Jewish Journal

L.A. day schools manage to survive, even thrive, despite recession

by Rachel Wizenfeld

Posted on Aug. 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm

When the recession first brought financial hardship to the Los Angeles Jewish community, community leaders feared that families would leave day schools in droves, causing Jewish education to be yet another casualty. But despite the recent market swings and global insecurity, those fears have yet to materialize.

L.A. day schools have been stable throughout the recession, “really in large tribute to them and their resiliency,” said Miriam Prum-Hess, director of day school operational services at BJE —  Builders of Jewish Education.

To stabilize enrollment, some day schools instituted cost-cutting measures — from shuttering classes to eliminating nonessentials, like field trips — and many have stepped up financial aid to families.

“The recession was a traumatic event for the Jewish community,” Prum-Hess said. “Many people in L.A. lost homes, many became long-term unemployed ... schools were trying to keep stability for the kids in the school environment.”

“A number of our schools worked very hard to increase financial aid,” she said.

In the 2008-09 school year, 41 percent of students in BJE-affiliated schools received need-based financial aid. That number jumped to 50 percent in 2010-11, with the biggest jump in non-Orthodox schools, which went from giving aid to 20 percent of students in 2008-09 to 35 percent in 2010-11.

“In general, the Orthodox community has always given more financial aid then non-Orthodox schools,” Prum-Hess said. “The level of funding was always there, but the non-Orthodox schools hadn’t had the same level of demand.”

That’s certainly changing now. Seven schools interviewed for this article reported increased demand for financial aid, and many pointed to special fundraising initiatives and help from the Jim Joseph Foundation as enabling them to assist more families.

“When the recession came roaring in in ’08, we were OK,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills. But as the year went on, he said, the school had to give help in the middle of the school year to parents who had lost jobs. During the past year and for the coming school year, they’ve had to ensure that students will be able to attend via increased fundraising.

“It’s been very hard to fundraise in this climate,” Powell said. “There’s a great deal of need, and we make tough choices, but everyone is making those tough choices.”

Jill Linder, Judaic studies principal at Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school in Los Angeles, agrees. “People are doing very serious homework, a lot of shopping and number crunching. They’re seeing what [a Jewish education] will mean to their lifestyle. They don’t want to start and then have to take their kids out, which is really heartbreaking for everybody.”

She notes that Pressman Academy had a few kids leave for financial reasons; some were able to return, but the economy has created challenging situations for many families.

Rabbi Y. Boruch Sufrin, head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Beverly Hills, said that when the recession hit initially, Hillel deferred tuition for a number of families who had lost jobs, allowing their kids to stay in the school. He also noted a 2 to 3 percent increase in financial aid over the past two years but said that this year there was a decline in requests from families new to the school, a hopeful sign that families at his school may be stabilizing.

Enrollment at Hillel has steadily increased 3 percent over the last three years. At the same time, tuition has increased 10 to 11 percent.

“Our method was very transparent,” Sufrin said. “We increased scholarship lines in the budget and effectively raised our tuition to become more in line with the actual cost of educating.”

Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school on Fairfax Avenue, shuttered its elementary, middle and early childhood schools last year in response to reduced enrollment. According to a press release, Shalhevet leadership decided to concentrate its energy and resources on its high school, which is growing with increased enrollment and donor funding.

Ari Leubitz, Judaic studies principal for Shalhevet, said his school has delayed all major capital improvements and is fully utilizing every teacher for every time slot.

“A teacher who is not fully utilized is a thing of the past,” he said.

Pressman Academy made the decision this year to cut down to two kindergarten classes from three to conserve their resources for programming and other spending. Although overall enrollment there has remained strong, the incoming kindergarten class is smaller than in previous years, so “the responsible move was to slim down,” Linder said.

At Ilan Ramon Day School (formerly Heschel West Day School) in Agoura, elementary school director Yuri Hronsky said that the school renegotiated all contracts with vendors for water, health insurance and more. Teachers are working leaner, there are fewer assistant teachers, and they’ve stopped relying on internal fundraising, which, he said, a lot of schools do. But they have realized that “parents can’t be the only ones to support the school,” he said.

Metuka Benjamin, educational director at the Stephen S. Wise Temple educational system, which includes an early childhood center, elementary school, religious school and Milken Community High School, said school leadership didn’t undertake any specific cost-saving measures, but that they boosted financial aid by as much as three or four times the regular amount.

To meet the increased demand, she said, they focused their efforts on fundraising, not on cutting programs. “We speak to people’s emotions. It’s not just, ‘Give me money.’ We talk about Jewish education, Jewish continuity. We say, ‘Do you want to be a partner?’ ”

Powell of NCJHS agrees.

“The last thing anyone wants to do is cut programs,” he said. “You don’t cut the product that you’re providing [families], you try to raise more money.”

He said NCJHS has experienced a slight dip in enrollment but that it was anticipated based on the population of their feeder schools. “It was a demographic dip, not a financial dip,” he said. 

Day school enrollment has declined slightly over the past three years. Enrollment in Jewish K-8 schools went from 7,245 in 2008-09 to 6,925 in 2010-11. High school enrollment went from 2,610 to 2,521 in the same period, according to BJE.

BJE’s Prum-Hess said this could also be due more to a declining Jewish birthrate in Los Angeles than to financial hardship.

“At one point, there were 5,000 Jewish kids being born per year [in the Los Angeles area], then 4,000, and now it’s even dropped below that,” she said.

But this year, Prum-Hess expects to see a slight increase, which is positive news.

“Some schools are experiencing a lot of growth, some are tapped out and their space does not allow them to increase, and other schools have plenty of space,” she said.

Even though numbers have slightly declined over the past three years, she contends that “we’re probably capturing a larger percentage than before,” thanks to significant efforts to let families know the benefits of a day school education, along with increased financial aid.

Nationally, the day school climate seems positive as well, according to Donna Woonteiler, director of marketing communications at PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Numbers come and go, Woonteiler said, and while she admits that it’s been a terrible time and there has been some decline in some cities, day schools “have been revitalized in others. There are a lot of positive things happening as a result of community collaborations and help from federations,” she said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also has been instrumental in providing funding for local day schools, according to Federation President Jay Sanderson.

“One of our top priorities is the issue of affordability and accessibility of Jewish education,” he said, estimating that they earmark about $1.5 million each year to help local day schools with financial aid. 

Five high schools in the Los Angeles area, among them NCJHS, Shalhevet, Milken Community High School, and both the YULA girls and boys schools, are part of a challenge grant in which the schools are responsible to fundraise for an endowment while receiving funds from the Jim Joseph Foundation for tuition assistance.

The grant, which was a collaboration between Federation and BJE, successfully met its first benchmark, according to Prum-Hess, and now Los Angeles has been selected by PEJE to bring a similar endowment-building program to seven additional schools in the area.

NCJHS’ Powell said he is relieved that schools are finally making endowment a priority and wonders why it took so long.

“I’ve been saying it for years — we need a $1 billion endowment [for L.A.-area Jewish schools] so we can shell out $50 million a year to ensure that every family will have financial aid.

“The costs of day school are a huge concern to young parents,” Powell said, “which is why we need our endowment — so we do not have to make a financial decision whether or not to have children.

“Shame on us as a community to have our young couples make a decision to have children based on whether or not they can afford a Jewish education.”

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