HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

18: The Chai Year Transitioning from Growth to Sustainability

by Tal Lewin-Wittle and Rachel Sobel Bearman Issue: Size Matters

How do small schools transition from the intimacy and excitement of the early years to becoming financially sustainable? The authors offer a host of initiatives that they are implementing to try to strengthen their school’s economic footing.

The Lerner School started as a dream—one that captured the imagination of thirteen founding families, future families, and community members. In 1994, few American Jewish communities as small as Durham/Chapel Hill had the chutzpah to believe that they could build and support a Jewish day school. But through determination and innumerable meetings, a school was established, founding teachers were hired, and indelible bonds were formed in friendship. Fourteen students in one combination K-1 class grew to two and then three classes. A preschool was opened, afterschool was added, and the staff expanded.

The shape and scope of a full-scale school came into being. The committed day school families and a diverse group of community members set out to raise funds to build a Jewish school campus. A generous gift of land from Judea Reform Congregation, a challenge gift from the Michael Steinhardt Foundation, as well as Steve Lerner and Sharon Van Horn’s naming donation of the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School laid the financial foundation for the Lerner School of today. Over 100 additional community donors committed to the vision, and Lerner’s permanent home opened in 1998.

“When a watershed event occurs, those who are party to it very often do not grasp its meaning or power,” said Rabbi John Friedman of Judea Reform Congregation on the occasion of the Lerner School’s Chai Year celebration. “The founding of [the Lerner] school 18 years ago heralded a sea change for our [Durham-Chapel Hill] community. I doubt that the 13 or so founding families had any idea that they were setting out on a journey that would change our community’s very conception of itself, but that is exactly the effect that the Lerner School has exerted upon us.”

While we have much to celebrate here at the Lerner School during our Chai/18th year, we also face challenges to our continued sustainability. We imagine that many small schools face the same issues of declining or stagnant enrollment and increasing costs. Moreover, while Lerner has generous and committed community support, it does not have many major donors, a significant established endowment, or resources from a well funded Jewish federation.

For 15 of the last 18 years, the Lerner School was on a growth trajectory, reaching a height of enrollment in 2011-12 with 152 students in preschool-5th grade. Lerner’s steady enrollment growth demanded consideration of a building expansion. At the same time, the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish community was considering the potential of a Jewish Community Center. In 2005 Lerner entered into a partnership with the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation to raise funds to build a new preschool wing onto the existing Lerner building and a Jewish Community Center. The preschool wing opened in 2009 with four classrooms, and the JCC opened in 2010 with dedicated classrooms for art and music and a full size gym for use during school hours. In our small community, both organizations recognized the benefits of partnership and our ability to accomplish together that which we could not do alone.

Our strategic plan developed in 2010 projected that by 2015, total enrollment at the Lerner School would reach 185 students, with 60 full-time preschoolers and 125 children in grades K-5. These enrollment forecasts predicted additional tuition revenue able to cover the new costs of mortgage debt on the preschool building and rental fees for the use of facilities at the newly built JCC. The reality, however, was quite different. Over the past 5 years, Lerner’s combined attrition rate averaged 20% and enrollment into kindergarten dropped by 50%. At the same time tuition rose approximately 5% per year.

This year the school enrolled 131 students in preschool-5th grade. Based on current trends, next year we expect to sustain this enrollment but do not foresee reaching 152, and certainly not our hopeful 185 in the near future. While the partnership with the federation was the correct decision for the Lerner School and the community, the addition of mortgage and rental payments to the operating budget, coinciding with underenrollment in the preschool and decreased enrollment in elementary school, has led to a strain on Lerner’s current finances. Over the past two years the school has experienced deficits in the operating budget leading to a decrease in reserves.

In some respects, our admissions decline and current enrollment plateau are not surprising. The continued pressure from stagnant wages across many sectors of our local economy and rising cost-of-living has made affording day school out of reach for many families. Our own observations support this hypothesis: of families that leave the school, 50% of those students go to public schools and 34% move out of the area. In addition, as enrollment has declined over the past few years, inquiries and tours of the school have increased, leading to a belief in a strong correlation between cost and commitment to attend. The school has an outstanding reputation for academics, with our graduating fifth graders sought after by local private schools, and our tuition is competitive with local independent schools.

Tuition and fees are out of reach for many, and there is often a gap between what families can afford to pay and what scholarship aid is available. Lerner allocates approximately 13% of the operating budget to scholarship assistance for 39% of enrolled students. While Lerner distributes its entire scholarship budget, demand exceeds quantity and approximately $325,000 of the ask goes unfunded. Financial scholarship is funded through Lerner’s operating budget as well as income from two small endowments and a federation allocation, which cover 3% and 7%, respectively, of financial scholarship awarded.

On top of this economic pressure, our market for eligible students is small. We recently estimated the number of Jewish children in grades K-5 in Durham-Chapel Hill at between 700 and 1,000 potential students. At the high end of the scale, that would give the Lerner School a market penetration of 8.8%, more than four times the national non-Orthodox Jewish day school market share of 2.1%. While this speaks to great success at the Lerner School as compared to a national benchmark, it does raise the question, how many students is it reasonable to enroll from our small eligible pool?

