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.