Friday, September 08, 2000

How Day Schools Still Struggle

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

A new school year is beginning. For Jewish day schools, this is another year of record enrollment, with nearly 200,000 students in as many as 800 schools around the country. The growth trend is certain to continue, as more schools are opened, existing schools expand and parents who previously were at best lukewarm to these institutions enroll their children.

There obviously is also much growth because of the remarkably high fertility rate within the chasidic and yeshiva-world sectors of Orthodoxy.

But while there is reason to celebrate this growth, with those who have supported day schools seeing ample returns on their investment, there is another side to the story. With some exceptions — mainly the more modern schools — day schools remain the stepchildren of Jewish philanthropy, with inadequate facilities and staff, curtailed programs and a constant struggle to make ends meet.

More than ever, the operating budget is met through tuition and other payments, an arrangement that departs from the historic communal responsibility for religious education and ensures that a growing number of families will find day school education beyond their reach.

This is not the only reason why potential day school enrollees end up elsewhere.

Too many day schools — again, especially those that are more modern — regard themselves as private institutions with real or inflated claims of academic excellence they do not want to have tarnished through the admission of applicants who appear to be weaker students. The Judaic mission gets lost in the shuffle, and there is scant evidence that the academic program is enhanced by the exclusionary policy.

The problem is exacerbated by a space shortage in many places, an outcome that in large measure reflects the new popularity of day schools. While there is an unprecedented building boom — literally dozens of schools are expanding or have plans to do so — it appears that more applicants than ever are being turned away because seats are not available for them. The space shortage is, at best, an explanation and not a justification for a situation which inevitably means that children whose Jewish future may well be determined by the education they receive are less likely to remain involved and committed Jews because they are being deprived of an opportunity that should be their birthright.

Orthodox day schools are not immune from the dubious practice of turning down applicants. It may be that they are the greatest practitioners of rejectionism, especially in the New York area, which is the heartland of American Orthodoxy. Minor behavioral problems can readily result in the rejection or even expulsion of students by trigger-happy principals whose principles of Torah education are out of sync with the teachings of Torah leaders on the subject. It is, after all, far easier to turn away a child than to attempt to mold him or her into a confident and successful student.

This is only a small part of a problem that is engulfing much of the Orthodox day school world.

While there are exceptions, this world has lost its sense of mission. Scant attention is now given to opening new schools, unless they are located in exotic places where the public relations quotient is inverse to the potential to attract students. Near Orthodoxy’s backyard there is little prospect that conventional day school educational needs will be addressed.

There is a tremendous space shortage in New York schools, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, and it is worsening by the year. Once more, this is not a justification, only an explanation. The space shortage is not an abstraction. It is a real-life situation affecting a great many families and children and causing pain among people who are deeply committed to a religious life.

This is apart from the chronic financial crisis confronting yeshivas and day schools. Chabad makes an effort to fulfill the need, although its results are at times problematic. Much is now being accomplished by the greatly underappreciated Rabbinical Seminary of America, a Queens-based group that makes little effort to publicize its notable contribution in establishing new day schools. By and large, though, the Orthodox day school world seems to act as if day school education is someone else’s responsibility.

Following the lead of the non-Orthodox and Jewish establishment, there is in the Orthodox day school world a powerful instinct to develop special projects that are crafted to attract philanthropic support, even when these projects have minimal direct impact on what goes on in yeshivas and day schools.

Anything that is called “training” or involves Israel is given priority and, sad to say, Orthodox funders have taken the bait. They are demonstrating, as some of the more secular super-rich have done for years, that philanthropic millions can add up to a great number of zeros.

There is a further instinct to develop kollels for advanced students, which would be entirely acceptable if this preference did not come at the expense of conventional day school education, and also if the determination to establish kollels did not come with the fanciful notion that in some supernatural way, the existence of a kollel can readily transform all the Jewish education that is below it. Important as they are, kollels cannot serve as surrogates for the hard work of building Torah from the bottom up.

When the day school movement returns to its basic mission, it will hopefully be possible to address the neglected educational needs of Jewish families and children.