To address our enrollment challenges, we are undertaking several ventures. The board authorized a strategic expenditure to improve marketing of our value proposition, including highlighting of signature curriculum initiatives, such as the Compassion Project and Environmental Curriculum. To broaden our eligible pool of students, we have increased recruitment efforts into the Raleigh market, which no longer has a Jewish day school. We are further cultivating synagogue and Chabad preschools as feeders for our elementary program. Even though our preschool just renewed its 5-Star license and received one of the highest programming scores, we are undertaking a thorough review of our preschool market and program to evaluate whether we can fill 60 full-time preschool slots.

To improve retention, the school has embarked on numerous undertakings, two of which are highlighted here (see inset). Finally, the finance committee and admissions director are investigating alternative tuition models and new grant and scholarship programs to help reduce barriers to entry and retain students through graduation. In the past, Lerner experimented with affordability grants to improve retention rates. It was successful in its first year but not in its second and the program is now under reconsideration to determine how best to reach appropriate families. Other initiatives under consideration are sliding scale and segmented tuition, grade-based tuition scale, steady tuition rates for particular grades based on multiyear commitments, etc.

Along with addressing enrollment issues, we are also developing plans to improve the school’s financial sustainability. The board firmly believes that the Lerner School should be a community partner with our JCC, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, and be a financially strong organization with the ability to provide Jewish day school education to all families who desire it. We continue to partner with the federation and adjacent JCC to deliver programs that benefit all our organizations and enhance Jewish life in Durham-Chapel Hill. Due to the size of the federation campaign and other community priorities, the yearly federation allocation to the Lerner School contributes less than 1% to the school’s operating budget. The board’s development committee is evaluating our entire financial resource development program, and will craft the most efficient strategies for our limited professional development staff hours.

Although we are blessed with a donor base that contributes approximately $185,000 ($128,000 in direct ask; $57,000 in fundraisers) per year, the average gift to our annual campaign hovers around $500, with few consistent donors who gives over $10,000 annually. Understanding capacity of our donors and potential avenues for additional fundraising will be key to supporting our academic programs and financial scholarship initiatives. To ensure the financial stability for Lerner well into the future, the board established an endowment campaign in 2013. We have initiated the campaign within our local community, but hope to find avenues to regional and national donors.

This past February, over 200 people attended The Lerner School’s Chai/18th Year Gala, including founding families, community leaders, donors, teachers, alumni, and current Lerner parents. Everyone came together to share in Lerner’s successes and celebrate what a passionate and dedicated community can create. Beyond being an enormously successful fundraising event, the evening highlighted the impact of Lerner far beyond just those students who had the opportunity to benefit from a Lerner School education. We celebrated how Lerner connects families to the Jewish community, creates a safe space for families to investigate their relationship to Judaism, partners in building and growing Jewish community institutions, and serves as a leadership incubator for local synagogues, the federation, the JCC and other Jewish and local nonprofit organizations. The Lerner School is clearly an integral piece of the vibrant Jewish Community in Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Our Chai Gala tribute book closed with the declaration “Chazak, chazak, ve-nitchazek חזק חזק ונתחזק”—Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened. Though the command may be in the singular, the result is in the plural. Our continuing message is that together our community built the Lerner School, and together we will sustain it for the next 18 years and beyond. We have also come to learn that the “community” to which we refer now encompasses the regional and national Jewish communities and day school organizations. We at Lerner recognize that our community alone, generous as it is, cannot sustain our school over the long term.

Day schools in small to midsize communities need support from outside funders who believe in the power of a Jewish community day school education and its impact on students, families and entire communities. 30% of community day school students are enrolled in small schools in small- and intermediate-sized communities, no small feat for these populations. Together, as a cohort of small schools, and as partners with regional and national day school funders, we can ensure that Jewish day school education continues to enhance Jewish literacy and enrich Jewish identities no matter where we reside. ♦

Tal Lewin-Wittle is board president at the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community day school in Durham, North Carolina. tal@wittle.net

Rachel Sobel Bearman is director of development at the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community day school in Durham, North Carolina. rsbearman@gmail.com

Moving Up Day

  • Scheduled prior to re-enrollment date
  • Students in each grade “move up” and experience a lesson in their future class
  • Each student writes a letter about what they learned and their favorite activity
  • Letters are appended to a curriculum guide and sent home to parents
  • Each student is given a sticker that reads, “Ask me about Moving Up Day!”

Fresh Look Tours

  • Targeted to PreK parents with children entering kindergarteners the next fall
  • Parents attend a small breakfast gathering and are asked to envision what it would be like for their child to have a Lerner education to 5th grade
  • Admissions director then guides parents on a “tour” from K to 5th grade, highlighting Lerner’s spiraled and integrated curriculum

Sandra E Lerner Jewish Community day school

Fast Facts

Established: 1995 in Durham, North Carolina

Serves primarily Durham and Chapel Hill, as well as Raleigh and surrounding areas

  • Jewish population (Durham-Chapel Hill): ca. 5000 households

Current enrollment: 131

  • 46 in three preschool classes serving ages 2.5-5
  • 85 in grades K-5; one class per grade

Budget: $2,150,000

  • Financial scholarship awarded: $274,250 (13% of operating budget)
  • Development goal: $189,500

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Financial Challenges and Opportunities...

Small schools often find themselves in an economic bind, having much less revenue and comparable expenses compared......


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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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