sense of purpose, life of fulfillment and a knowledge of great honor within a community, I believe we have a better chance to inspire new generations of educators.

I would like to finish with one of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s many quotations about the importance of teachers and education to our communities. Rabbi Sacks himself was a teacher par excellence who contributed much to elevating the prestige of educators and was instrumental in many initiatives to support educators in various ways. 

Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. We have lots of heroes today, and they are often celebrities—athletes, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their fifteen minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life. (From Optimism to Hope)

Commentary: Communicating a School’s Value

Affordability

The narrative of successful schools is a narrative of student and family experience. Students go to school, they do things there, they grow and change, and in the end they move forward to something new. Happy families can describe this process in often moving detail, and happy alums can do the same. Happy students evidence this in multiple ways and on multiple occasions.

These stories, not placement lists or “data,” are the outcomes that matter most to a school’s value proposition and that provide the answer to the “Is our school worth it?” question. Placement lists are a kind of outcome proxy, and data is just data, but how people respond to a school experience matters. Remember, our task—as odd and even scary as it might be to phrase it this way—is to help facilitate dreams.

—Peter Gow, from “Can a School Control Its Value?” Winter 2014 HaYidion

Reeut Singerman, Director of Admissions and Marketing
Ohr Chadash Academy, Baltimore

From being embraced by a community with shared values, stimulated by a Torah-driven Jewish and general studies education, to immersion in a love of the land of Israel, there are many reasons to be part of a Jewish day school.

In our school, we strive to instill a love of learning in our students, where they can be actively engaged and collaborative. Where they can wonder, ask questions and explore, all in a warm and inclusive environment. Outside of the classroom, our school also focuses on community building. A back-to-school picnic, Siddur or Chumash program, a “buddy” welcoming a new family, or home visits from teachers getting to know their students before the start of school, these are a few examples of what makes a Jewish day school “worth it.”

These experiences collectively define who we are, and students carry the values and lessons learned long after they leave our school. The data we collect, from current parents and students, prospective families and graduates, reflect clear evidence of the lasting value we provide our students and families. By motivating our students with an enthusiasm and joy for learning and offering them value-driven experiences, they are more likely to stay connected, spread positivity, and in doing so, help grow our school.

Allison Witty, Director of Admissions
Yeshiva of Central Queens

“There are two gifts we can give our children: One is roots, and the other is wings.” While there is some disagreement as to the exact origin of this quote, its powerful message still resonates. From a child’s earliest age, parents entrust us in our roles as administrators and educators with their most precious resource, their children, to begin the process of helping to plant those fundamental roots.

As Jewish day school educators, we are tasked with the awesome responsibility of nurturing both the minds and the souls of our students. If we are fortunate, we get to observe our students’ growth process over the course of many years, before graduating them, conferring upon them their “wings,” and watching them soar to even greater heights as they embark on high school, college and beyond.

We know we have done our jobs correctly when our alumni “fly” home to our yeshiva with their little ones in hand, seeking the same stellar educational experience for their own kids. Then we go to work once more to help plant the roots of the newest generation. It is a cycle that has been and will continue to be repeated countless times over the course of our professional careers. It is who we are as Jews; it is who we are as educators. We are, indeed, the facilitator of dreams.

Tamara Lawson Schuster, Director of Admissions
Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Overland Park, Kansas

As a text-centered people, we love reading, telling and hearing stories: narratives from Torah, anecdotes from Talmud and Midrash, lore of our ancestors and families of origin, and tales of Shabbatot and chagim celebrated with relatives and friends. These accounts and experiences help us understand who we are and who we aspire to be by introducing and instructing us in the laws, traditions, values and people that compose our history and help define our future. The act of telling and transmitting the richness of these stories, as opposed to simply abiding by a list of laws and to-do’s, engages and perpetuates the ongoing value proposition for Judaism.

As with the dissemination of our heritage through storytelling, our students and families share their Jewish school experiences with those in their spheres. Our schools’ value is best communicated when our students and families recount their successes in academics to athletics, engagement in school customs and culture, and reflections on outings and outcomes. These are the acts of rich storytelling that carry our Jewish schools forward.

Choosing the Right Affordability Model

Jennifer LeVine
Affordability

Parents consistently question whether they can afford private education and whether private education is worth making financial sacrifices for, especially in neighborhoods where public schools might be an option. Tuition pages are customarily the most intimidating part of an independent school’s website for prospective parents. Is it worth giving up their annual family vacation? Restaurants? Gym memberships?  

Before Covid, many Jewish day schools across the country struggled with flat enrollment or declines, while needing to prepare their communities for yearly tuition increases. Although many schools did see trends swing upward during the past few years, other schools have not been so fortunate, and underlying realities continue to require a focus on affordability. Boards and administrators continue to look for solutions beyond tuition increases, program updates and fundraising. 

Three years ago, Beth Yeshurun Day School (BYDS) in Houston was familiar with these trends and discussions. Even with a robust financial aid program, we heard from many prospective and withdrawing parents that tuition was just not manageable, especially for families with multiple children. The board of trustees and senior administration began to discuss realistic enrollment and tuition options for BYDS, knowing something had to change.  

After reviewing strategies, such as tuition increases to align with remaining enrolled families or affordability options to help grow enrollment, we chose to investigate the latter. Where do you start when there are more than a dozen affordability models that have been attempted by day schools nationwide? Do you implement an indexed tuition? Sliding-scale tuition? Multi-student discounts? Jewish professionals discount? Increase traditional financial aid?

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BYDS

 

Form a committee. Given the amount of work that comes with pursuing the right affordability model for your school, forming a small committee is essential. This can include the board chair, treasurer, CFO, head of school and a large donor who believes in the value of Jewish education. Keep in mind, the more people on the committee, the more possibilities for information to be made public before you’re ready. Adherence to agreed-upon ground rules, including discretion, is critical. 

Research. Thoroughly research multiple models and create a pros and cons list for each. Every model has risks associated with it. For BYDS, all showed outcomes that were financially alarming if not successful, but they also brought optimism and excitement with them. Which model provides the best benefit for your families? Which model makes the most financial sense for your operating budget? 

We also found it incredibly helpful speaking with other day school administrators, lay leaders and consultants who have been down this road before. Gaining insights into their successes and challenges helped steer our discussions on certain topics that otherwise may not have come up. Some may even try to persuade you in one direction or another based on their own history. Remember, not all Jewish communities are alike, and results in one may turn out completely differently in another. All the while keeping in mind, you know your community best.  

Build scenarios. Once the committee narrows down affordability models, creating realistic household budgets with various income levels is imperative. We chose to look at scenarios that best represented BYDS families (middle income, upper income and multiple children). This included average mortgages in zip codes where the majority of our families live, typical car payments, yearly food and medical costs, philanthropy to other organizations and allotment for annual vacations and sleepaway camp.  

