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Numbers Speak for Themselves

September 3, 2009 By:
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Over the past year, six day schools across the country were forced to close their doors, battered by the economic downturn that overtook the country beginning last September.

But as the new academic year gets under way, enrollment in the Philadelphia area's six Jewish day schools has remained virtually unchanged from last year, with an expected total of 1,769 students.

Still, financial challenges abound. And area day-school leaders say that the numbers would have been far more sobering if the Kohelet and Barrack foundations hadn't offered prospective families thousands of dollars in tuition assistance to help offset the high cost of Jewish day-school education.

Some in the day-school world think this year may serve as a bellwether for how educational institutions respond not only to the immediate crisis, but also to the numerous challenges ahead.

For instance, is it possible to make schools more affordable and still compete with the best private schools? And will the day-school option ever appeal to more than a minority of Jewish families, particularly in the Philadelphia area, where attendance is far lower than other comparable cities?

"Day schools are facing a new reality shaped by the clarified economy," stated Marc Kramer, executive director of the New York-based RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, which has 120 members, including the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.

Rabbi Ira Budow, director of the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, which runs from preschool through eighth grade, said that he's still operating on the assumption that the recession is far from over. He said that in the past year, the school has shaved between $150,000 and $200,000 off its more than $3 million annual budget.

"I've been worrying about this moment for years," said Budow. "Business is not as usual for anybody."

With more than a hint of anxiety about the future, two Philadelphia gatherings held just last month zeroed in on the Jewish day-school agenda.

One conference for admissions directors -- which was held Aug. 10-12 at the University of Pennsylvania and organized by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education -- looked at ways for schools to increase enrollment and effectively sell the value of a day-school education.

Setting a Strategic Vision

Then at another gathering, on Aug. 17, nearly 40 lay and professional leaders from the area's schools met the author of a relatively new survey that analyzed how boards can better define a school's strategic vision and set an agenda in an era when day-to-day concerns can overwhelm long-term thinking.

The impact of the recession on recruitment and enrollment was on the minds of many of the 30 day-school professionals from around the country who attended the PEJE conference. Vivian Young, director of admissions at Barrack, said that some schools reported a student body decline of as much as 20 percent.

"Clearly, this year is different from all other years," said Young. "The focus really is: How do we still encourage families to look at Jewish day school in these bad economic times?"

School by school, the local enrollment roster breaks down as follows:

· The Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, a Conservative institution with two elementary schools in Wynnewood and Melrose Park, and a middle school in Melrose Park, is expected to be down nearly 30, from 552 to 524. Earlier in the decade, they had reached a high of 700, when it ran a third campus in Bucks County.

· Abrams, a traditional elementary and middle school in Yardley, is down from 273 to 260 students.

· The Politz Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox-run elementary school in the Northeast, climbed from 282 to 300 children.

· At Stern Hebrew High School, a Modern Orthodox high school in the Northeast, the student body is expecting a net gain of four students, up to 96.

· Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia in Wynnewood, an Orthodox elementary and middle school that also runs a girls high school, is increasing from 270 to 277 students.

· And Barrack, a pluralistic middle and high school in Bryn Mawr, expects to have 312 students, six more than last year.

Jay Leberman, Perelman's head of school, said that numbers only tell part of the story. He said that the economy was clearly the cause of the 5 percent population drop in Perelman's student population.

Families with multiple children in the system were hit especially hard, he said.

"Although we gave out more scholarship money than even we anticipated, it still wasn't enough for many, many families. They just couldn't swing it," he said. "Families that never asked for tuition assistance are requesting it."

Leberman added that the losses would have been far worse were it not for the Kohelet Foundation, started by philanthropist and Perelman parent David Magerman. The foundation offered parents of incoming sixth-graders $18,000 in tuition assistance over the course of three years and $27,000 over six years for children entering kindergarten.

As a result, Perelman has seen larger entering classes than in previous years.

