HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Small Schools, Big Challenges, Bigger Opportunities

by N. Shira Brown Issue: Size Matters

This article was adapted from a post that appeared on eJewish Philanthropy.

Forty-two of the 130 schools in the RAVSAK network of Jewish community day schools are considered “small,” enrolling fewer than 100 children. Yet the role they play in the bigger picture of Jewish education is just beginning to be recognized and appreciated.

The Shalom School of Sacramento, California, for example, is an important nexus for its community. With only a small Jewish federation and no JCC, no kosher restaurants, not even a deli, the Shalom School is one of the only places of central congregation beyond the denominational lines of synagogue affiliation. With approximately 90 children from K to 6, the parking lot is an intersection of daily banter and community planning. Despite its central role, the value of the Shalom School and other small schools is not always immediately intuitive. Young families may choose a community with a Jewish day school, even if they opt out of its offerings, because a Jewish day school is a marker of community vibrancy. The ability of synagogues to hire a new young rabbi often hinges on the presence of a Jewish day school for his or her family.

For the wider community, school alumni are steeped in Jewish identity and literacy. When they launch into the more heterogeneous environment of public school, they are knowledgeable advocates for their heritage by providing a Jewish lens to the views of others. They are articulate ambassadors of their culture, language and the land of Israel, as they are steeped in a rich identity of tradition. They grow into adulthood as persuasive communal and philanthropic leaders.

Yet many of these small schools that are critical to the vibrancy of their small communities face many daunting hurdles. At the recent RAVSAK/PARDES conference, titled “Moving the Needle 2014,” leaders from 38 small schools and their communities, representing an incredible 70 percent of this niche market, participated in a two-day “Small School Deep Dive” learning track. This level of intensive problem-solving surrounding the unique challenges of small schools was unprecedented.

The challenges experienced by the small community day schools are not completely in sync with their larger counterparts. Some issues are simply based in numbers. For example, while both large and small schools contend with enrollment challenges, a loss of just five students for a school with fifty children represents an incredible 10 percent drop in the population. This can create a significant impact on the school’s financial and social realities.

Further, many struggles in small schools simply do not exist in larger schools. Small Jewish day schools often rely heavily on lay leaders for professional services. Young, sometimes relatively inexperienced board members are often asked to take ownership over formidable tasks including recruitment and retention, fundraising and development, school budgets and business planning, as the schools lack the financial resources to hire professional staff. Often, small community lay leaders and professionals leave their meetings with more questions than answers. The tasks ahead can feel overwhelming, and the human capital sparse. Additionally, federation and other extended support can be tenuous, as the community expectations surrounding many critical issues often outstrip the school’s ability to chart its own destiny.

As unique and formidable as the challenges may seem, however, the will towards charting solutions is even broader and deeper. Moreover, the collective wisdom shared among these schools through the facilitation of a national organization alters the field entirely. Streamlining processes towards the tried-and-true is easier to accomplish when everyone is talking to one another and comparing notes. When the Kadimah School of Buffalo needed to rapidly restructure due to a massive shift in enrollment, it was aided significantly by the larger brain trust assembled through RAVSAK.

Thankfully, best-practice solutions need not be financially overwhelming, as schools learn from each other. During one in-depth discussion at the conference about recruitment and retention, schools quickly learned that some of the most inexpensive techniques are, by far, the most effective. “Parent ambassador” programs, parlor meetings and a vibrant social media presence wins out over the more expensive options of direct mail and print advertising.

Another example of schools learning better evidence-based practices came in fundraising and development. During the conference, schools were encouraged to develop longer-term, more sustainable fundraising through values-based, philanthropic relationship-building, while moving away from more vulnerable yearly fundraising events.

The close of the conference was not the end of the conversation. RAVSAK has now launched an online forum for small schools to vet ideas and concerns, called the “small school reshet.” Over 40 small-school leaders have already joined.

In the past, many small schools felt like islands. Indeed, many were. But thanks to the work of RAVSAK, the larger national conversation is beginning to change the nature and tone of the small Jewish community day school’s daily work. Schools are building sacred partnerships with one another that will raise the bar across the field. Ultimately, whether solutions address the metaphorical forest or trees—the possible or seemingly impossible—these conversations express perhaps the most valuable message of all: You are not alone.♦

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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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