We looked at spreadsheet after spreadsheet calculating possible tuition prices per grade, considering the number of siblings for current and prospective families. From our research, we determined we needed a combination between two different affordability models: a multi-student discount and a tuition reduction. Don’t be afraid to build scenarios that take pieces from multiple affordability models. Early childhood families would benefit from a discount if they had a sibling enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade. PreK–fifth grade families would benefit from a significantly decreased tuition price, anywhere from 20%–40% depending on the grade level. This scenario included a six-year model with small increases (4.5%) at three years and at six years. 

Lastly, together with our CFO, we analyzed how many new students would need to enroll each year to make up the difference in tuition. And back to the spreadsheet we went...

Find donors. An increase in enrollment alone won’t support an affordability model. Fundraising and donor support are at the heart of being able to decrease tuition both in the short term and in the long term. Initially, it was important to secure generous donors who support making Jewish education affordable for all those who want it before the committee was able to present to the board of trustees. Once the board voted to approve the “BYDS Affordable Tuition Initiative” effective beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, it was time to pursue general community fundraising and ask our annual giving donors to increase their yearly donations in an amount meaningful to them. BYDS is a family, and our family has now come through for each other year after year, with institutional giving at its highest level. 

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BYDS 2

 

Add value. A reduction in tuition is still tuition. What value are you providing? What’s the catch? What is being cut from the program in order to reduce tuition? These are all questions that senior administration and lay leaders must answer before publicizing an affordability model to your constituents. Cutting anything from your program would be detrimental to the mission and vision of your school.

To avoid any misunderstanding of our tuition initiative, my team and I decided to announce our new and exciting program enhancements jointly with the tuition initiative. What could our students benefit from that we did not already offer? We announced individualized learning plans for every student and a new J-STEAM program, all under our new leadership. This allowed us to turn the questions of enrollment and re-enrollment to “How are you making this possible?” and “We’ll get all this for that price?!”

Publicize. What is the most effective way to get the word out? How do you make sure the narrative is factual? This is another time when keeping the affordability model internally until ready is crucial. We scheduled a town hall event for our community to present the initiative. For a month, we promoted it with the teaser “Something BIG will be shared at this event—don’t miss it!” Our marketing department created a whiteboard animation video to explain the information in an easily digestible way to be shared on social media and in an email immediately following the in-person announcement.

The timing was important. The announcement needed to be made before November, in preparation for admissions season. The presentation included the tuition plans for the next six years, including raising it twice. Being transparent with our community and sharing future tuition prices helped young families better digest their children’s school costs throughout their six-year journey from kindergarten through fifth grade graduation.

Measuring success. Is an affordability model right for your school? How do you measure its success? From our point of view, halfway into the six-year model, our tuition initiative has been successful. Enrollment has grown more than 55% over the past three years. The community has become even more supportive in terms of building community relationships, supporting our staff, participating in our fundraisers and events and being active volunteers in our PTO. We have also continued to launch new program initiatives each year that build up our program and curriculum, keeping in mind where stagnancy got us a few years ago.

Overall, our marketing pitch of “Everyone deserves a strong Jewish foundation” wasn’t just a pitch. It is a belief I feel strongly about as a day school graduate, parent and Beth Yeshurun Day School’s head of school. While choosing the right affordability model for your school can be daunting, it also can provide a much-needed benefit for your community and the sustainability of Jewish education.

Donor Profile: Melissa Kushner and Jeremy Kaplan

Affordability

Melissa Kushner and Jeremy Kaplan approach philanthropic decisions with their mind and heart. As the Board Chair of Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, NY, and mother of four children in the school, Melissa knows firsthand some of the critical challenges day schools face. Top among them, from her perspective, is the recruitment and retention of talented educators and leaders. “Nothing in school really happens without teachers,” said Melissa. “I know there are brilliant educators out there—and even more young people who would consider careers in Jewish education. We need to figure out how to keep them choosing to work in our schools.”

When Melissa attended both the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) Innovators Retreat and Prizmah’s Investor Summit in the same month, she found an opportunity to invest in a systemic approach to the challenge that was raised by educational leaders from across the spectrum of day schools. “I heard from teachers and educational leaders one week, and the next week I met funders like me and Jeremy who really want to make a difference,” said Melissa. By co-investing with the Mayberg Foundation in the Pipeline for Educators initiative, which is being organized by Prizmah and JEIC, she and her husband are supporting research to discover the levers that can change the outlook for schools and their educators. “The solutions we will discover will have far-reaching impact,” she said.

The Advice Booth: Paving the Way to Affordability

Beth Rivkind
Affordability

How can schools communicate with families more effectively on the topic of affordability? 

The cost of tuition is one of the primary reasons why families do not consider sending their children to independent school. While affordability is an obstacle for parents, one of the biggest challenges for admission professionals is getting families to take that first step through the front doors of their school. Families often do not consider that most Jewish day schools and yeshivas offer tuition assistance. Surprisingly, families are often unaware of the following:

  • They could be eligible to receive assistance.
  • Tuition assistance programs or tuition affordability models exist. 
  • Schools consider factors besides income levels to make it possible for families to qualify, such as regional cost of living, tuition paid for siblings, debt and medical expenses.

Admission professionals frequently express that once an inquiring family visits their school, hears the value proposition, and sees the students and faculty in action, the majority will convert to applications. Yet when there is an absence of transparency around tuition affordability and the tuition assistance process, many parents will not move on to the application process.

If schools can, early in the inquiry process, transparently message tuition affordability and tuition assistance, schools can impact their recruitment and retention efforts. Here are a number of ways a school, and specifically admission professionals, can accomplish this.

Develop Your School Messaging

The admission and leadership team should meet early in the year to agree on and refine the school’s value proposition and key messages around affordability. Administrators across the school should feel confident and consistent with the language used to communicate with families.

Confidentiality

Clearly message in conversations and provide a statement on your website about strict confidentiality regarding the tuition assistance process. Families should be aware that their financial information is shared only with the tuition assistance committee and admission professional.

Have Open Conversations 

Engage families in meaningful conversations infused with honor, inclusivity and respect about the school’s commitment to affordability. Proactively guide families through the process while creating a space for confidential conversations about affordability. This works toward dispelling stigma around applying for tuition assistance and any questions around the process.

Needs-blind

Be clear with families the school’s admission process and tuition assistance process are separate. Update your messaging on both the tuition assistance materials and admission materials to reflect that a family’s ability to pay is not considered in admission decisions.

A tuition assistance committee and the admission committee are separate and each have their own application and review process. 

Tuition Assistance Application Process

Information about the tuition assistance program, including the application itself and deadlines, should be clearly outlined both in conversations and on the school’s website. Consider automatically sending application links/forms to all prospective (and current) parents so that parents do not have to ask for them in your follow-up materials.

Website

Use your website as a marketing tool to provide clear messaging on the admission page about the school’s path to affordability and the tuition assistance application process. Ensure consistent messaging across communications channels, including the website, the admission team and business office.

Gather Data

Interview new parents who have recently gone through the tuition assistance process to hear about their experience. Meet with your committee and share the information gathered to reflect and strengthen the process and experience of families.

