Day Schools: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

A former Head of School and long-time educator reports on the state of Jewish day schools.

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The following article records the successes-- both in terms of growth of enrollment and increase in number of schools--and the challenges facing Jewish day schools in America. It is reprinted with permission from October 2000 issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

In 1978, when I was 29 years old with little experience in school administration, I was given the privilege to head the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, a then 17‑year‑old Conservative movement day school. At the time, the school was temporarily renting a public school building from the City of Newton; the enrollment of the K‑8 school was just under 200 students. At that time, greater Boston had four day schools--  two Orthodox, one Modern‑Orthodox (the Maimonides School), and the Schechter School that I was heading. Nationally, there were under 450 schools enrolling just over 100,000 students, with 9,500 in Schechter schools.

Twenty years later, when I stepped down as Head of School and assumed the directorship of PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, the school had grown to two campuses, both owned by the school, with a student population of 600 students. The Greater Boston area had expanded to 14 day schools, including a proliferation of options for the non‑Orthodox community at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. This expansive growth in a brief two‑decade period is mirrored across the country, with the latest census showing nearly 700 schools with an enrollment that is rapidly approaching 200,000 students, including nearly 21,000 in Schechter schools.

jewish schoolAs a Jewish educator and as one convinced of the power that day school education can have in the creation of a vibrant and literate Jewish community, I am gratified by this remarkable progress in the expansion of the day school option, an expansion that is not limited to the Orthodox community. With nearly 70 Schechter schools, over 20 Reform day schools, 70 community schools, and a growing number of community‑sponsored high schools, the day school option is available to and chosen by an ever‑growing number of non‑Orthodox families. The excellence of the schools, the opportunities for more connected learning, and the powerful sense of community that students, parents, and faculty feel in the day school world have helped to establish the day school option more firmly in nearly every community in North America. The success of day school graduates in assuming important lay and professional positions within the Jewish community has also helped to underscore the positive impact of this environment.

With this phenomenal success story and rapid pace of growth, however, come concerns about the capacity tosustain this large enterprise, which currently has an annual cost of nearly $1 billion. The rapid growth has meant that there is meager infrastructure to support the increased demand for the availability of this kind of education. The shortage of qualified personnel on the administrative and teacher level is profound, as is the dearth of seasoned lay leaders to provide badly needed governance for these increasingly complex schools. The schools have been so busy growing that they have often been unable to utilize expertise, consultation, and reflection to think more strategically about next steps. The increased popularity of day schools has thrown many of these institutions into searches for their own identity, as expressed in debates over the balance of general studies and Judaic studies, how much Hebrew language, and how much emphasis on textual literacy versus more affective programming.

Finally, the schools are struggling to deal with substantial financial challenges such as escalating tuition, insufficient flexibility to provide needed scholarships, salaries for faculty that are not always competitive with public school salaries, and extensive building and endowment needs to support increasingly large institutions.

Against a background of these marvelous accomplishments and the enormous challenges that the expanded day school world faces, I offer the following three key areas that I believe must receive comprehensive and simultaneous attention immediately, if we are to protect and increase the potential of the day school world.

First, the Jewish community, including federations and foundations, must embark on an aggressive campaign to recruit and retain talented lay people and professionals for the day school. On the lay front, the need for experienced volunteer leaders from other organizations is crucial. The demands on day school boards today are exponentially more complex than they were 20 years ago. On the professional side, we need to launch a multifaceted recruitment and training program to target potential teachers even while they are in college. Meaningful incentives need to be offered to enable students to see teaching in a Jewish day school as a viable and positive career choice. In addition to raising salaries and benefits, we need to grow first‑rate training programs at many universities across the country. Some new programs are already underway; we need to increase their availability. Mentorships and apprenticeships must be carefully crafted to enable young teachers to receive the proper supervision and modeling early in their careers.

On the administrative side, we cannot and should not wait for people to be trained and groomed over the years. There is an available pool of talented educators who are Jewish but who have not worked previously in Jewish education. They are currently in independent and public schools. They are mid‑career and need to be approached about the possibility of devoting the second half of their careers to Jewish day school education. A substantial number of individuals have already made this switch; we need to provide incentives and mid‑career training and learning to facilitate this transition for others.

Second, to help day schools reach a higher level of excellence, we must plan and launch a venture devoted exclusively to delivering expertise and technical assistance to Jewish day schools. This expertise should include help with the development of vision and mission, curriculum, fundraising, and marketing. Such a venture will help to grow a deep culture of excellence within the day school world in all aspects of school operations, capitalizing on the available wisdom of successful schools.

And finally, all those concerned about Jewish day school education must embark on a vigorous advocacy program for the support of Jewish day school education. Even with the growth of the day school population, approximately 80 percent of the North American Jewish community is unconnected to this phenomenon. There is a need to communicate the story of Jewish day school education and the highly positive impact it is having on so many individuals and families across the nation. This advocacy effort should be multifaceted, including promoting general positive awareness, helping to recruit students to enroll in day schools, and laying the groundwork for substantially increased financial resource development to support ever ­increasing needs.

Advocacy also needs to address the high costs of day school education and the need for financial resources to stabilize tuition and create endowments that will give schools more flexibility in their budgets. If we can successfully address these major areas, we will find 20 years from now a community of days schools across the country that are fueled by bolder visions of an active and literate Jewish community. These schools and their graduates will be moving forward confidently to increase the literacy and vibrancy of their local communities as they nurture the next generation of engaged Jews and responsible citizens.

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Rabbi Joshua Elkin

Rabbi Joshua Elkin is Executive Director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a grant-making & advocacy organization for Jewish day schools. He was head of the Solomon Schecter Day School of Greater Boston for 20 years. He has also served as Adjunct Lecturer in Jewish Education at the Brandeis University Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service.