When Amy Cohen graduated from Adat Ari El's day school in 2003, her family faced a decision: Where would she continue her education?
While eighth-graders at Orthodox day schools generally continue on to Jewish high schools, graduates of Conservative, Reform or community day schools matriculate to any number of school settings, including Jewish, public, magnet and private secular.
At this time of the year, parents and students face the task of setting priorities and examining realities that will determine where a Jewish teen's education will continue.
As the Cohens discussed options, "It became clear that she didn't want to continue in a religious setting," recalled Amy's father, Dennis Cohen. "She wanted to sample the wider world."
The Studio City family briefly considered public school for Amy, but decided that she would be better served in a private school that could offer small classes and individualized attention. Amy was accepted into Pacific Hills, a private school in West Hollywood. Cohen says his daughter enjoyed the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the student body and quickly adjusted to her new setting.
Similarly, Cohen's son, Geoffrey, now 18, left Adat Ari El after fifth grade to attend the gifted program at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. There, Cohen said, his son enjoyed "getting lost in the crowd and having a bigger social circle."
Although Cohen said he would have been happy to send his children to a Jewish high school, he did not object to their preferences.
"You try to lay the foundation for their Jewish observances at home ... and you hope it takes root," he said. "Eventually, they're going to go into the secular world."
Although neither of his children is continuing with formal Jewish education, Cohen said that their synagogue remains a central part of the family's life.
It's difficult to determine the exact number of families like the Cohens who are choosing to leave the Jewish day school world after the elementary years. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that one might conclude that fewer students are making the transition from Jewish elementary schools to Jewish high schools, given that last fall there were 685 eighth-graders in day school, and only 621 entering high school students this fall. That number also includes some who enter Jewish high school after attending a secular middle school.
At the same time, Jewish high school enrollment is substantially higher today than five years ago. According to Graff, there were 502 ninth-graders enrolled in Jewish high schools in 1999, compared to the 621 today.
With annual private high school tuition averaging from $18,000 to the mid-20s, the option is beyond the means of many families.
Debbie Gliksman sent her three children to Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. But when it came time for her eldest child, Lianna, to start high school, "our options were limited," she said. Gliksman would have liked to send her daughter to Milken Community High School, but "it's a very, very expensive proposition to send three kids there," she said.
Instead, her daughter enrolled this fall in the humanities magnet program at Hamilton High, her local school.
"There's a big difference [between private and public]," Gliksman said.
She and other parents recommend that families who may want to send their children to a magnet school begin accruing points as early as possible. (For more information about points, visit www.lausd.k12.ca.us/welcome.html and click on "FAQs" under the "Discover LAUSD" tab.)
For other families, only a Jewish high school will do. In June, Maureen Goldberg's son, Joshua, will graduate from Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge. Goldberg said her family had been "struggling for the last couple of years" over the issue of where he should go next.
Several weeks ago, she said the family "came to an epiphany" while attending an open house for a secular private school they were considering. The school had put out an extensive buffet, and as Goldberg approached the tables and saw the ham and cheese.
"My heart sank," she said.
She turned to her son and said, "I don't think I can go back." And he responded, "I don't think I can, either, mom."
"It crystallized for us that we weren't ready to give up the Judaic experience," said Goldberg, who added that she considered it even more important for adolescents than younger children to learn Jewish values. "He might get that at a secular school, but I know he'll get it at Milken."
Goldberg also said she was disappointed that although 75 percent of her son's class went on to private schools, only three chose to go to a Jewish one.
Like many other parents sending their children to private school, Goldberg said the family had to sacrifice to afford the steep tuition.
"I'd rather live in the smallest house in the worst neighborhood and send my kid to a private Jewish day school, than live in the largest house and go to public school," she said. "The sacrifice is worth it. I have a really menschy, kind kid, and he got a lot of that from Heschel."