As the upcoming season of tuition assistance begins, schools have the opportunity to reflect on the process of how affordability is communicated to the community. Offering strong, transparent communication in outreach to families is now more important than ever and will translate into a stronger recruitment, admission and enrollment process for Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

Working Together to Increase Affordability

Amy Adler
Dan Perla
Affordability

The past few years have witnessed not only a significant increase in the number of new tuition models offered by schools or communities of schools, but a near-universal acceptance of the concept of middle-income affordability. Overwhelmingly, schools across North America as well as the individuals and institutions that fund them have come to a shared understanding of the affordability challenge. 

At the same time, two recent studies, Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic and The Finances of Orthodox Jewish Life: A Nishma Research Study, paint vastly different pictures of the financial dispositions and attitudes of Orthodox and non-Orthodox families about affordability. In general, middle-income Orthodox families are still overwhelmingly committed to Jewish day schools but often struggle to save money for retirement, larger living spaces or even “affordable luxuries.” Non-Orthodox Jews, by contrast, often orient their lives around strong public schools and supplemental Jewish education (Jewish camps, synagogues, JCCs) and simply don’t think a day school education is worth the high cost. Given these very different attitudes, different approaches to affordability among different populations may be warranted. 

Affordability is a key lever in Prizmah’s strategic focus on accelerating impact. We are working to help schools attract more families, improve affordability, articulate the value and impact of day schools and yeshivas, and strengthen theeducator pipeline. 

Lessons we have learned about these new models include the following.

Set clear goals and objectives.

When embarking on a new tuition model, establishing a clear set of goals and objectives is critical. While growing enrollment can certainly be one goal, greater affordability for some or all cohorts of existing families may be an equally important goal. Aligning a new tuition program with a school’s core values will only enhance its efficacy.

Affordability isn’t the only factor driving enrollment.

Affordability alone is unlikely to lead to significant increases in student enrollment and/or student retention. Schools that experience multiyear enrollment growth following the rollout of a new tuition model tend to meet some or all of the following criteria: 

  • Stable professional leadership 
  • Strong word-of-mouth within the community 
  • Solid academic reputation

Programs that have demonstrated enrollment success may still struggle to sustain the low tuition levels over time.

A program’s success does not mean it is financially sustainable for the long term. Schools will need additional donor support to ensure the program’s long-term sustainability.

Foundations, federations and schools require a data-driven approach as well as a multiyear financial model.

Both funders and schools are data-driven. They want to see and understand their own numbers and are eager to compare them to other schools and communities. They are also eager to learn about successful and unsuccessful models and the factors that impact success. Many have expressed the desire to “not recreate the wheel.” 

In considering our recent work with community initiatives, we have come to understand that funders will require a multiyear cost projection and financial model before proceeding with potential funding. Such a financial model needs to be fairly dynamic and able to adjust for changes in some or all of the following variables: student enrollment, tuition increases, tuition cap rates.

More than one-third of all Jewish day schools employ a tuition affordability model at the current time. This fall, Prizmah launched A Scholarship and Tuition Affordability Model Study, which gathers the program information, the goals and impact the affordability programs are having on schools and communities. The study will enable Prizmah to disseminate findings around existing tuition affordability models that will help schools establish even more effective models and inspire other schools and communities to consider them. 

At both the school and communal level, Prizmah seeks to enable Jewish day schools and yeshivas to explore and implement new tuition affordability models. Over the past 18 months, we have worked with more than 50 individual schools and four communities on new tuition models. We believe we are close to a tipping point in the acceptance of such programs, and that within a few years, virtually every day school and yeshiva will adapt its tuition practices to include these types of programs.

This is an exciting time for the field. There is a groundswell of interest among schools to address affordability and a ferment of initiatives that schools are experimenting with.  As more tuition affordability programs emerge, we are reaching a tipping point where affordability programs hold the promise of becoming the norm, not an exception. 


Over the next few years, Prizmah aims to catalyze the creation of at least 50 additional school-level tuition affordability programs. This will be achieved in part through our work with local federations and foundations and the myriad lay leaders that they engage with.

In our experience, school-level and community-level endowments can provide a valuable foundation for affordability efforts. Prizmah possesses significant expertise in the area of endowment building and would be more than happy to meet with your school, your federation or a group of community leaders to discuss ways in which affordability models can be implemented and sustained longer term through endowments. For more information about tuition affordability or endowment, contact Amy Adler amya@prizmah.org or Dan Perla danp@prizmah.org.

How to Maximize Government Funding for Your School

Daniel Mitzner
Affordability

You are a Jewish day school CEO or executive director, working hard to balance revenues and expenses among the myriad other responsibilities you have in your role. You’ve been seeing the headlines about Jewish schools receiving billions of dollars in government funding in various states.

You wonder to yourself, “Wait, there’s massive government money available for Jewish schools? How do we tap into that?”

To answer your first question: Yes, there are federal, state and local government programs that, collectively, inject billions of dollars per year into nonpublic schools. This funding can come in the form of money in your budget, post-hoc reimbursement for eligible expenses, or government-funded services by third-party providers.

To the second question: Explore what exists, decide which programs work your school, apply for the program, and comply with any ongoing or reporting requirements.

Explore

In the United States, all three levels of government—federal, state and local— fund programs for nonpublic schools. 

Table 1: Overview of Federally Funded Nonpublic School Programs

Program Name

What it Offers

Potential Value*
(Ex. School w/ 300 Kids)

Run By…

Pursue if…

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Special education services for special needs students

Services worth ~$2,000 per special needs student

Local school district

You enroll students with disabilities.

Title I of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act 

Supplemental education services for low-income students

Services worth ~$550 per low-income student (varies widely by district)

Local school district

You enroll many low-income students AND are located in a low-income school district.

Title II of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act

Professional development services for teachers

Services worth ~$370 per teacher

Local school district

You want PD for your staff (every school).

National School Lunch Program

Reimbursement of school lunch and breakfast expenses

Meal reimbursements of $130-$1,160 per student per year (depending on family income)

State government

You enroll many low-income students.

Nonprofit Security Grant Program

Grants for security-related equipment and guards

$150K per grant

State government

Your school has security vulnerabilities.
 

*Note: The federal government uses complex formulas to allocate funding for locally administered programs. While these numbers reflect national averages, the amounts per student will vary from district to district. 

 

Federal funding can be considerable, but is often highly conditional. Most is reserved for schools with low-income students or students with disabilities. The programs are administered by state or local governments, and each has different eligibility rules and requirements.

State and local funding comes in many forms for many purposes but depends very heavily on where you are located. Many states have generous funding programs, while others do not. 

Table 2: Overview of State-Funded Nonpublic School Programs

Program Type

Benefit

Potential Value
(all vary widely by state)

Example States
(non-exhaustive list)

Scholarships/Vouchers/ Education Savings Accounts

Tuition help for eligible families (eligibility often based on income) 

$1K-$10K per eligible student

AZ, FL, GA, IL, MD*, NV, OH, PA

Security Funding

Reimbursement/grants for security upgrades and/or personnel 

$120–$250 per student

$50K–$100K per grant

CA, CT, FL, MD, NJ, NY, OH, PA

Mandated Services Reimbursement

Reimbursement for state-required activities and services

$300-$1,200 per student, depending on school and state

NY, OH

Nursing Funding

School nurse hours from district nurses or third-party vendors.

