Achieving Citywide Strength in Jewish Day School Education

Lesley Said Matsa

Chicago’s Jewish day schools thrive due to the power of collaboration: among schools; among local funders; between federation, schools, and funders; and between local and national funders.


At Crown Family Philanthropies we implemented a strategy of strengthening day schools in the city of Chicago through partnership and collaboration. It is a strategy that honors each school’s unique needs by providing targeted support to individual schools, while also emphasizing city-wide supports. All of our funding efforts are informed by close dialog with educators, to ensure we provide resources that schools genuinely want and find beneficial. Deep partnerships with peer funders both locally and nationally enable us to leverage the wisdom and best practices of those who share our vision for strong vibrant day schools.


Two priorities guide our efforts: training and supporting strong educators, and building organizational capacity and financial sustainability.


Training and Supporting Strong Educators

Investments in training and professional development, both for aspiring future teachers and seasoned educators already in the classroom, ensure that day school educators are equipped to provide the strongest educational experiences. This includes support for programs like the Pardes Educators Program and the Jewish New Teacher Project, which provide those entering the field with both strong preparatory training, as well as ongoing support to help them thrive once they are in the classroom. Programs like the Harvard Principals Center train established leaders in the field, helping them grow their skillsets and continue to deepen their knowledge base. Before bringing any such program to Chicago, we work closely with local leadership to ensure the initiative is a fit for the specific needs of our community. Close dialog and partnership with funders who have invested in the programs is critical in ensuring that our funding builds on lessons learned, thus continuing to deepen impact.


Building Organizational Capacity and Financial Sustainability

Our schools provide outstanding educational experiences, while teaching Chicago’s children strength of character, resilience, and commitment to the Jewish future. Yet none of this can be achieved without financial sustainability and strong operations. The Foundation has invested in supports to help Chicago schools as a whole achieve financial and operational strength.


Contextualized data helps schools make informed decisions. Working with a local funding partner, we supported YU University-School Partnership (now part of Prizmah) to work with local schools to obtain an operational baseline. Schools were paired with coaches to support individualized needs. At the same time, shared data enabled efficient deployment of resources to help schools facing similar needs. Schools were able to strengthen their operations, and work together for shared gains.


Increasing the number of children who choose day school means more children benefit from the rich learning experience that day school provides. The entire community is strengthened, as we know that many day school graduates go on to take on meaningful leadership roles, both lay and professional. From a financial perspective, increasing the number of children who choose day school improves operating efficiencies, allowing fixed costs to be distributed over a larger number of students and often only marginally increasing variable costs. In a classroom with capacity for 17 students and 15 students enrolled, adding two additional students provides added revenue, with minimal added cost.


This means that recruitment is very important both from a mission perspective and from an operations perspective. By working together, Chicago’s day schools are transforming recruitment from a zero-sum game to a collaborative effort. With local funding partners, we supported PEJE (now part of Prizmah) to conduct market research assessing the growth potential for enrollment in local non-Orthodox day schools, and identifying targeted market segments with potential for growth as well as the priorities most important to those segments. Chicago’s non-Orthodox schools are working together to reach these families with resonant messages that emphasize issues ranked as extremely important to parents, such as secular academics.


Increasing collaboration between day schools and early childhood programs is an important piece of recruitment. The Chicago market research identified JCC pre-school families and PJ Library subscribers as populations with greater openness to day school than the Jewish community at large. In Chicago, we are beginning to think about how the connective tissue between these segments of the Jewish educational landscape can be strengthened, so that more handoffs are made from Jewish early childhood programming to day school.


To reach financial sustainability, it is imperative to grow the landscape of funders who are committed to day school. We were energized by the AVI CHAI Foundation’s success in recruiting new donors through the Day School Match program. We partnered with AVI CHAI to bring this program to Chicago. After listening closely to local educators, we worked together to adapt the program to reflect the needs of the local landscape.


We are proud of what Chicago has achieved through partnership and collaboration. Working holistically across schools has the power to elevate each school, creating synergistic gains across the system.

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Collaboration Fall 2016
Fall 2016