But the near simultaneous announcements last month that the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy have established major tuition-incentive programs — aimed at enticing new families — have prompted both educational institutions to hope that they might actually fill more desks next fall.
Perelman is offering $18,000 in grants over the course of three years for sixth-graders starting at its middle school in September. Barrack has allocated a $3,600 grant for all students entering, regardless of grade level. Certain students will be eligible to receive an additional $26,600 over seven years.
Both grants apply regardless of financial need.
These initiatives are believed to be among the most substantial efforts being instituted nationwide to lower the financial hurdle for those parents considering day school for their children.
Affordability has long been considered a major obstacle to higher enrollment in Jewish day schools, institutions that their advocates argue offer the best model for ensuring Jewish continuity in future generations. Some have hailed the local grants — financed by major donors — as evidence that area philanthropists have made it a top priority to lower the day-school price tag.
Some parents, weighing all their educational options, have expressed concern that the fiscal incentives, while welcome, have exacerbated the sense that the two institutions are in direct competition with one another.
That's a notion that the heads of both schools rejected outright.
"People are talking about price wars, and that's nonsense. People should be excited," said Steven M. Brown, head of school at Barrack. "They should be thrilled that, for the first time in the history of this city, there is as much largess and money coming into day-school education as there has been in the last few months."
In November, Perelman announced a $6,000 reduction from the $13,000 annual tuition for all kindergarten students entering its elementary schools in Melrose Park and Wynnewood in fall 2009. Those same families will receive that reduction through the second grade, as well as a $3,000 reduction from grades three to five.
A New Foundation in Town
The Kohelet Foundation, a charity headed by 40-year-old venture capitalist David Magerman — a relative newcomer to the area's philanthropic scene — is funding the initiative.
Perelman said that it has received more than 100 kindergarten applications — far more than last year. Given the heavy response, Perelman and Kohelet decided to unveil a similar program aimed at attracting students to Perelman's Robert Saligman Middle School, which costs several thousand dollars more than the grade school.
The new tuition incentives, announced in December, offer parents a $10,000 tuition reduction for the sixth grade, $5,000 for seventh grade and $3,000 for eighth grade. The funding is not available to children already enrolled, although administrators said that Kohelet funding has freed up more Perelman money for other sorts of financial assistance.
"The fact that we have had a high number of applicants in a year like this is remarkable," said Jay Leberman, Perelman's head of school. "Look, the reality is that we've had families who were full payers — even donors — that might now be needing financial assistance."
Leberman said that the program is not a response to the recession per se, and had been in the works before the financial meltdown early in the fall.
"This is a response to — I'll be blunt — to assimilation and the challenges of Jewish continuity," said Leberman.
Magerman, a Perelman board member, said that keeping children in the Perelman system beyond the fifth grade has always been a challenge, especially at its Stern Center in Wynnewood.
Many parents opt for public school starting in middle school, and parents with kids at Stern have often chosen to send their kids to Barrack, which is also on the Main Line and much closer than the Melrose Park campus, which houses Saligman.
Right around the same time Perelman announced its initiative, Barrack — a 62-year-old institution, formerly called the Akiba Hebrew Academy, that relocated from Merion Station to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Radnor campus at the start of this academic year — announced some tuition incentives of its own.
First, the sixth-grade through 12th-grade school is offering a onetime, $3,600 tuition grant for all new students, regardless of what grade they enter. It has also upgraded its one-year-old scholarship program, in which a synagogue rabbi can nominate students to receive a merit scholarship throughout his or her tenure at Barrack.
Starting next year, Barrack will award the rabbis' scholars $5,000 for the first year and $3,600 each additional year. The Barrack Foundation provided the additional funding for the scholarships. Brown said that the school routinely spends about 11 percent of its budget on needs-based financial assistance.
Both Barrack and Perelman have promoted their initiatives on their Web sites and in ads placed in the Jewish Exponent.
Until Perelman opened its middle school in 2001, Barrack (then known as Akiba) boasted the area's only non-Orthodox middle school. While Perelman is affiliated with the Conservative movement, Barrack is pluralistic in nature.
Some parents say that they are concerned that it's difficult to choose between the two.
"They are competing for the same kids. They always were before, but because there are all these incentives thrown in, you can feel the tension," said Julie Roat, who has a daughter in ninth grade at Barrack, another daughter in seventh at Saligman and a son in the fifth grade at the Stern Center.
"As the parent of a potential student, you feel like you are in a bidding war," she added.
Both she and her husband, Mel, would like their son Adam to continue attending Jewish day school, but the tuition is starting to add up, and they are questioning whether they can continue to send a third child.
Roat also said that parents at both institutions have expressed frustration that the new funds are almost solely being aimed at incoming students, rather than being distributed more evenly to ease the burden for all parents.
More Options Available
Jared Gordon has three children enrolled at the Stern Center, and is trying to decide where to send his 11-year-old son next year. He and his wife, Jodi, are considering Barrack, Perelman and public school. He acknowledged that cost is a major consideration.
"They certainly are keeping those options open where they may otherwise be closed," Gordon said of the tuition incentives.
A product of public schools, Gordon said that he's not opposed to the idea of sending his son to Bala Cynwyd Middle School.
A problem, he said, would be finding a supplemental Hebrew-school program that would be advanced enough for his son.
With fewer than 10 percent of students enrolled in day schools, Philadelphia lags behind other cities with large Jewish populations, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore, according to research compiled by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
In addition to affordability, Philadelphia faces a particular set of obstacles, including the lack of a large Orthodox population — they frequent day schools in disproportionate numbers — and the popularity of private Quaker schools that traditionally have high Jewish enrollment.
Overall, day-school enrollment in the areas six schools stands at about 1,700, down from a high of 1,900 earlier in the decade. Barrack's total enrollment is slightly more than 300, while Perelman's three schools total about 550 students. Barrack has about 85 kids in its middle school.
Leberman added that he expects next year's sixth grade to have about 40 students; this year, it's in the 20s.