$112, but varies per student**

NJ, NY, PA

STEM Teacher Programs

State funding for highly-qualified STEM teachers in nonpublic schools

$10K–$18K per eligible teacher

NJ, NY

Textbooks, Technology

Textbooks and IT equipment supplied and owned by the district

$42–$155 per student

MD, NJ, NY, PA

*Note: MD’s BOOST scholarship program is not currently accepting new students.
**In NY and PA, school health services are state-mandated but supplied and funded by local districts.
†Only the 15 states with the highest Jewish day school enrollment totals were considered for this table. 

 

In general, there are fewer locally funded programs for nonpublic schools than state or federal programs. Local governments simply have smaller budgets. However, some local governments—especially larger jurisdictions, like New York City—offer substantial funding to nonpublic schools, particularly in free preschooling.

Practically, how do you determine what government funding streams are available to you?

First, see the tables above for an inexhaustive list of federal and state programs that exist in the states with large Jewish day school populations. These can help you see which types of funding are relevant for your school.

Second, visit your state and local government websites. Most have a section for nonpublic schools outlining what’s available and how to apply.

Third, be in touch with your peers in other local Jewish day schools. Compare notes to make sure you are all getting every source of state funding available.

Finally, reach out to your local Jewish day school government advocacy groups. Teach Coalition operates in five states—New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maryland—and you can find us online at TeachCoalition.org. Your local Agudath Israel office and Jewish Community Relations Council are also knowledgeable about these programs.

Decide

Every government program has rules regarding who can get the funding, how it can be used and how it can be accessed. These rules may disqualify your school from participating, impose a significant burden on applying for the program, or substantially limit the benefits to your school and students. 

You need to decide which programs are worth the effort for your school to apply and comply.

In general, federal programs require significant effort to access, but are well worth the effort if your school and students meet certain criteria. If you have a large number of low-income students or students with disabilities, or you have serious security vulnerabilities, then the benefits can be substantial. Note, the federal programs generally come in the form of reimbursements (National School Lunch Program, Nonprofit Security Grant Program) or services (IDEA, Title I, Title II), so they won’t put new money into your budget.

State and local programs vary widely. In states with scholarships or vouchers, you just need to make sure your school meets the basic eligibility requirements (nearly all Jewish schools do) and can handle the reporting requirements; the parents themselves bear the burden of actually applying. This is generally a no-brainer. 

Programs for security improvements, mandated services reimbursement, nursing services, textbooks and STEM teacher programs involve more substantial paperwork. However, since most schools are eligible and the funding is significant, it’s usually worth the administrative burden.

Preschool funding programs around the country are trickier. Many come with a host of space, curriculum and hours requirements; review these closely to see if it makes sense for your school to participate.

Apply

Nearly every program at every level has a webpage with instructions on how to apply. For federally funded IDEA and Title programs, school districts are required by law to reach out proactively and invite you to participate (though not all districts do this diligently). 

Simply find the right instructions and application documents and follow them closely. Every government has program staff who can answer your questions. Teach Coalition and other advocacy groups generally have staff available to help if you run into any trouble. 

If you aren’t sure what to do, or even where to start, then reach out for help early in the process. For the extremely complex National School Lunch Program, many schools rely on third-party firms that employ experts with decades of experience to handle the application, compliance and reporting aspects of the program.

One important point is to double check every word of every application for compliance with the application instructions and program requirements. Leaving out key information or supporting documentation—most applications have some sort of required attachments—can result in your application being denied.

Finally, apply early. Waiting until the week of the deadline to begin reviewing and completing the application invites all kinds of risks: not getting it done in time, encountering questions you don’t know how to answer, or learning of required documents that take more than a week to track down.

Comply

Most programs have requirements for how the funding can be used, how the services are received or what information must be reported to the government.

Programs that provide government-funded services—IDEA, the Title programs, the New Jersey STEM teacher program and school nurse programs—generally require close and ongoing coordination with your local school district.

Programs that provide government-supplied equipment—certain state security programs, textbook programs and technology programs—generally maintain government ownership of the goods and may require annual inventory or other reporting requirements.

Programs that cover tuition costs—scholarship, vouchers and preschool programs—may require financial audits or reporting to ensure the money is not misused. Such reporting can be quite onerous, depending on the state and program.

Programs that provide reimbursements—most security grant programs, mandated services reimbursement programs and the New York STEM teacher program—generally have no reporting requirements after the reimbursement application is approved by the state. (Note: For security grant programs, there is usually a one- to two-year period between grant award, completion of the approved security project and final reimbursement by the state. During this period, these programs often have ongoing quarterly reporting requirements.)

Whatever compliance or reporting requirements are attached to a program, it’s important to follow them carefully. Some programs impose penalties on schools that fail to meet the requirements, such as being barred from future funding, and may even claw back the funding.

Advocate

Government funding can be a large revenue stream for Jewish day schools. In states with large school choice programs, these programs can contribute to upwards of 30% of a school’s budget. Even in other states, combined state and federal programs can reach 5–15% of a school’s budget, for the right school. This is aside from the government-funded services that may be available to your students.

Teach Coalition’s state divisions in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maryland are advocating nonstop to increase government funding for our schools. Our grassroots advocacy has dramatically increased nonpublic school funding in the states where we operate, from less than $400 million in state funding in 2012 to about $2.5 billion in 2022.

Our successful advocacy relies heavily on participation by Jewish schools, students and their parents to influence politicians and keep moving the needle on government funding.

As a school administrator, we urge you not only to maximize your school’s government funding, but also to join us in advocating for increased government funding across the board.

Our Greatest Value Lies in...

Affordability

Teaching Each According to Their Own Way

Rabbi Elliot Hecht

Principal, HANC Middle School, Uniondale, New York

When I think about our yeshiva, the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County’s greatest value, the first thing that comes to my mind is how we treat each individual. This applies to students, academic faculty, non-academic faculty, support staff and parents. Our motto is: Chanoch le-na‘ar al-pi darko, which means: Teach each child according to his own way (Mishlei/Proverbs 22:6).

When we educate, we do not just educate a grade or even a class. We individualize the instruction and tailor it to the needs of each student. We make sure that each student is able to be successful. We open pathways for that success. If we see that a student is struggling with a particular concept, we work with them until they can understand. If the student is excelling, we challenge them to go even further. 

This individualization applies not only to curricular areas. We are a nursery-12th grade school that looks different at different age levels. For example, in our high school we continue to look at our extracurricular offerings and see what we can add to meet the needs and interests of our students. Some years, band may be of particular interest; in others, it is dance or Chidon HaTanakh. In order to best service our students, we need to offer activities that interest them.

This individualization extends to the parent body as well. Each parent gives us their most precious commodity, and we don’t take that lightly. Each parent has distinct needs in terms of how they want us to approach their son or daughter. We have a certain standard that we uphold; how we achieve it is individualized to the family. When parents call anyone of the HANC team, they know they are going to get a call back almost immediately. I have often heard from parents that they are amazed that they feel they have just hung up the phone or just pressed “send” and they are already getting a response. Not only is the response fast but it is unique to each parent and child’s situation.

