Most of the kids in Jacob Schiff’s classes at Santa Monica College don’t realize he’s the youngest one there. Last semester, for instance, several students in a math class got a shock when they asked him whom he planned to vote for in the presidential election.
“They were laughing when I told them I couldn’t vote,” Schiff said. “They couldn’t believe that I was 17 and they were 21 and we were getting the same grades in math.”
Schiff, a former student at YULA Boys High School and Valley Torah High School, skipped 12th grade and enrolled last fall at Santa Monica College instead. The business-degree hopeful said he wanted to save money on tuition and SAT-prep classes, and felt getting a jump on his college career would be time better spent.
“There were only a few classes I would have had to take my senior year,” he said. “To pay for that whole year didn’t seem worth it.”
Each spring, a handful of Orthodox students opt to “GED out” of L.A.’s Jewish high schools — leave school after their junior year, get their GED and enroll in Santa Monica College to get a head-start on their degrees. Many join the honors track to clinch a priority transfer spot at competitive universities like UCLA.
Taking part in “12th grade flee” lets families save on senior-year tuition at costly day schools around the city — money they can then invest in college. As the economy tanks, the move is gaining popularity, educators say.
“Even when people make a really good salary, two or three children in a Jewish day school is a fortune,” said Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, head of school at YULA Girls High School. “Given this economy, where do you cut?”
At least one or two students per class usually opt out of their senior year, Lieberman said. This year, YULA chief financial officer Joel Epstein is expecting four or five students to skip 12th grade at each of the girls’ and boys’ high schools. Most of the families who pull out after junior year are on financial aid and looking to cut costs from the household budget, Epstein said.
“We’re proactively trying to work with families who are thinking of doing that, and encouraging the benefits of 12th grade,” he said. “But when it comes down to the dollar, we don’t have a lot of success.”
YULA tuition for the 2008-2009 year was $22,700 for the boys’ school and $20,225 for the girls’ school. Full-time students at Santa Monica College, meanwhile, typically pay $480 per year (for the fall and spring semesters) for tuition plus fees for materials and student services. SAT scores are not required for admission. Honors students are placed in accelerated classes within the college and receive priority consideration for transfer slots at four-year schools such as UCLA, UC Irvine and Chapman University, where they only have to spend two years.
But students who don’t finish high school miss out on a vital developmental stage en route to the secular adult world, said Esther Feder, board president at the Modern Orthodox K-12 Shalhevet School.
“I think there’s a reason that you go at age 18 to the college campus,” Feder said. “Earlier than that, it’s quite young to have to take on the freedoms and the influences that a college offers.”
Schiff said he had no problem adjusting to the college atmosphere, but warned that high school juniors thinking of enrolling early should be mature enough to handle the less-structured environment.
“It’s not right for everyone,” said Schiff, who hopes to transfer into the USC Marshall School of Business in 2010. “If you’re mature enough to focus on school and get good grades, you’ll do well. But if you’re not going to take it seriously then you’ll have a hard time.”
Yeshiva Gedolah has tailored its academic program to discourage students from dropping out early, executive director Yossi Gross said — in 2002, the L.A. high school shortened its curriculum from four to three years. Students complete the state’s requirements for a high school diploma in three years, and can then take extra courses over the summer to satisfy the UC system’s additional requirements. The school offers an optional fourth year of programming — comprised of intensive Judaic studies — for students who choose to continue.
The condensed curriculum is not only a boon to financially struggling families, but it also anticipates the needs of students itching to move on to yeshivas in New York and Israel, Gross said.
“Students would be leaving high school after three years and saying, ‘We have enough subjects, we don’t need to do any more,’” he said. “The students are a step ahead of you. That’s why we adjusted our program. We can’t keep them in school for four years if they feel they don’t need to be there for four years.”
Before the school revised its program, the rate of attrition was about 50 percent; a typical class of 25 students would dwindle to 10 or 12 by the fourth year. Now, Gross said, about 75 percent of students stay on for the fourth year.
The “GED out” phenomenon is unique to the Orthodox community — a reflection of the financial pressures faced by families who see private high school education as a necessity, not a luxury, school officials say. But pulling students out before senior year isn’t the most common reaction to tough economic times, according to Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, head of school at Shalhevet. Most Orthodox families, he said, simply grin and bear it.
“We’re drawing from a population for whom Jewish education is overwhelmingly seen as a given, not as an option,” Weinbach said. “In other communities there might be more of a discussion about whether it’s meaningful, but for Orthodox families, it’s automatic.”
The most important issue for these families is whether a day school offers a “private and dignified” scholarship process, he said. As the recession wears on, families will pool their resources to fund Jewish education and make other sacrifices to stay afloat.
“It’s an amazing sort of Jewish heroism that these families manage to keep their kids in Jewish education in tough times. They undergo a great deal of economic hardship,” Weinbach said. “Overwhelmingly, in the Orthodox community, people are just going to find a way.”