HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Socioeconomic Diversity

by Dr. Bob Berk Issue: Diversity

As educators we often forget that the word “socioeconomic” has two parts – “socio” and “economic.” Socioeconomic status has come to refer only to financial means. We have all but forgotten the first part of the word. There are many individuals within our communities with a rich diversity of experience and opinion. This diversity makes our schools better learning communities. We have children whose parents are first generation immigrants, artists, or carpenters. They are from Argentina, adopted from China. Some come from interfaith households, some have single parents. They may live in homes that are multigenerational or include extended families. They may have relatives to care for in other parts of the world. Some of these families are also poor.

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. Do all our potential recruits get the same attention? Do some get invited to an intimate breakfast with the Head of School and others to an open house?

They bring with them experiences that might not be typical in our full-paying families. These children often add an important and different outlook to classroom discussions. Imagine exploring the exodus with children who, themselves – or whose parents – undertook their own. In high schools, imagine a conversation about a national health insurance program with some students who may not have coverage. Imagine debating the war in Iraq with students who know that some of their classmates’ parents are currently serving in our military. These discussions can occur when we welcome – and more importantly, actively recruit – our least affluent.

Why do I believe this to be true?

In community day schools we value pluralism, diversity of practice and a commitment to Klal Yisrael. Our Boards actively discuss these issues. What board has not spoken about how we recruit more Reform families…or additional Orthodox families? What board has not spoken about how we pray in the school? But in too many schools it is only the finance or scholarship committees that speak about our poorest families. In addition to questions about financial aid capacity, our lay and professional leadership should ask themselves the following questions: (1) What are we doing to specifically recruit the least affluent in our community? (2) What practices in our school make our least affluent families and students uncomfortable? (3) What can we do to make these students and families more comfortable? (4) How can we help these parents to feel valued by the school – to know that they add more than they take?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. Do all our potential recruits get the same attention? Do some get invited to an intimate breakfast with the Head of School and others to an open house? Do some – but not others – get invited to Shabbat dinner at a current family’s house? Do some get handwritten notes and others get form letters? While our recruitment process should allow for discretionary choice of recruitment strategies by the admissions director, we need to make sure that the least affluent do not receive the least personal recruitment methods.

In community day schools we value pluralism, diversity of practice and a commitment to Klal Yisrael. Our Boards actively discuss these issues.

We also know that some practices in our schools are difficult for our least affluent. Do schools have a mechanism in place to reduce the financial burden that enrichment events cause? Ice cream days, holiday gifts for faculty members, tzedakah drives, field trips, club fees, and book fairs…the random costs, as we all know, can get quite expensive. Does somebody at the school approach our least affluent families – well before an event – and offer to help financially so that these items are not an uncomfortable burden?

Perhaps the most difficult challenge that we face is making the least affluent feel valued within the community. We rarely ask them to serve on our boards. They often cannot take leadership positions in our parent-teacher organizations because they work full-time. And the truth is, even when we know that they could easily help on a project, it is often easier to call somebody who is more available. For us to truly recruit, welcome and retain our least affluent we must ask these families to make worthy contributions to the school. It is our job to figure out how to facilitate this difficult task.

In the last issue of HaYidion, Michael Steinhardt challenged us to work to appeal to more than just the 10% of the community that we currently enroll in our day schools. He offered that in addition to doing what we are doing now, our schools need to appeal more to the values of contemporary Jews. This may be one path for competing with other high quality schools within our markets. Another way is to change the focus of our conversation about our poorer students. In many communities, day schools are now affordable for all those who desire a Jewish education. Let us continue to make sure that the financial aid is available. But let us do this quietly. The more pertinent work is to reconsider what we do to recruit and retain students from our least affluent families – are we doing what is required…or just what we have always done?

Summer is the time of year when all of our local print publications, school associations and, of course, the Federation allocation committee ask us to update our school profiles. For most of those asking my job is simple, I simply report the hard data: 100 students K - 6, 12 students in our preschool, 20 FTEs (full-time equivalent) faculty members, 5:1 student teacher ratio, tuition equals $11,000 plus fees, the list goes on and on. Most organizations ask for similar data. The exception to this rule is our local Federation. They always want to know how much financial aid we plan to award for the upcoming year. Our Federation is interested in making sure that each and every Jewish child who wants a day school education can receive one. Within the school, we are firmly committed to this as well. Our interests, however, lie beyond the individual. We believe that socioeconomic diversity is a compelling educational interest. In other words, Jewish day schools need students from poor families as much as students from poor families need Jewish day schools. Let us make sure that our actions follow this dictum. ♦

[See page 33 for a case study on economic diversity in Jewish day schools]

Dr. Bob Berk is Head of School at Akiva Community Day School in Nashville, TN and serves as Vice President for Finance on the RAVSAK Executive Committee. Dr. Berk can be reached at bberk@akivanashville.net.

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Diversity in day schools usually goes well beyond the denominational spectrum that falls under the rubric of pluralism. It includes socioeconomic disparities, gender and sexuality, color and ethnicity, and other differences of religious practice and customs. In this issue, authors recommend ways for day schools to become sensitive to a range of diversity, to welcome all students and teachers and find ways for them to validate these identities within the school community.

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