Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox Jewish school founded in 1991, announced in an emailed press release on Wednesday that it will close the doors of its middle, elementary and early childhood schools at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. Shalhevet High School, which opened its doors in 1991, is the only division that will continue to operate.
The decision to close the lower schools, which are much newer, was based on a financial review conducted by Measuring Success, an outside consultant, in association with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE). The review, initiated by the board of directors finance committee this year, determined that although the high school was on solid financial ground, the other divisions could no longer sustain themselves financially, according to the release, which is posted on Shalhevet’s Web site.
“This was 100 percent financially driven and in no way a reflection of the quality of our product,” said Esther Feder, president of the Shalhevet board of directors. “We believe we offer exceptional education, but the sad reality is that a school is a business, and in terms of a business, we were failing.” The preschool opened in 2009, while the elementary school is four years old, and the middle has been open for a decade, Feder said.
She said that the large number of existing Jewish elementary and middle schools in Los Angeles created a situation where there was not enough of a customer base for Shalhevet’s lower schools. There was no need to fill, she said, and the board felt that the community had spoken through the low enrollment numbers.
Larry Gill, a board member and part of the finance committee, was involved in spearheading the initiative to review the fiscal health of the school.
“It became very clear that we had a very serious problem on our hands,” Gill said. “The first thing that came out of the report was that the high school was financially strong. It was basically shouldering the burden of supporting the other programs. They were bleeding.”
Gill said that there have been signs of financial problems in the past, but that the nature of Jewish schools led to attention being focused on daily operations and the students, and no one knew exactly how deep the problems ran. Every school runs on a deficit, he said, and every school requires donations to close that gap, so the lack of funds didn’t set off alarms at Shalhevet until now.
Gill attributes the lower schools’ final demise to a devastating drop in enrollment in the middle school – he said 40 children dropped out last year – and the fact that Shalhevet overextended itself in terms of awarding financial aid during last year’s recession.
“The combination of those two factors left us teetering,” Gill said.
“In making this difficult decision, Shalhevet’s leaders reached out for expertise and used leading data tools,” Rabbi Josh Elkin, executive director of PEJE, wrote in a statement.
“This process guided them and enabled them to position their school to fulfill its innovative vision for many years to come. While we will no doubt continue to see decisions like these, I believe that ultimately the day school field will be strengthened by professional and board leaders who make financial sustainability a priority.”
Approximately 120 students and 35 staff and faculty members will be displaced as a result of the closings. Shalhevet will operate an eighth grade for the 2010-2011 school year to accommodate the unique needs of those transitional students. To assist parents in enrolling their children in local Jewish day schools, Shalhevet is partnering with BJE and providing an on-campus consultant whose expertise is student placement.
Shalhevet’s head of school, Rabbi Elchanan J. Weinbach, said that there are enough seats in local schools to accommodate all the displaced children and that there has been a strong spirit of support among the Jewish day schools in handling the situation.
“In talking to the various schools in the community, I have been assured that they are all going to stretch and do the utmost to keep all the kids in Jewish day schools,” Weinbach said.
A system of support has also been put in place to help Judaic and general studies teachers find employment. Rabbi Glenn Karonsky, director of school personnel services at BJE, will meet with staff to assist them in finding positions at BJE schools.
Rebecca Feld, a first and second grade teacher at Shalhevet and the parent of three children currently attending the school, has already started interviewing at the various local Jewish day schools and is waiting to see where she will find employment before deciding where to place her two impacted children. For financial reasons, public school is definitely an option, she said.
“It’s devastating for us as a family,” Feld said. “Shalhevet was such a magical place for us; it was a perfect fit, I can’t believe we have to leave it.”
Feld has a sixth grader and a kindergartner at Shalhevet, as well as a ninth grader at the high school, where her husband teaches. For them, Shalhevet was a family affair, she said. They spent their days in the same building, and the closing of the schools means the separation of the family.
“I’m in shock, but not shocked,” Feld said. “I had 14 students in one of my classes and 11 in the other, so although that is a teacher’s dream, I knew that a Jewish day school could not be doing well with those kinds of enrollment numbers.
“I don’t have any anger toward the board or Rabbi Weinbach,” she added. “I do feel that perhaps if we had known that the school was in such dire straits, maybe the middle school could have been saved, or some parts of the schools. Right now, I have to selfishly focus on my family. I need a job. My kids need a school. We’re trying to stay positive and believe that it will all work out for the best.”
Other parents affected by the closings expressed anger and a feeling of betrayal. Doron Dreyer has four children, three of whom are impacted. He said he is absolutely livid at the process of decision making and at how parents and staff were notified – by email.
He said parents were not made aware that the school was in any trouble, so the abrupt announcement came as a complete shock to many of them.
“The decision was made by a board that was not affected, except for one member,” Dreyer said. “I think there is room to question the morality of this decision, and we as parents are not taking this lying down.”
A parent meeting was held on Thursday, March 18, one day after the announcement was made, where approximately 50 parents discussed various options. The group, according to Dreyer, decided to break away from the current board and form its own governing body. The group plans to present a plan of action to the current board that involves attempting to raise $1.5 million in the next week to keep the schools open.
“We will not stand by quietly and allow three Jewish day schools to close in our community,” said Dreyer, who doesn’t believe that all the options were explored before the decision to close was made. “We are positive that we can raise the necessary funds, and that we can run the schools more efficiently so as to keep them afloat. We are extremely committed to saving the schools.”
Dreyer said that $600,000 in commitments from private donors have already been made.
“The clarity of the situation was shocking,” said board president Feder. “It was clear that there were no alternatives, but to go back to our core competency, which is the flourishing high school. We need to pool our resources back into the high school and invest in the original vision of Shalhevet.”
“There is a concern that people will question the viability of the high school,” Weinbach said. “We want to temper that concern by sharing the numbers with the public, being transparent and accessible throughout this process, so that it is clear how economically healthy the high school is. We’re doubling down on the high school and the expectation is that there will be a positive outcome from all of this.
“There is a tremendous sense of loss,” Weinbach said. “Something precious has been lost in the community, but we’re doing the best we can to soften that blow.”
“It has been the most painful two days of my life,” Feder said. “We’re all in mourning.”
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