Kadima hopes the move -- the first of its kind in the Los Angeles area -- will encourage struggling families to keep their kids enrolled at the private day school and make Jewish education seem more financially feasible to those who formerly could not afford it.
"We wanted to find a way to make our day school education more affordable for more parents," said Dr. Barbara Gereboff, head of school. "A couple of our families have come in and said times are tough and they don't know how they're going to make it work. We decided it was time to make an innovative, bold move outside of the normal paradigm to make that possible."
The West Hills school joined community supporters and parents who could afford to donate extra funds in a partnership to subsidize the tuition cut. The Community Tuition Partnership, which will take effect in the 2009-2010 academic year, will lower costs for the entire K-8 student body: kindergarten students currently paying $16,273 for 2008-2009 next year would pay $13,070; elementary school fees would fall from $18,314 to $14,300; and middle school rates would drop from $20,910 to $16,905. New enrollees pay an extra one-time entry fee, but total tuition and fees are slightly lower if families pay for the year in full upfront.
"Most schools in the last few years have continued to increase tuition, in Los Angeles and across the country," board of trustees president Shawn Evenhaim said. "What we've done is we've pushed a large part of our community away because it just wasn't accessible anymore. We wanted to look at what we could do to correct that."
This year, many families receiving financial aid asked for increased aid, and several families that had never applied for financial aid before did so for the first time, Evenhaim said.
But simply increasing financial aid wasn't addressing the extra stress put on middle class families, Gereboff said. Even as the economic downturn began to plunge formerly stable households into financial turmoil, many parents resisted making the psychological adjustment necessary to ask for help.
"Many middle-class parents didn't see themselves as people who should apply for financial aid, so they wouldn't even walk in the door to begin with," she said.
Evenhaim also said he spoke to parents who couldn't afford a day school education on their own, but refused to apply for aid because they didn't see themselves as "financial aid families."
Kadima board members started exploring ways to subsidize tuition four months ago in response to what they saw as a "perfect storm" pushing students out of Jewish education across the city and beyond. The school modeled its rate cut on a similar step taken by Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland, Ohio, five years ago. At that school, parents, community donors and Jewish organizations pooled their funds to cut yearly tuition almost in half -- students now pay $6,500, a steep drop from the $13,000-$14,000 they would be paying without the subsidy.
"If we could shock the system by lowering tuition, we felt we could provide relief to our current families and also attract new families," said Rabbi Jim Rogozen, headmaster. "We figured we could either take a chance, given the economy, and wait to see what the next year brought -- or we could do something different."
Since slashing tuition in the 2004-2005 academic year, Gross Schechter has seen its enrollment rise by 24 percent. The school has also retained more students at all grade levels who might have otherwise opted to switch into public schools, Rogozen said.
Parents and administrators at Kadima are hoping their own partnership produces similar results. PTO president Natalie Spiewak said the move would tip the scale for families who found the school's former price tag intimidating.
"I think people who otherwise wouldn't look at Kadima because it was too expensive might say, 'This is more affordable now; maybe I can consider it,'" she said. "I think this is going to open the door for a lot more people to be able to choose a private day school education."
News of the program is also a much-needed boon to families that are now struggling to keep more than one child enrolled at the school, said Spiewak, whose two children are students.
But even with the tuition cut, Kadima's rates are still middle-of-the-road as far as L.A. day schools go. The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am this year charged $13,345 to $14,650 for its elementary and middle school students, Valley Beth Shalom Day School charged $16,150, and Sinai Akiba Academy's fees ranged from $17,083 to $19,275.
"Some schools cost significantly less, some are on par, and others cost more," said Miriam Prum Hess, vice president of The Jewish Federation and director of day school operations for the Bureau of Jewish Education. "The struggle for schools is to make their education as affordable as possible, yet operate in a responsible way. It will be interesting to see how this works, but it's hard to tell."
While Kadima is still "not cheap," Evenhaim said it wasn't hard to get donors on board to fund the tuition cut. For the school's parent donors, it was as simple as asking them to pay what they paid in tuition this year -- under the new, lowered-rate system, the extra dollars would suddenly be tantamount to tzedakah.
"Almost everybody that we went to were extremely excited about this concept," he said. "Just by writing a check for tuition, they are giving tzedakah to the community. When they become part of this partnership, they feel good because their money is working to ensure the future of Jewish education. This is the best investment that we can concentrate on today."
The new tuition system would not affect the quality of classroom instruction for the school's 260 students, according to Gereboff.
Evenhaim said he hopes the program will inspire a local trend. He wants other private schools to adopt similar plans and make a unified effort to boost the number of L.A. students in Jewish day schools. "If this is successful, we would love to share it with many other schools," he said. "Our goal is not just to make sure Kadima has a lot of students -- our goal is to make sure that as many Jewish kids as possible receive a Jewish education."
Spiewak said she plans to keep her children in private day school.
"I believe in the education that my children are getting there," she said.