The Power of a Foundation to Build Relationships Among Schools

As the leading funders of Jewish day school education in Seattle, we at the Samis Foundation take the challenge of enrollment very seriously, especially because our community has experienced some of the lowest per capita enrollment rates in the country in recent years. In 2020, we embarked on a research initiative to understand declining enrollment better and learn new strategies from schools and communities that have successfully turned their enrollment rates around. 

Along with the two well-documented success strategies of improving quality and increasing affordability, there is a third strategy that is showing great promise. That strategy is one of collaboration and relationship-building among schools, even ones that think of themselves as competing for the same students. In this article, I will explain what we learned about this collaboration as a key part of our day school enrollment strategy, how we are implementing it in the Seattle area and what preliminary results have been achieved.


Collaboration as a driver of enrollment

Collaboration is not an obvious strategy for driving enrollment. So why and how does it work? The research we conducted uncovered data showing that schools that successfully turned around declining enrollment trends did it by taking a multipart approach, with quality and affordability being two key factors, but with collaboration being an important third part of the puzzle for some communities. Departing families frequently cite lack of critical mass as a key reason for leaving day schools. Collaboration among schools creates the critical mass and vitality families want through shared resources and programming.

The impact of collaboration was particularly profound in Europe, where school communities took a communitywide approach to building strong day schools. We were fortunate to connect with Rabbi Josh Spinner, the executive vice president and CEO of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and Kate Goldberg, the CEO of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Legacy Foundation based in London, to learn about the approach of Educating for Impact in Europe, which is supported by a number of foundations. Spinner and Goldberg explained that in Jewish day schools from Finland to Spain, engaging community leaders in developing vision and strategy for creating a healthy Jewish education ecosystem was a powerful catalyst to vitality and growth.


Collaboration at the community level 

In the past, Samis focused on increasing collaboration by supporting relationship-building activities among heads of schools. This wasn’t wrong, but it wasn't enough. So, beginning in 2021, we established a forum to bring together heads of schools and lay leaders with the goal of sharing our communal responsibility and crowdsourcing solutions to issues of declining enrollment along with other challenges schools commonly face. 

This forum facilitated discussion and served to overcome obstacles and promote the power of working collaboratively to solve problems and reach objectives. Instead of making ourselves and the school leadership solely responsible for figuring out how to create educational vitality and sustainable enrollment, we gathered the minds of the community and gave them a forum for ideation and action planning. 

This forum, called Let’s Grow Enrollment, brought together lay and professional leaders from across the Seattle area to break down the silos among schools and develop dynamic approaches.


A day of magic

An entire day was set aside at a beautiful local retreat center. All the local day schools participated, and Rabbi Josh Spinner gave the charge: small community, big opportunity, and work together to double day school enrollment in Seattle in five years. It was an “If you dream it, they will come” moment. The day was carefully scripted to mix the day school participants with a facilitator to identify and remove obstacles, promote opportunity and report back to the whole group.



And then, the magic began. All the day school heads and participants set their territorial concerns aside and leaned in to learning from each other. “What are you doing for special needs?” “How are you handling diversity?” The sharing began, and so did the collaboration in getting the job done. Key themes arose throughout the day that led to the creation of four working affinity groups. These groups extended the success of the day by planning to meet over a series of months with their facilitators. 

A second convening was held six months later to share progress and ideas. Some ideas were more easily implementable, like sharing a sports team to create opportunities for competition. Other ideas were more complex, like planning an all-school hub for special needs education, which would enable schools to share precious financial and educational resources and cultivate a vibrant setting for students from different schools with similar education needs. But the point was this: Gone were the boundaries. Even as we ate lunch or dinner together, one would not be able to identify who was from what school. It was a group of lay and professional leaders advocating for more students in the Jewish day schools, period.


Collaboration strategy: preliminary results

Since those gatherings, beautiful partnerships are blooming that increase the vitality and critical mass in school communities. 

Fifth grade coop enrichment program. The two community schools are piloting a joint fifth grade program where each week, children and teachers from one school cross the bridge over Lake Washington for a full day with the other. The partnership extends beyond the teachers at both schools, who develop curriculum together, and the students. Parents, grandparents and special friends meet monthly for dinner and text study led by the fifth grade students. For Purim, this group put on an original Purim spiel at the local JCC for the whole community.

The Hebrew Education Excellence Cooperative. Five schools have worked together to establish a Hebrew Language professional development program with Hebrew at the Center that will improve Hebrew across all their schools. This will be part of a regional collaborative initiative called Cascadia that includes Jewish day schools in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. (See the article by Andrew Ergas and Ben Vorspan in this issue.) 

A Community of Practice focusing on special needs education. This program brings teachers together twice monthly to learn from each other and experts at the University of Washington’s Haring Center for Inclusion Education. 

Communitywide Lag Ba’Omer: For the first time in Seattle history, all the Jewish day schools will celebrate Lag Ba’Omer together in a local park with sports and live music. Each school has taken on leadership roles in planning this event.

And every week, I learn of other synergies among the schools and leadership.

We are encouraged by preliminary results, but we are not out of the woods yet. Enrollment has stabilized and increased slightly at some Samis-funded Jewish day schools, but we have a long way to go to our goal of increasing vitality and sustainability, and ultimately doubling enrollment. We celebrate these successes and keep our eyes on the prize of a stronger, more vibrant, sustainable, and growing day school community. The value of including collaboration in our strategic plan already has become manifestly clear, and we recommend that schools and funders consider including this approach in their overall enrollment strategy.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023