October 24, 2018

Scholarships help keep middle-income kids in Jewish schools

Amid the cascade of bad economic news of the past few months, five Jewish high schools in Los Angeles received some good news last week.

The Jim Joseph Foundation, based in San Francisco, awarded the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles a $12.7 million grant to pay for tuition subsidies for new and continuing middle-income students over the next six years at Shalhevet School, Milken Community High School, New Community Jewish High School, and the boys and girls schools of YULA yeshiva high school.

The schools with the help of the larger Jewish community, in turn, will be obligated to raise an additional $21.25 million within the next six years for a community endowment fund to pay for Jewish education into the future.

“This grant is visionary and extraordinary on multiple levels,” said Gil Graf, executive director of the BJE. “It makes Jewish education immediately accessible to more families, and also creates enduring capacity through the endowment to help future generations.”

Around $7.5 million of the Jim Joseph Foundation grant will pay for approximately 600 scholarships — up to 40 percent off of tuition, which runs an average $26,000 at the five high schools.

The remaining $5.2 million will pay for development directors for the schools, additional teachers for new students, and marketing, evaluation and administrative costs.

The Jim Joseph Foundation, established in 2006 with a mission to further all manner of Jewish education, chose to pilot this program in Los Angeles, where foundation board member Jack Slomovic lives, because of the large number of high schools and The Federation’s involvement.

“We wanted to get the community involved and to get the schools involved to see whether this will work well in other cities,” Jim Joseph President Alvin Levitt said. “We think we’re off to a good start.”

The timing for Los Angeles is both ideal and a challenge, in that the cash infusion is sorely needed as the economy takes a battering, but raising the additional millions for an endowment could be difficult.

“The grant is something that helps us reach out to donors and say we are creating access for kids who couldn’t financially take part in Jewish education; we’re creating continuity in a unique way,” said Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, head of school at Shalhevet.

About 135 students dropped out of 22 day schools surveyed by the BJE for the 2008-2009 school year, and schools reported 170 families currently reporting distress. Schools are bracing for a tough 2009-2010 registration cycle, which begins in January.

About 23 percent of the 1,500 students in the five high schools currently receive financial aid, a number sure to go up next year.

Schools, which have historically supported the neediest families, have renegotiated tuitions and worked with the distressed families. But often middle-income families find themselves barely able to pay tuition, but not wanting to apply for financial aid, said Miriam Prum-Hess, director of day school operational services for BJE. Many middle-class families never look toward Jewish education as a possibility.

The Jim Joseph grant targets those families, hoping to bring in 180 families who would never have considered a Jewish school because of the cost, and fund about 450 continuing students.

By Jewish Los Angeles standards, middle-class can mean families making about $200,000 a year. Prum-Hess estimates that families who bought a house in the last few years in Los Angeles need to be earning about $276,000 a year to put two children through Jewish education — and that was before the current recession.

The new grants will be administered by the BJE, which is developing a tuition calculator for the 2010-2011 school year for parents to go online and input income and expense information to determine whether they qualify for the tuition subsidy. (Until then, families will apply through the schools’ existing financial-aid process.)

Families needing more than a 40 percent subsidy will apply directly to the schools’ scholarship fund. The participating schools have committed themselves to maintaining their current scholarship budgets.

The grant will also fund teachers to staff a preparatory program, offering basic Jewish education to help integrate students new to day school education.

Schools can also use the funds to hire a development director to help raise their obligation toward the $21 million endowment fund — $2 million to $5 million per school, depending on its budget.

The BJE has been working to create a fund like this for years and has already secured a large portion of its $4.25 million commitment toward the endowment. The goal is to eventually create a $100 million endowment for Los Angeles, Prum-Hess said.

This is the latest — and largest — grant Prum-Hess has brought in during her tenure as director of day school operations, a post she’s held since December 2004, when she moved to BJE from planning and allocations, where she was vice president. Under her guidance, BJE schools have brought in $6 million in grants from sources such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund and the Jewish Funders Network, a consortium of organizations that incentivizes schools to increase their own fundraising capacity. “I like the idea that the Jim Joseph Foundation grant forces the school into thinking about long-term financial health,” said Jason Ablin, head of school at Milken Community High School. “This is something that has been going on at independent schools for years, and it’s time the Jewish community got on board with it.”

Of course, even a $21 million endowment would be just the beginning. Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School, has for years been talking about a $1 billion Jewish education endowment for Los Angeles, and he is thrilled to see that the door has finally been cracked open.

“Los Angeles should be a place where no Jewish family can’t get a Jewish education because of income. That is the goal. That is the big idea,” Powell said. “To do otherwise is at some point to lose the whole enterprise — not just the education, but the Jewish people’s contribution to America.”