Today’s Models and Tomorrow’s

These challenges are not, to be sure, insurmountable. Many day schools are thriving and others are finding ways to reasonable stability. Day school support organizations, a number of committed major funders, a few communities, and countless individual supporters and parents have stepped up to provide not only additional financial resources, but also sophisticated educational and management tools and guidance to help day schools sustain themselves in a less than rosy environment. The day school movement is decidedly not in crisis, even if the optimistic hopes for growth of a decade or two ago no longer seem realistic.

Still, this is perhaps a good time to step back and ask some searching questions about the future of Jewish day schools and particularly of the model that has developed as the norm for day schools in North America. Organizational models typically develop in response to a set of conditions and within the framework of a set of assumptions that seem nearly immutable. However, conditions change, and assumptions bear regular retesting. So at a time when day schools face significant challenges, it may be wise to consider whether the day school model we know today represents the only conceivable approach to doing what day schools do so well.

What are the key elements of today’s day school model (understanding that there are exceptions to each generalization)?

1. Each day school operates independently, with its own governance, administration, educational staff and program, facilities and finances.

2. Day schools educate students in some grade span from pre-kindergarten to grade 12.

3. These students are enrolled full time in the day school.

4. These students are Jewish by some accepted definition.

5. Day schools provide both the general and the Jewish education for these students.

6. Parents pay the bulk of the cost for this education, with Jewish donors (communal and private) paying most of the rest.

These elements of the day school model have proven their viability and value over time. Yet each, I would suggest, is worth further scrutiny in light of the challenges that day schools are facing today. At worst, playing a little “what if?” can stretch our thinking about how to meet some of these challenges; at best, it may lead us toward new models for a new time.

1. Operating each day school as a world unto itself is strikingly inefficient. As important as autonomy may be in maintaining educational integrity and a sense of school community, there are surely middle grounds between total independence and being part of a top-down system in the way that public schools are. All day schools have much in common, not only with other day schools, but with other schools generally. There are a host of opportunities to experiment with sharing resources and responsibilities on multiple levels. This kind of collaboration already happens on a small scale, and there have been efforts to incentivize more of it. But with day schools facing huge financial burdens, perhaps it is time to dramatically expand our willingness to treat day schools as a collective enterprise, not merely the accidental sum of a host of independent endeavors.

2. The primary mission of day schools will almost surely remain the education of primary, elementary, and secondary age students. Yet in an era when lifelong Jewish learning is increasingly not just a pious slogan, but a concrete aspiration being pursued actively in many settings, should not day schools seek to extend their reach at least to populations to whom they have unique access, such as the parents of their students, or who we know are often seeking high quality learning opportunities and may even be willing to pay for them, such as families with young children and senior adults? Day schools have resources—facilities, faculties—that could make them attractive community learning centers, as a few schools are already finding.

3. Perhaps the greatest, though certainly controversial, opportunity for day schools to engage new constituencies lies in joining the ranks of those offering less than full-day Jewish educational programs. This is a dynamic area in Jewish education today, no longer monopolized by synagogues. Day schools could play multiple roles here, from offering specialized programs in Hebrew language that many synagogues and other providers are incapable of mounting, to providing the kind of multi-day after-school programming that combines Jewish learning with other activities (e.g., assisted homework) that is spreading around the continent, to offering short-term vacation-time immersive programs that might combine Jewish and general learning. Nor do day schools have to go it alone in these efforts; rather, they might position themselves as partners to local synagogues and other providers, offering options that they cannot.

4. A growing number of day schools, especially in smaller communities, are opening their doors to non-Jewish students. Although financial exigencies may be driving this development, there are also educational reasons for considering whether day school should be for Jewish students only. In today’s world, ethno-religious insularity is increasingly problematic, both empirically and ideologically. Many parents will not consider day school for their children precisely because they want them to experience religious, ethnic and racial diversity. And if we truly believe that Judaism is a wisdom tradition with much to teach the world as a whole (and only this conviction, not a commitment to “Jewish continuity,” is likely to impress young people that what they are learning is worth doing so), then we should be delighted when others want to be exposed to this tradition in our institutions.

5. Unquestionably, the opportunity day schools provide to connect Jewish and general learning is one of their great strengths (even if some day schools do this far better than others). But, does this mean that day schools must themselves provide all of this learning? Already, a growing number of schools are turning to technology to “outsource” some of their curriculum. There are other options as well that may be even better, e.g., partnering with other private or even public schools in areas like STEM that are high on parents’ and students’ educational agendas, but often difficult for smaller schools in particular to do well. Day schools need not abandon their integrative role even if others are involved in providing some of the coursework.

6. Short of a major sea change in how education is funded in the United States, there is little prospect that the costs of day school education can be shifted in any dramatic way away from parents and donors. However, altering the day school model in some of the other ways suggested above—making it more efficient, more expansive in who it engages, more open to wider populations—might bring in new sources of revenue. At the least, it may help to alter the perception that day schools serve a narrow slice of the Jewish population and hence do not merit broadened support.

There are no magic bullets here, and there are good arguments against, as well as for, each of the possible changes I have suggested. Certainly, no one (including me) could responsibly urge that day school leaders embrace radical, and potentially de-stabilizing, changes without due deliberation and experimentation. However, this is not a time for timidity. As we look at the challenges facing day schools today, the question is: Do we have the courage to build on what has already been achieved to create new models and new relationships so that our schools and our children can continue to thrive in the 21st century?♦

Dr. Jonathan Woocher works in a senior capacity with the Lippman Kanfer family on its philanthropic and educational initiatives.

Jonathan Woocher
Mission & Vision
Knowledge Topics
Published: Fall 2014