Accelerating Impact: Transforming the Field
A New Era for Jewish Schools
Jewish day schools provide a strong foundation for Jewish identity, engagement and leadership. The Jewish leaders of tomorrow are in the classrooms of our day schools and yeshivas today, and at this moment schools are demonstrating their strongest momentum in decades.
Covid has accelerated innovation and change in every facet of our schools. Perhaps most exciting is the enrollment growth across the day school field over the last two years.
Prizmah’s recent pulse survey shows that day school enrollment has grown for the first time since 2008. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, net enrollment in North American Jewish day schools and yeshivas increased 3.7%, and the growth happened across all denominations. While it is clear that Covid has triggered this increase in enrollment, it also has also presented a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of the field.
More importantly, families who enrolled during a moment of crisis saw and appreciated the value of day schools in ways that they never imagined before, and the vast majority chose to keep their children in the school. In the Prizmah study “Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” families that transferred to day schools because of the pandemic reported being “thrilled” by the experience, and most intended to stay. Our enrollment survey indicated that schools retained 80% of those transfer students; they didn’t leave once other schools returned to in-person learning.
We are at a pivotal moment: The buzz about day schools is positive, and communities are speaking about the value day schools bring in building a vibrant Jewish life. During Covid, we believe, many parents developed a broader understanding of the value of Jewish schools. The more that these parents learned about our schools, the more their perceptions and attitudes shifted. As one parent interviewed stated, “I like how deeply my son has connected to Judaism; that’s magnificent and beautiful.
I didn’t know that it could be like this. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s spread through our whole family.”
With this momentum, we have the opportunity to build on three areas where we can accelerate impact:
• Attract more families to enroll their children in Jewish day schools.
• Improve affordability to ensure that anyone who wishes to attend should be able to do so.
• Articulate the value and impact of Jewish day schools for students, families and the Jewish community as a whole.
A recent study on Jewish leadership showed that “the investment in Jewish education is vital to American Jewry’s future. Jewish education in childhood, teen and college years is a central part of the life trajectory of almost all of those who choose to become professional and lay leaders of the Jewish community.” Day schools and yeshivas produce the core of engaged, knowledgeable Jews who are poised to lead our community wherever they live.
Attracting New Families
Stewardship of prospective families is more often a marathon than a sprint. It is common to hear from admission professionals that they actively target and steward families for an entire year or even more before a family tours the school or applies for admission. However, the pandemic cut stewardship out and moved that admission process to a sprint, bringing in families quickly to day schools and enrolling them.
The Prizmah study “Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic” found that some families that chose Jewish day school during the pandemic were “near misses,” and enrolling their children was an option they had considered previously. The question is, moving forward, what can we do to turn “near misses” into enrolled families? How can we learn from this experience and shift our practice, thereby increasing our admission pipelines?
These families were familiar with and knowledgeable of the day school in their community. In some cases, families had even enrolled one or more children in the preschool and chose to send them elsewhere for elementary school. These findings highlight the need for schools to prioritize communal engagement with partners like PJ Library, synagogues and JCCs to firmly position themselves as central institutions for Jewish life within their community.
With intentionally designed engagements, the schools and community partners illustrate the power that can come from working together as one community. Families with school-aged children gain opportunities to broaden their Jewish experience. At the same time, schools acquire a platform to illuminate their value through intentional connections to their curriculum and mission, resulting in a stronger pipeline of prospective students drawn into the orbit of Jewish day schools.
Strengthening a school’s strategy around engagement shines light on the need to continue to strengthen the professional practices around enrollment, for both recruitment and retention. While the pandemic’s silver lining brought increased enrollment to many of our schools, it also laid bare the challenges around enrollment management practice. Admissions professionals who for years have been used to operating with empty spaces in many grades now find themselves with more applications than they can accommodate.
With increased pressure on retention and desire to continue to grow enrollment more each year, we need to ensure that our professionals are supported with professional development. It is critical that we equip them with the right tools to strengthen and grow their practice.