Another one of our greatest values is NOP, which stands for New Opportunities Program. This program is for students who join our school from public school. Over the years we have heard from countless individuals that if not for our yeshiva, they would not have been able to get a Jewish education. It is so hard for someone who wants to transfer in from public school. Even though they have the motivation, they lack the skills that other students have who have been in yeshiva since they were young. In NOP, they learn the basics that allow them to join the mainstream classes in just one year, in most cases. This is another way that we individualize. In fact, for this year’s middle school graduation, the students were asked what their best memory of their experience was. One of the students said that it was his first day, because he got to learn Torah for the first time in his life.

HANC’s greatest value is our ability to work with each individual and help them become the best person they can be.

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Akiva Nashville picture

The Community “Peg”

Rabbi Laurie Rice, Board Member, and Rabbi Flip Rice

Parents, Akiva Day School, Nashville

הֲיֻקַּח מִמֶּנּוּ עֵץ לַעֲשׂוֹת לִמְלָאכָה אִם־יִקְחוּ מִמֶּנּוּ יָתֵד לִתְלוֹת עָלָיו כׇּל־כֶּלִי׃

Can wood be taken from it for use in any work? Can one take a peg from it to hang any vessel on? Ezekiel 15:3

Jewish educators are the “keepers” of our faith. They store our sacred tradition, its texts and observances, and continually open the treasure chest of Jewish meaning for children and their families. 

There are many things we believe as Reform rabbis. One of them is that the Akiva Day School is the most vital Jewish institution in the fast-growing city of Nashville. It is the “peg” on which we hang our future. Because our Jewish community understands the importance of education (in a state that scores near dead last on aptitude tests), Akiva’s faculty is top-notch, its board of directors is thoughtful and effective, and its head of school, Rabba Daniella Pressner, is one of the finest Jewish scholars and leaders in the country. Its success hinges upon a spirit of innovation, a commitment to excellence and the result of using its resources wisely. 

A “peg on which to hang something” usually refers to a fact or issue that is used as support. It is a reason for something said or done, or as it is used in Talmudic discourse, it is an authority upon which to base your opinion. Rabbi Akiva once said, “It is not that Eleazar knows more Torah than I do but that he is descended from greater people than I am. Happy is the person whose ancestors have gained merit for him. Happy is the person who has a ‘peg’ on which to hang.” The Jewish tradition is a scaffolding of good character. Students who attend Akiva learn not only how to be good Jews, they learn to be kind humans.

To continually believe in something—to really have faith—it must be tested. We love our three teenage children, all graduates of Akiva School. They constantly test us! Each carries different intellectual strengths and interests, but all three have strong character, which we recognize was developed not just under our tutelage. Rather, they were shaped by the values they were exposed to while studying their heritage with peers. Their sense of equality, of pride in Jewish identity, was cultivated in the classrooms and beit knesset of the Akiva School. 

“What are we?” our daughter once asked as we drove her home from school.

“What do you mean?” we replied.

“Are we Orthodox or Conservative or Reform? What are we?” Funny question considering she is the daughter of two Reform rabbis. 

“We are Jews,” we told her. She seemed reassured. It’s how she saw herself as an Akiva student. Jewish. Part of the larger Am Yisrael. Responsible to and descended from the entire Jewish community. As it should be.

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CHAT

Ruach

Rabbi Eli Mandel

Vice Principal, TannenbaumCHAT, Toronto

I was hired as a rabbinics teacher at TanenbaumCHAT, and on my first day I was assigned a Grade 10 applied rabbinics class. My mentor warned me that this was likely the most difficult class in the school to teach. Grade 10 students are enabled but not mature enough to know how to behave. “Applied” meant that they had less experience with Jewish texts; “rabbinics” meant it was a not-for-credit course. I mentally prepared for the worst and, just like the books told me to do, I walked into my classroom, creative lesson in hand, with confidence, good posture and a smile on my face.

To my shock and great delight, I was greeted by the most pleasant, well-behaved, eager-to-learn group of students that I had ever taught. They had their books open, pens in hand, and were ready to soak in my every word. This lasted the entire year and was repeated for every class that I taught in the school.

What I learned on that first day, 19 years ago, is the magic that’s in the air at TanenbaumCHAT. Our school’s greatest value lies in this quality, which can be called the ruach or school culture. The culture at TanenbaumCHAT is that “it’s cool to do well academically.” Other parts of our wonderful school culture excite our students to get involved in school life and to do everything in their power to become a school leader. Whether they are applying to become a madrich or a school ambassador, or running for a position on Student Council, our students line up eager and enthusiastic to be selected. Equally important, there is a sense of derech eretz and respect that permeates throughout the entire school community.

In “The Culture Builder,” an article published in Educational Leadership, Roland Barth describes school culture as “a complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization. It is the historically transmitted pattern of meaning that wields astonishing power in shaping what people think and how they act” (my emphasis).

Once entrenched, school cultures are extremely difficult to change. For schools with weak or toxic cultures, this is bad news. Changing a toxic culture requires years of consistent small actions that are strategic and deliberate. For schools like TanenbaumCHAT that are blessed with a culture that is alive and flourishing, we must be diligent and ensure that we aren’t slipping. 

Over the past two years, like everyone, we needed to implement many changes. We turned the timetable on its head, switching to quadmesters and lessons that ran for two hours. Our extracurricular programming had to be dramatically reduced, with much of it offered only virtually. More recently, teams of faculty members spent a great deal  of time thinking about how to recapture all of the full in-person TanenbaumCHAT spirit that we know and love.

We remain confident that with the continued outstanding efforts of our stellar team of educators, our school culture—one that has stood the test of time for more than 60 years—will continue to bring excitement to our hallways and ruach to our community for decades  to come.

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PJA picture

Kehillah

Merrill Hendin

Principal, Portland Jewish Academy, Oregon

Kehillah (community) and shayachut (belonging): These are two key words that come to mind when I think about our school. As a pluralistic Jewish community day school, we are well aligned with the city in which we live, which leans progressive and inclusive. Having come from a larger Jewish community (Brooklyn) where Jewish day schools were mostly affiliated with a particular religious denomination and only Jewish families attended, it felt very different to me to enter PJA over 30 years ago and realize the beauty in this inclusive kehillah, where families from the broad spectrum of Jewish life, and some who do not identify as Jewish, all find a home at our school. As a teacher, parent, active volunteer and, for the past 16 years, a member of the school’s administration, I have had the privilege of being a part of the growth of our beautiful school. 

PJA stands on six foundational middot: limmud (learning), kavod (respect), zehut (identity), achrayut (responsibility), kehillah and hodayah (gratitude), all of which are palpable as one moves through our halls and spends time in our classrooms. The learning is rich; students and teachers are respectful of each other and of the core value of being a Jewish day school. The children in our school, from the very youngest in our early childhood program (six weeks old) to the oldest in our eighth grade, are developing a strong sense of themselves and the world in which they live. From a very young age, they learn about tikkun, repair, whether it be their classroom, our school, their family, the city in which they live or the larger world around them. This helps to grow their sense of identity and responsibility for themselves and the world they live in.

