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Shalhevet to close lower schools, high school will remain open

by Dikla Kadosh

March 19, 2010 | 5:42 pm

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.

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