Affordability: Ki Va Moed (The Time Has Come)
Until recently, what was famously said about the weather might also easily have applied to Jewish day school affordability: Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. That began to change more than a decade ago when cities and regions such as Montreal, Boston and Greater Metrowest, New Jersey, and more recently Toronto, began to tackle the issue of day school affordability at the community level. Unlike the individual school affordability initiatives that preceded them, these pioneering communal programs around affordability (often coupled with grants for academic excellence) were generally supported through a community-based endowment campaign.
Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, we at Prizmah had occasional conversations with local and regional foundations inquiring about these communal models. More often than not, the foundations left the conversation worried that declining enrollments and ever-increasing tuition assistance were leading the schools toward a financially unsustainable model, one in which they were being asked to “throw good money after bad.”
The strong performance of most Jewish day schools during the pandemic and in this post-Covid period has reversed trends, leading to a noticeable increase in student enrollment. It has also led to record levels of individual fundraising, according to the most recent Prizmah development survey. The combination of these two positive sustainability factors has reignited interest among local foundations and federations in community-based solutions to day school affordability.
Encouraged by the results of the communal affordability initiatives mentioned above (especially in Toronto), two more communities—Atlanta and Cleveland—recently announced affordability initiatives for two or more schools in their respective cities. Atlanta’s initiative offers significant tuition discounts for Jewish communal professionals; Cleveland’s program centers on middle-income affordability. Just last week, the Samis Foundation announced a multimillion-dollar middle-income affordability initiative that will significantly lower the cost of tuition at Seattle’s Jewish day schools. Prizmah is proud to have served as an advisor to Samis and believes the new program will lead to increased student enrollment and retention in these day schools.
Prizmah maintains that it is incumbent on all Jewish day schools and communities of Jewish day schools to explore any and all options related to tuition affordability. In addition to the advisory role that Prizmah has played in the creation of the Seattle program, we are currently advising a foundation in a large Midwestern city as it considers various options related to supporting a community-based affordability program.
With the value proposition of Jewish day school as clear today as it has ever been, we believe we are close to an inflection point with respect to “alternative” tuition models. We are optimistic that we are just a few years away from the point at which a clear majority of schools offer one or more of these tuition models. At that point, these critically important models will no longer be dubbed “alternative” but will become both the standard and the norm for schools all over North America.
Ki va moed!
Cheryl Weiner Rosenberg
Jewish day schools and yeshivas ensure a strong Jewish future. We know this through data, through stories and through experience. And yet, we often struggle to fully articulate the magnificent impact of Jewish day schools on individuals and communities because there are so many stories to tell and so many lenses through which to view them. Though the pandemic put an incredible strain on our schools, it also allowed schools (and Prizmah) to better understand the present value of day schools and their communities in real time.
As a Jewish community, we are tied to our stories. As “the people of the book,” we have structured our lives and traditions around the written and oral histories of our faith. Through our many struggles as a people—exile and genocide and even modern-day antisemitism—our stories, both individual and collective, have given us strength, connection and purpose. And so, when we talk about Jewish day schools and yeshivas and the impact they have, we continue the Jewish tradition of storytelling.
To be sure, we have research and studies that serve as the foundation for these stories: a study of families who transferred to day school during the pandemic and how they value the strong relationships within the schools; a study conducted by Keren Keshet that showed that of the adults now in Jewish leadership positions, as many as a third went to Jewish day schools and even higher numbers send their children to Jewish day schools; and Prizmah’s recent development survey that marked significant increase in Jewish day school and yeshiva endowments in the last several years, conveying the importance of Jewish day schools as a long-term communal priority.
Nevertheless, when we want to articulate the impact of schools, we go back to the stories. In the coming year, there will be so many stories of Jewish day school alumni shared, and the impact will be clear. Jewish day schools are critical to Jewish leadership, Jewish communities and a thriving Jewish future.