Friday, September 01, 2000

September 2000 - RJJ Newsletter

It’s shortly before the opening of a new school year and nearly three months since a friend asked for help to get a girl who was about to graduate from a local Beth Jacob elementary school into a suitable high school. After much effort, I succeeded, thanks to a caring principal who exemplifies the best in Torah chinuch.

There is a high school attached to the Beth Jacob that she attended, but it would not accept her, despite the ruling of Rav Pam, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, that except if a student’s behavior raises serious questions, Beth Jacobs must accept their own graduates. So much for Daas Torah. That’s for the next school or next person, for the more modern crowd, and not for those in the yeshiva world whose “frumkeit” demonstrates their fidelity to Torah standards. They are therefore at liberty to disregard the counsel of Torah leaders.

This is what the unprincipled principal of this girls school has decided to do. It is his school – something like a private summer camp – and he alone will decide who gets admitted.

This one student’s predicament is not unique. The situation is repeated each year in hundreds of religious Jewish homes, mainly in the New York area, and the number is expanding rapidly. While attention is being paid to the problem of yeshiva dropouts and Orthodox teenagers at risk, we hardly seem to be aware of the school admissions crisis. We know little of the pain suffered by families seeking admission into yeshivas and Beth Jacobs.

The shortage of seats accounts for much of the problem. This is, at best, an explanation, not a justification. It is extraordinary and entirely unacceptable that at a time when we confidently proclaim the centrality of Torah education, we cannot provide sufficient space to accommodate families who want their children to study Torah.

Additional seats are needed – and perhaps additional schools, as well - and it is the responsibility of Roshei Yeshiva, Torah Umesorah and community leaders to take appropriate steps to ensure that Jewish children seeking a Jewish education get one. Right now, there are other priorities, often in distant places and often with the prospect of minimal benefits. I think it appalling how the pain of families in Orthodoxy’s backyard evokes a puny response.

RJJ has a responsibility, as well, and I wonder whether we are doing all that we can to reach out and attract students who could benefit from the religious and secular education that we offer. It has distressed me over the years that at least in one or two of our schools, we haven’t been as open or creative as we ought to be.

Space is only one of the contributing factors. There are children who are turned away because they are only average students or because their families are poor or without good connections.

It has been said that parents who are determined to send their children to yeshiva or day school ultimately manage to find institutions that will accept them. This is true for many families, but it is not true of others. There are families that perhaps because they are not sufficiently committed to a full Jewish education give up after one rebuff or two. In other situations, parents limit their children’s Jewish education to the elementary school grades because they know that they will not find a suitable high school.

I suspect that the number of Jewish children in the New York metropolitan area who do not attend a yeshiva or day school despite their parents initial effort is quite high. We do not know who these children are. They are, at most, anonymous faces in the American Jewish crowd. Yet, there is evidence that we are losing children and families in this fashion in the comprehensive census of day school enrollment that I conducted a year ago. Outreach and immigrant day schools enroll a surprisingly low number of students, this despite exaggerated claims to the contrary. At the same time, chassidic and yeshiva world schools do not accept children from marginally Jewish homes and the number attending centrist Orthodox institutions is declining rapidly.

Nearly all Orthodox enrollment growth is internal, arising especially from the high fertility rate in the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy. The percentage of outreach students is in decline and perhaps this is also true of the absolute number of outreach students. As a practical matter, the credibility and effectiveness of kiruv in North America is being severely undermined by the inability or unwillingness of Jewish schools to accommodate children from kiruv backgrounds.

In Brooklyn and Queens, there is what I would term, with regret and hesitancy, a lower tier of day schools that have liberal admission policies and which operate at a perilously low level of academic and religious achievement. While their leaders and faculty struggle to do a credible job, these institutions are literally starved for resources. Especially on the Jewish front, they cannot adequately accomplish their mission, so that too often their efforts end in disappointment as their students and graduates are ultimately lost to Judaism. Of course, these are children who were admitted into a Jewish school and presumably we should be satisfied. After all, we have fulfilled out responsibility. Or have we? Of course, these statistics of loss are never discussed.