All of this comes back to what I see as a pillar of our school: a sense of belonging to a kehillah that nurtures, educates and cares deeply for each other. One only has to walk through our halls to feel that sense of belonging as our youngest and oldest students come together in mishpachot, family groupings, to celebrate Shabbat, holidays and other special times throughout the year. For students, families and faculty, the overall feeling that PJA is their home, the place they come to every day to learn, play and interact with their community, is palpable and important. We are proud to make mensches at PJA, students who think for themselves, work for the world, and feel a deep sense of belonging and responsibility to their community.

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Frankel 1

Consistency and Coherence

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

Head of School, Frankel Jewish Academy, West Bloomfield, Michigan

If there is anything young adults are good at, it is spotting inconsistency. As they learn to navigate a world that they are making sense of and finding their place in, anything that smacks of hypocrisy becomes fodder for critique and could ultimately undo the best of educational intentions. At Frankel Jewish Academy, we’ve taken aim at consistency and coherence by infusing our entire professional school culture with elements of pedagogy and learning (and of course our core values). In particular, learning and growth, assessment and evaluation, have become an integral part of our professional lives at FJA.

We emphasize that learning shouldnt just be relegated to the classrooms. It should be a communal pursuit, with teachers and staff modeling the learning process and reflecting “learner characteristics” in all that they do. For nearly a decade and a half, we have focused on creating a culture of professional learning that emphasizes growth. Over 10 years ago, we established a new teacher induction and peer coaching program. The program’s aim, to ensure teacher success and growth at all levels of experience, led to the realization that unless we were engaged in our own learning and employing best practices in that endeavor, we are invoking a “Do as I say but not as I do” tack while working to inspire our students to be “lifelong learners” (the finale clause of our mission statement).

At the board level as well, we often speak of the importance of continued learning and growth. We acknowledge that trustees have much to learn about the school and about their role as trustees. Board education builds and enhances our board’s capacity and serves as an additional affirmation that we are a community that values and incorporates essential elements of learning and pedagogy into everything that we do.

We also gave serious thought to the role evaluation, assessment and data gathering plays in our professional pursuits. Just as assessment plays a critical role in students’ learning, we incorporate a variety of evaluation tools into our professional routine. Nearly a decade ago, we developed and named our system of evaluation “Supervision for Growth,” clearly articulating that professional growth is the intended outcome of evaluation. At this time, through a collaborative process, we are updating our evaluation system to reflect our newly developed “characteristics of professional excellence.” The updates will create coherence between elements we value as a professional community, and the system will continue to support skill and knowledge acquisition by emphasizing goal setting, reflecting on successes and developing strategies to overcome challenges.

Constituent surveys further highlight the importance of assessment as a learning tool. On a yearly basis, we survey staff, faculty, students and parents to understand if we are achieving our strategic and programmatic goals. Our board evaluation likewise informs trustees whether our board is knowledgeable about its role and whether it is operating with best practices in mind.

Most recently, we have established learning cohorts, where each member of our staff and faculty, regardless of role, engages in peer learning and capacity building around specific topics of interest related to our educational vision and our characteristics of professional excellence.

This year, I’ve joined a cohort related to our educational vision, tasked with “creating a learning environment where students develop a ‘failure tolerance’ and are willing to take risks in their learning.” While teachers can think about this through the lens of their classrooms—assessment, grading, classroom culture—I can think more broadly about how we develop consistency and coherence around “failure tolerance” (not a term I love) throughout our school.

How, as professionals, can we incorporate this into our practice and model the “failure-tolerant” approach for our students? In a school setting, what would it look like if our professionals saw “failure” as merely an opportunity to learn? If they saw taking a risk as an opportunity to innovate and succeed? How can our leadership team (lay and professional) model this for our staff, faculty and students, and how can we effectively communicate and partner with our parents? Will they see the stakes as too high, or will they understand that the stakes are too high not to try?

At FJA, our commitment to pursue coherence and consistency in education will, in the long term, teach our students that the path to success and growth is through employing best learning practices and demonstrating a willingness for vulnerability at every level of career or life.

Moving the Needle on Affordability

Chavie Kahn
Affordability

More Families Are Struggling with Affordability 

New York is home to more students who attend Jewish day schools and yeshivot than anywhere else in the country. Tuition at New York day schools increases approximately 3% per year and can reach north of $40,000 or even $50,000. As tuition rises and the total bill, including costs such as scholarship fees and security fees, also rises, so too does the number of families requiring tuition assistance. In fact, at the end of 2021, it is estimated that New York Jewish day schools and yeshivot saw an average rise of over 10 percent in tuition assistance requests for the 2021-22 school year from just three years ago. And for too long, we’ve seen families hesitant to explore the day school system because of a lack of affordability. Schools are balancing meeting the affordability needs of families while also seeking ways to become more financially sustainable. 

Recent data shows that 51% of families in New York day schools and yeshivot receive tuition assistance, including both low- and middle-income families. The increasing financial challenge facing day schools leaves them in a conundrum: How can they meet the demand for excellent (and expensive) academics while facing an affordability crisis marked by increasing scholarship requests?

Over the years, New York day schools have met the affordability challenge through interventions, including providing scholarship to families in need, investing in academic excellence to drive recruitment and retention of families, and more recently building endowments to help secure longer-term financial sustainability. While New York day schools and yeshivot have received annual government funding in targeted areas such as STEM education, security and, increasingly, universal Pre-K programs, government funding to significantly reduce a family’s tuition bill from year to year remains a long-term goal. 

As much as schools and communities have recognized the “affordability issue” in the past two decades, the recent dramatic increase in costs due to inflation and the impact of Covid on enrollment for some schools is creating a sense of urgency for schools to explore solutions. School leaders often are forced to fundraise for “special projects” such as needed capital improvements, all while tuition assistance as a percentage of the annual budget has increased dramatically since 2008. 

Three New York Initiatives

New York features a wide range of day schools and yeshivot, distinct in terms of geography, size and culture, which are at vastly different points on their journey to address the affordability challenge. Two recent studies, Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic by Prizmah and The Finances of Orthodox Jewish Life: A Nishma Research Study, along with UJA-Federation of New York data collection, suggest that different school cultures and goals will dictate different approaches to affordability. Here we discuss three initiatives that directly helped schools close the affordability gap. 

Fund for Jewish Education 

For 44 years, through the Fund for Jewish Education, funded by UJA together with the Caroline and Joseph Gruss Life Monument Funds, UJA has helped over 150 schools retain high-quality educators through competitive packages including life insurance, medical insurance and pension plans for over 6,000 teachers at day schools and yeshivot. With the current shrinking of the teacher pipeline, continuing to support schools’ ability to keep exceptional educators remains a priority. This funding relieves stress on the budget bottom line, freeing up dollars to be used for other important work within the school. 

