School’s Out — Forever?

At a time when many Jewish day schools in the area are bursting at the seams and new ones move closer to opening their doors, Temple Isaiah Day School is making plans to go out of business.

The formal decision about the fate of the school has just been handed down by the Reform congregation’s board of directors, who concluded that their membership can no longer afford to underwrite the school’s operations. According to the timetable laid down by the board, the school will cease to exist at the end of June.

Temple Isaiah, a K-through-6 school founded a decade ago, has always struggled in its effort to build a student population. While Westside day schools at Temple Emanuel, Beth Am, and Sinai Temple each attract more than 300 students, Isaiah has not had the same success; its student body currently numbers 76, down from 80 a year ago.

Concerned observers have long noted that graduates of Isaiah’s popular preschool tend not to feed into the day school. In fact, in recent years, Isaiah’s preschool parents have largely reversed the familiar trend of preferring a private education for their children.

Susie Leonard, who heads the preschool, confirms that among 60 children who moved on to kindergarten last year, only 25 opted for private schools of any sort. Of these 25, a mere four entered Jewish day schools. Two of the graduates would probably have joined a sibling at Isaiah’s day school, but were apparently scared off by the school’s enrollment woes.

Isaiah’s decision to end its day school does not sit well with parents. They have nothing but praise for Director Sari Goodman and for a school they see as exemplifying the best in Jewish family values. Many are also angry at what they regard as the temple’s insensitivity; they believe that the letter they received in December, warning of a possible closure, did not give them time to take constructive action.

A parent active in the movement to keep the school open argues that Temple Isaiah has never made the strong commitment needed to shore up the school’s finances. He questions the dedication of the congregants to the school’s existence — “the school and the congregation are pretty well divorced” — and cites the lack of money and personnel for recruitment efforts as a reason the school has floundered.

Parents plan to attend this week’s temple board meeting en masse, bearing their own proposals for making the school viable. Among their ideas is a scheme to affiliate with other congregations that have preschools, in hopes of incorporating them into a feeder system for Temple Isaiah Day School.

Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Robert Gan, disputes the parents’ contention that the school has been underfunded from the start. He insists that there has always been “a heroic and enormous commitment on the part of the temple to sustain this school.” But the consistently low enrollment figures, coupled with the fact that fully 40 percent of the school’s students attend on scholarship, have pushed the temple into the reluctant decision to pull the plug.

Gan argues that parents have long known about the school’s precarious situation, and that the letters sent in December were a responsible way to warn them to pursue other alternatives for next fall.

Countering the accusation that Temple Isaiah devalues Jewish education, Gan points to a flourishing religious school, with more than 400 children enrolled. He also mentions a new family life center, now on the drawing board, that will serve the educational needs of congregants of all ages.