Remaking Jewish Day School Affordable in Seattle

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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.

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HaYidion Fall 2022 Affordability
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