Day School Challenge Fund 

In 2014, UJA created the $50 million Day School Challenge Fund initiative, powered by a matching pool to provide incentives for day schools and yeshivot to become more financially viable by building school endowments at UJA. The result of this challenge fund is approximately $84 million in endowments for the benefit of day schools and yeshivot. Eighteen New York schools participating in the program receive annual distributions from the endowments created in the initiative. The participating schools recognize that the endowment funds help secure their long-term financial health. While the endowment was not created for a pandemic, DSCF schools shared that having an one helped them get through the difficult economic times. 

DSCF participants report that the initiative started to change endowment-raising norms within individual schools and that the match was the key factor motivating donors to give to the endowment. For example, one school increased the value of its endowment fund fourfold. Beyond the match, schools indicated that the structured program and deliverables, including “homework” between campaign strategy sessions, kept them focused on the four critical elements for campaign success: building the case for support, mobilizing professional staff and effectively engaging lay leadership, identifying prospects, and developing a comprehensive and realistic campaign plan.

As all the funds have been raised under the DSCF matching program, UJA now offers a new opportunity for NY day schools and yeshivot to invest their own newly raised endowment funds in UJA’s recently established Jewish Institutions Investment Fund, a charitable pooled fund that also invests UJA’s endowment, benefiting schools by creating access to best-in-class investment managers and strong governance. 

Takeaways shared by DSCF schools include that once a school community sees the endowment dollars directly impacting the budget’s bottom line, the school is better positioned to raise even more money. Day school boards are learning that a skilled and dedicated development director (one who is not tasked with numerous additional job functions such as marketing, admissions and communications) nets a positive ROI. 

Tuition Affordability Models 

Most experts predict that, unfortunately, tuition rates will continue to rise. The average tuition at private schools has risen by 50% over the past decade. Day school tuition is poised to mirror a similar trend. Currently, 51% of all families in New York day schools and yeshivot receive some level of tuition assistance and about 21% of those families receive more than a 50% reduction in tuition. 

Over the last decade, only half a dozen schools have launched a tuition affordability program. This is not enough to move the needle on affordability in New York. To address this growing affordability crisis for families, this past July UJA engaged Prizmah to lead a workshop intended to deepen school leadership’s knowledge, expertise and skills necessary to explore the benefits of new tuition models that align with their enrollment and financial goals. 

Over two days, 18 schools (serving K-8 and K-12 and nearly 12,500 students) shared strategies to bridge the affordability gap. Key areas for focus included socioeconomic realities for families and what constitutes “middle income” and eligibility. One of the most compelling highlights shared during the training included two presentations that showed how the middle-income model can work. Several participants cited as compelling Westchester Day School’s income-based tuition cap program and the formula that the school employs. (For a closer look at this initiative, see article in this issue of HaYidion.) The attendees at the workshop appreciated learning about the program’s benefits, such as providing increased predictability of tuition assistance awards to families. The presentation by Greater MetroWest NJ Federation outlined its community model of middle-income affordability, and its impacts on the school and its community. The case studies helped inspire some of the schools to consider exploring a program for themselves. 

Since the workshop, several schools are developing or have demonstrated interest in developing new pathways to address the challenges. One school is working on developing a middle-income program to increase its appeal to those families who might be deterred by the price of tuition and are disinclined to apply for tuition assistance. Leaders at another school is thinking through how they might increase their student body diversity through the use of a tuition-reduction program. 

Takeaways 

Affordability is a multifaceted challenge in need of a multifaceted set of solutions. Excellent educations are “table stakes” (to borrow a phrase from poker) these days for Jewish day schools and yeshivot, and they increase the perceived value of the tuition paid. Capacity utilization—increased enrollment—helps to manage operating expenses per student and thus reduces the pressure to raise tuition. Endowments provide long-term financial support for scholarships for families with a range of incomes. 

There is no silver bullet to “solve” the affordability crisis. But since it is our collective responsibility to ensure that we transmit our tradition and values from generation to generation (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1), we must strategize, plan and attract new investors to the day school system, all with the objective of yielding sustainable day schools and yeshivot for years to come. 

As schools continue to clarify their strategic priorities, they can capitalize on the opportunity to accommodate a wider range of families. UJA envisions developing new learning opportunities for school leadership to explore strategies to deepen their school’s financial sustainability while at the same time meeting the financial needs of parents. We are grateful to the schools that have begun this effort and look forward to working with more schools to promote accessibility for many families, elevating the community and learning experience for all to thrive in New York day schools and yeshivot.

Simplifying the Tuition Process Creates Trust and Goodwill

Aaron Lauchheimer
Affordability

The cost to educate a child in any school system is significant. The average cost for a public school student easily exceeds $20,000 in New York. Jewish day schools, which provide a dual curriculum to students, face a double burden. In the absence of governmental support, tuition needs to cover costs, which keep rising. 

The largest driver of a school’s budget are personnel costs. While trimming administrative and non-educational staff may yield some savings, they are hardly significant enough to make a meaningful difference in tuition rates.

Rather than trying to lower tuition through cost-saving mechanisms, which leads to numerous unappealing choices, schools need to focus on enrolling more children in Jewish day schools. In most communities, there is no shortage of children to fill the schools. The question is how to entice those families for whom price is a barrier to entry. 

Improving an Invasive Experience

While the majority of Jewish day schools preach that no student will be turned away due to a lack of funds, the path to ultimately figuring out what those families can pay involves an invasive and intrusive process. If you have never read your own school’s scholarship application, I encourage you to do so. It will be an eye-opening experience and probably leave you feeling a bit queasy. And it also will make it easier to understand why many families opt out of the Jewish day school system and go to public school. Families who are made to feel as though they are begging and need to disclose how much they spend a month on cable will, at a certain point, simply walk out and pick an education that they are already paying for via their tax dollars.

The solution lies not in how much (or how little) tuition is set by the schools but rather how the school’s tuition needs are met. Doing so, though, requires a leap of faith.

In 2019, Westchester Day School took that leap. Through the efforts of lay and professional leaders, we implemented a tuition scale that is set as a percentage of a family’s reported adjusted gross income (as reported on IRS Form 1040). This program is available to families with an income range of $150,000-$450,000. The percentage scale ranges from 10%-20%, depending on the reported income. The program is available to families regardless of the number of children they enroll in our school.

The formula created was the result of an intensive yearlong study. It is based largely on anonymized historical scholarship data demonstrating that, absent extenuating circumstances, most families are able and willing to pay these amounts. WDS families now can do so without submitting a scholarship application; they need only submit their Form 1040 to verify their income. 

The program also takes Jewish high school tuition into account; WDS expects a family to pay only the school’s pro-rata share of the family’s income-based tuition cap. For example, if the family’s default obligation to WDS is $50,000 and its obligation to a Jewish high school is $25,000, WDS merely asks that the family pay 50/75 (or two-thirds) of its income-based capped tuition amount to WDS, with the remainder presumptively earmarked for high school tuition.

Keeping with the theme of a creating a user-friendly experience, we designed and built a tuition calculator for the school’s website, allowing parents to plug in their adjusted gross income (AGI), the grades in which their children will be enrolled at WDS and any Jewish high schools their older children will attend, to determine their tuition obligation to WDS.

