June 8, 2006
Schools Give Prum-Hess High Marks
Last year, two Los Angeles schools applied for and won MATCH grants, which are awarded each year by a consortium of Jewish education foundations that reward day schools for cultivating new donors. The grants brought in more than $100,000.
This spring, 13 day schools were awarded the same grant, bringing in $1.5 million.
Miriam Prum-Hess, director of day school operations for the Bureau of Jewish Education, entered the Los Angeles Jewish day school picture, and she alerted schools to the opportunity and guided them through the process.
Prum-Hess, an experienced and admired Federation executive, took on a new role working on behalf of day schools last year, an effort to increase the level of professionalism and efficiency in all nonacademic areas. She has become the central address for day schools looking for expertise on operational issues -- fundraising strategies, legal advice, business decisions, purchasing, and human resources. During the past 18 months she has examined the big picture of what the city's 37 days schools -- of all denominations -- need, and has run seminars, consulted with the school administrators and lay leaders and opened up new resources to meet those needs.
Since Los Angeles' Federation is the first to fund such a position, national Jewish leaders have trained their eyes here to see how things turn out.
"The whole model that undergirds Miriam's position, which is that a central agency should have a professional dedicated to helping day schools build their capacities, is from our perspective just 100 percent sound," said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), which works off a similar model on a national scale. "It is a very important strategy in enabling day schools to grow themselves from the inside by focusing on all the things they need to be strong."
Local educators have welcomed Prum-Hess, who visited all of Los Angeles' Jewish schools in her first few months on the job, which she started in December 2004.
"I have been involved with the Bureau [of Jewish Education] as a head of school here for 20 years, and for me adding Miriam was the most significant change in the entire time I've been here," says Lana Marcus, head of school at Adat Ari El, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth grade day school in Valley Village. Marcus credits Prum-Hess for enabling her to win a MATCH grant worth $275,000.
One of Prum-Hess's primary goals is to bring more money into the schools to bring relief both to parents struggling to pay tuition and administrators struggling to make the budget. She is working with The Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff to set up a $20 million community endowment fund.
But while that is in the works, she is helping schools tap into government and foundation money they can access immediately.
To qualify for the MATCH grants, funded by a consortium of foundations under the leadership of PEJE, the Jewish Funders Network and the Avi Chai Foundation, schools had to generate gifts of at least $25,000 from donors who had not previously given a major gift to a day school.
A BJE-sponsored seminar in November 2005 helped schools gain enough confidence and expertise to approach new donors. Twenty-three schools attended, and more than half of those received one-on-one coaching as a follow-up.
Thirteen schools -- of all denominations and sizes -- were able to raise a combined $1 million, and the foundations matched 50 cents to the dollar.
In addition, 12 schools this year brought in more than $1 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Schools credit the BJE-sponsored seminars for giving them the information and know-how to pursue these opportunities.
"It forced a lot of the schools to go outside of their comfort zones and look for new donors or push people they were working with before to go above and beyond what they were doing," said Alain R'bibo, a lay leader at Or Hachaim Academy, a 3-year-old Sephardic elementary school in North Hollywood. The school, affiliated with Adat Yeshurun Congregation, qualified for the MATCH grants. "Miriam reaches out to make sure we get information and find out about what programs are available."
In December 2004, the Federation transferred Prum-Hess, then vice president of planning and allocations, into the BJE, where she took on the newly created portfolio of Day School Capacity Building to deal with operational issues for 37 schools, which have a combined budget of $138 million. The Federation funded her salary for two years and BJE funded her expenses such as office support and travel. A Jewish Community Foundation grant of $50,000 provided much of the programming fund.
Federation President John Fishel said that senior Federation leadership has asked the planning and allocation committee to continue funding Prum-Hess's position past the initial two-year commitment.
"Her work is extremely important and she's making a difference in the day schools," Fishel said. "She has accomplished more in a year and a half then I would have anticipated. It's very impressive."
Prum-Hess says that every one of the day schools in the L.A. area has participated in at least one of her programs over the past year, most of them in more than one.
"The really exciting thing for me is how open and hungry for this the schools are," said Prum-Hess, who herself has two kids in day school.
The BJE has hosted seminars on board development, fundraising, legal and tax issues, management training and grant-getting. All of these came with follow-up one-on-one consulting, providing the schools enough expert guidance to implement what they learned at the seminars.
Prum-Hess has also negotiated joint purchasing for items such as copier contracts -- a huge budget item for schools -- and is looking into jointly purchasing employee benefits. A consortium of lawyers specializing in school issues is now available at a minimal cost.
She has launched a marketing campaign, starting with research aimed at decoding why so many parents who send their little ones to Jewish preschool pull them out for grade school.
These are questions that all Jewish schools share, and Prum-Hess is happy to be there to answer. For the first time, principals and directors say, they feel like they know whom to call with questions unrelated to pedagogy or curriculum. They know they have someone who can take a step-back and evaluate objectively.
"What she has done in 15 months for a system with 37 schools is remarkable," PEJE's Elkin said. "At PEJE we see this as one of the really outstanding models for helping to grow and sustain strong and excellent Jewish day schools in North America."