HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Promoting Federation-Day School Collaboration to Address Sustainability in Smaller Communities

by Mark L. Goldstein and Marilyn Forman Chandler Issue: Size Matters

In small Jewish communities, day schools and federations need to work together fully as partners that strengthen each other. Here are a number of important ways to connect these silos.

Many leaders in smaller Jewish communities found themselves a bit perplexed by national data released last year on Jewish day schools. (For this discussion, we include those communities that are in the Jewish Federations of North America [JFNA] intermediate and small community categories.) The data described nominal increases in day school enrollment, which, for the majority of smaller Jewish communities, was not the reality. At least 10 Jewish day schools in smaller communities had closed and many had suffered significant enrollment decline. As most smaller Jewish communities are served by a single Jewish day school, whether or not it succeeds has far reaching communal implications.

Sensing that these realities are not being reflected in the nationally aggregated data, the Jewish Federations of North America agreed to add to its annual General Assembly meeting schedule in 2011 a discussion of the realities of Jewish day schools in smaller Jewish communities—but the only available time was at 11:00 PM! However, the gravity of the situation prompted nearly 30 Jewish community leaders, representing 25 smaller Jewish communities, to discuss their day school sustainability well past midnight. And the conversation continued, at better hours, at the next General Assembly and through the ongoing efforts of a Jewish Day School Task Force among Jewish federation directors in smaller Jewish communities.

To better understand the situation, the Task Force organized a push to schools in smaller communities to participate in the JData project, a comprehensive Jewish education data project of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Fifty-two schools across 40 different communities provided data, representing a 51% school and 69% community participation rate, and over 5000 students.

The findings documented some unique realities in smaller communities. Not surprisingly, there are fewer schools in smaller communities and those schools are smaller. Nearly 10% of these schools are on the precipice of steep decline; about 60% are in slight declines or are in stasis.

Schools in smaller communities are much more likely to experience large enrollment decreases than schools in larger communities. Data show that over the prior four-year period, two-thirds of schools in smaller communities experienced enrollment declines, including 18% losing more than 25% of their students. Attrition rates are higher in day schools in smaller communities than in larger ones. Because most smaller communities have only one day school, students who leave, for whatever reason, generally leave the Jewish day school marketplace. On average, the schools in smaller communities are operating at lower capacity rates than those in larger communities, are more financially precarious, and operate with proportionately larger deficits. And many schools in smaller communities struggle to find and retain qualified faculty and administrators.

Efforts to strategically focus on the unique needs of schools in smaller communities were the focus of a Deep Dive at the recent RAVSAK/PARDES conference in Los Angeles. For the first time—and thanks to an incentive grant from JFNA—federation representatives were encouraged to attend alongside their day school leadership to discuss sustainability issues. Follow up will certainly involve many national partners (JFNA, RAVSAK, PEJE, JData), and through the efforts of the federations’ Jewish Day School Task Force intervention strategies will soon emerge.

But the situation remains quite sobering in many communities. The rate of enrollment decline and attrition, unused capacity with its carrying and opportunity costs, and weak finances are particularly acute in smaller communities, exacerbated by demographic trends and the rising costs of a day school education. Notwithstanding national intervention strategies, we believe the key to ‘moving the needle’ will be strengthening the federation–day school alliance.

To do so we recommend the following:

Day schools should see themselves as veritable community agencies, not merely organizations whose primary focus is to serve their core constituency. Likewise, federations should similarly engage their day schools as they do other community partners. The distanced relationship found in larger communities, where an intermediary, such as a central agency or bureau, is typically utilized, is not an effective structure in smaller communities. It might be effective in limiting engagement during an allocations cycle, but when serious issues demand cooperative strategic relationships, the federation and the day school should both be at the table. Nothing is gained by “talking amongst ourselves” without the engagement and input of the other.

Federations and day schools should view each other as strategic partners, not just as a funding source or a beneficiary. Simply basing the development relationship on the annual allocation misses the greater opportunities to work together on donor-centered development, foundation grant opportunities and planned giving efforts, including the national Create a Jewish Legacy initiative. And yes, it means federations and day schools should share information.

Day schools and federations should never miss opportunities to promote each other. Day schools should be community partners in PJ Library and Shalom/newcomers programs. Communities that welcome newborn Jewish babies should include the day school in the program, as synagogues and JCCs are included. Federation announcements should be made regularly at day school board meetings and events; day schools should be invited to provide briefings/updates to the federation board. Day schools should promote the federation annual campaign and federation leadership should be visible at day school fundraising events.

Where the federation owns the community newspaper (more often than not in smaller communities), the day school should receive favorable advertising rates and editorial coverage, similar to promotion offered for the JCC or JFS. Day school leadership should regularly meet with federation leadership to provide updates. The head of school and federation director should meet regularly. And federations should include day schools in its meetings of agency presidents and executives.

Day schools and federations should seek opportunities for co-branding, from letterhead, to websites, to public statements, to event co-sponsorship of programs. Day schools should be active partners in a federation’s Israel programming, from Yom HaAtzma’ut to community Israel partnerships. Day schools may also have resources which can be used by federation and other agencies in promoting Jewish learning.

Federations and day schools should invest in regular and honest communications, avoiding Gomer Pyle-style messages: “sur-prise, sur-prise, sur-prise.” Disingenuous conversation misses the opportunity to address the very real and very pressing issues of sustainability such as resource development, student enrollment, educational quality, enhancing consumer receptivity to day school education and school HR challenges. The development of new business paradigms and sustainable financial models applicable to the unique realities in smaller communities are best served by honest, open and regular communication.

Gone are the days when the problems and opportunities of day schools and federations did not intersect or were solved independently of each other. Being part of a Jewish community requires teamwork, true partnership and dialogue.

Changes in our marketplace, whether demographic realities in smaller Jewish communities or the changing nature of young Jewish families, make working together essential. Donors are attracted to collaboration, strategic visioning and realistic financial modeling. Developing creative revenue, new program paradigms, and strategic partnership will require broad-based leadership engagement and community stakeholder buy-in. And that will happen with strong day school and federation collaboration.

The Jewish day school is an anchor, community-defining institution in smaller Jewish communities. Strong Jewish day schools of excellence are vital components of the infrastructure of a vibrant Jewish community. They enable communities to attract Jewish education-committed newcomers, including clergy and Jewish communal professionals. They enable families choosing a more enriching Jewish education for their children to remain in the community. They attract Jewish educators who are able to broaden a community’s Jewish learning or connection to Israel. As such, their sustainability in smaller communities is a community issue requiring community collaboration. Federations and day schools should come to recognize that their respective success is inextricably linked to each other, as well as to other community-based Jewish organizations. This rising tide really does raise all ships.♦

Mark L. Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Marilyn Forman Chandler, executive director of the Greensboro Jewish Federation, Greensboro, North Carolino, are co-chairs of the Task Force on Day School Sustainability of Jewish Federation Executive Directors in smaller Jewish communities. markg@jflv.org and mchandler@shalomgreensboro.org

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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