The program has two built-in fail-safes. First, the scholarship committee reviews all applications for any red flags in the 1040 itself or based on information available in the community. For example, a family reporting a negative AGI would be a red flag. In the event the committee flags an application, families are invited to provide an explanation as to the circumstances of the information contained in the 1040. 

Second, the available discount is capped at 40% of a family’s tuition obligation, as a compromise between the competing values of streamlining the process for as many families as possible and recognizing that AGI is not always the exclusive factor in determining what a family can reasonably afford. Discounts larger than 40% remain available through the traditional scholarship process.

Changed Systems, Changed Relationships

Since the program was implemented, we have been able to dramatically reduce the number of families that go through the traditional scholarship process. In addition, a number of families that switched from traditional scholarship to our AGI program ended up paying slightly more in tuition based on the AGI formula. They likely did so in order to avoid the invasiveness of the traditional scholarship process. As a result, families receive assistance similar to that available through our traditional scholarship program but in a way that consistently reinforces a positive relationship between our families and the school.

When we launched the AGI program, a number of lay leaders expressed concern that we would lose money, or worse, be taken advantage of by families who had never previously applied for scholarship but who fell within the AGI band we established. One person went so far as to claim that the program would cause financial ruin to the school. 

Fortunately, none of those predictions came to fruition. The thinking behind them was based on a view of tuition being an adversarial system. By making tuition a collaborative and rational process, families were provided with dignity and respect, which in turn created trust between the school and its families.

Collaborating to Make Judaics Teaching an “Affordable Profession”

Shira Epstein
Affordability

In fall 2019, pre-pandemic and a month into my deanship at the William Davidson School, I was approached by a community day school administrator seeking support with what has by now become infamously known as “the pipeline issue”: the pressing challenge of attracting and retaining Judaics classroom teachers to fill increasingly vacant positions. He described in detail what would be the first of many similar narratives I would hear from day school leadership over the ensuing months, which increased in urgency during the pandemic. Many of this day school’s strongest and most veteran teachers were looking toward retirement, and school leadership were in need of strategy for recruiting novice teachers. He wondered: How might Jewish education teacher preparatory programs, such as the one we facilitate at our graduate school, support such an effort?

As I listened to the frustration in the administrator’s plea, I heard an invitation to co-imagine strategies for enlarging the pool of trained teachers who might persevere through the growing pains of the first years of teaching to become valued faculty members. Beyond a request for more teachers, beyond a simplistic casting the problem as a supply chain issue, was the question of how programs such as ours could message and brand Judaics classroom teacher as a viable career, an affordable career—a career of value, in all respects.

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Epstein illustration 2

This request for strategizing how we brand Judaics teaching as a valued career was the flip side of what I had been hearing from the master’s students I had been teaching for 15 years and coaching as they sought their first full-time day school positions. After investing in higher education, they were often unable to secure a teaching position that would offer a livable wage, especially when schools were hesitant to offer lead teaching positions to those who were new to teaching. As a result, graduates of a two-year in-residence master’s program were often being offered lower-wage assistant or associate teaching positions. Some would abandon the career track of classroom teaching altogether, pursuing instead a higher paid Jewish educator position, such as synagogue school education director or an education-focused position within a Jewish nonprofit.

Herein was the problem-within-the-problem: If we wanted to expand the pipeline of teachers, we had to develop a multipronged solution that would both recruit Judaics teachers to the field while simultaneously offering a concrete pathway to advancement to lead teacher positions.  To address the teacher recruitment issue at its core, schools and providers of professional and academic-based training needed to collaborate at the outset in messaging that Jewish communities are committed to providing both financial incentives and mentoring supports. Thus, the Hitlamdut Fellowship was conjured up.

The goal of Hitlamdut is to support novice Judaic studies teachers through coursework in pedagogic content knowledge, reflective practice and curriculum design. Participants are enrolled in the William Davidson School’s online, part-time, asynchronous MA program, and teach full-time while concurrently taking two online JTS courses per semester. While we have been granting distance learning MAs since 2006, this fellowship was designed and tailored specifically for in-service classroom teachers, offering enhanced merit aid and mentorship. Fellows are fully funded by JTS in partnership with their schools. The fellowship name, Hitlamdut, reflects the Mussar-based value of “mindfulness”; fellows benefit from both individualized and cohort-based coaching and feedback that supports them in building a community of practice.

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Epstein illustration 3

Based on feedback from participants in our inaugural cohort, here are incentives and opportunities that day schools can consider for attracting early career educators during springtime teacher recruitment season.

Build incentives for professional development into the benefits package and advertise these benefits. We need to offer professional and academic learning to novice teachers that complements and enhances their understanding of teaching as a profession. To that end, the Hitlamdut Fellowship is designed to be available only to full-time teachers. While this might at first seem counterintuitive, feedback from the fellows indicates that this feature is what enables them to take the long view and imagine the classroom as a career, rather than an interim post-college gig on the way to a different career choice.

One fellow who was a recent college graduate shared that she would not have applied to an MA in Jewish education program this early in her career had she not known of this opportunity to teach full-time while also taking courses as a part-time student. By connecting early career teachers at all stages of life to part-time learning options, we are messaging that they can engage simultaneously in gaining experience, earning a salary and advancing their credentials.

Vary the types of incentives offered, including asynchronous online options. The online and asynchronous learning options across North America have vastly increased during the pandemic. Our fellows have repeatedly shared that this format was the key feature that led to their engaging with an MA program, as it eased their personal scheduling concerns. This feature of online options for professional development and learning positions teaching as an “affordable career,” as those with young children or other after-work commitments have more flexibility in the late afternoon and evening hours. In the words of one of our fellows: “I think it’s incredible that I’m able to do both, and I don’t have to leave faculty meetings early, I don’t have to leave school early to go to class, I’m able to stay the full day, I’m able to work, I’m able to take classes… That you’re able to work full-time and get a degree is compelling.” 

Include varied financial incentives, working in partnership with board members and other donors. Classroom teachers need opportunities for credential advancement that are affordable. Perhaps your school has a board member or a local donor who would want to sponsor a novice teacher in their learning. We have found that this model offers an opportunity for engaging a school’s local community in co-solving the pipeline challenge, by becoming personally invested in the cause. Our fellows have shared with us that the full tuition scholarship is imperative to teaching being an affordable career.

Ensure that mentoring and coaching opportunities are components of benefits packages. Over the past decade, day schools have increasingly been building mentoring opportunities directly into offer letters. Alumni of our program have shared that mentoring support within the school, and in partnership with organizations such as New Jewish Teachers Project, have eased their burnout concerns. By co-sponsoring and subsidizing such supports, and/or by partnering with organizations that can offer this outside support, day schools are demonstrating that teachers are worth this investment.

Hitlamdut is but one example of addressing both the pipeline and affordability issues as systemic and interconnected challenges. Through incentives and supports to novice and earlier career teachers, we can broadcast the message that Judaics classroom teaching is a viable career.