Roughly 80 kids are entering kindergarten at Perelman's two centers, up from 68 last year, and 45, up from 19 last year, are starting sixth grade at its Robert Saligman Middle School; all those students are taking advantage of the grants.

At Abrams, 26 students entering kindergarten are receiving a similar multi-year grant from Kohelet. At Torah Academy, another 26 students are also getting a Kohelet grant.

In an e-mail, Magerman said that he hadn't yet evaluated the results, and that no decisions have been made on whether the Kohelet grants will continue next year.

For Perelman, 2009 has proved a rather topsy-turvy year.

In March, Perelman's executive committee voted to merge the Saligman Middle School with Barrack's middle school, but it reversed course after parents voiced their outrage publicly. At the time, Leberman said that the Perelman system was operating at a deficit of more than $200,000.

Now, he said that the school has a balanced budget after a series of cuts were instituted, including administrative salary freezes -- the teachers contract is still under negotiation -- and laying off support staff and teachers, though Leberman wouldn't say how many people that involved.

At Barrack, Steven M. Brown, head of school, credited the $3,000 in tuition breaks to new students provided by the Barrack Foundation with keeping the school's population steady.

"I think that the economy was probably a bit of a drag on more people being able to apply and come to the school," he said.

The school has committed to increasing its tuition assistance by 40 percent this year, and is still fundraising to secure the needed dollars, a figure that exceeds $200,000, said Brown.

"I'm hoping that this year, if the economy turns around a bit, we will be more successful at reaching out to all those other people out there and make Barrack an attractive option for them.

"My goal is to grow this school," he said.

Promoting Their Valve

Rebecca Egolf, a Main Line-based consultant who spoke at the PEJE conference, said that it is incumbent upon day schools themselves to promote their overall value, even as tuitions at some schools exceed $20,000 a year.

"I don't think we need to apologize for being worth that much," said Egolf.

Day schools are "doing great things," she said.

"With the best prep schools and the Friends schools, you don't question that they are worth the price tag," added Egolf.

Scott Seligsohn, president of Stern Hebrew High School -- which last year raised its tuition by about 6 percent, from $17,400 to $18,500, but has the bulk of its students receiving financial aid -- questioned how long prices can continue to increase before families, even ones fully committed to a day-school education, might feel the need to walk away from the system.

"Where is the salvation going to come from?" Seligsohn asked rhetorically, adding that no matter what the economy, parents in the area won't likely pay tuitions that exceed $20,000.

Seligsohn was one of 40 or so day-school lay leaders and professionals who attended the meeting on Aug. 17 with Harry Bloom of the Yeshiva University Institute for University-School Partnership.

Bloom presented the findings and recommendations from his study, released in July, called "Survey of the Governance Practice of Jewish Day Schools."

He has long argued that improved board performance might help Jewish educational institutions achieve more sound finances and have a greater cohort of students.

The survey of 71 day-school presidents -- including several from the area -- offered mixed results, but on the whole, it appears that many presidents acknowledged that their boards seem to be underperforming in their fundraising responsibilities, as well as failing to set long-term agendas.

Amir Goldman, president of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, who attended the meeting and also took part in the survey, noted that his board had already adopted some of its recommendations.

'A Call to Action'

Those steps have included introducing term limits for board members, decreasing the number of parents who serve on the board -- since he said that parents will sometimes make decisions with an eye toward short-term consequences -- and trimming the size of boards from 85 members down to 30.

"A lot of the time, we end up planning from day to day, instead of over a five-year period," said Goldman. "This study is really a call to action for the board to take a step back."

While most of those interviewed praised the study, Budow of Abrams remained a bit more reserved.

"I'm all for five-year plans, and everybody should have their boards running well, and everybody should be in place and doing their things, and having their visions," he stated.

However, he continued, "we have to worry about today -- how we're going to get through this terrible time. We have a crisis in America today, and today has to be addressed. Schools aren't going to be open if you wait to do a five-year plan, so I'm a bit of a skeptic."

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