Conservative, Orthodox, pluralistic and Reform day school organizations to merge

Five North American Jewish day school organizations and networks representing more than 375 schools from across the denominational spectrum are merging.

The Jewish Community Day School Network, or RAVSAK, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE, Yeshiva University School Partnership, the Schechter Day School Network and Day Schools of Reform Judaism, or PARDES, announced in a news release Tuesday they have agreed to “move forward towards the formation of a new, integrated North American Jewish day school organization.”

RAVSAK represents nondenominational Jewish schools, the Schechter network is affiliated with the Conservative movement and Yeshiva University mostly serves modern and centrist Orthodox schools. Together, the schools represented by the five groups enroll about 40 percent of the total number of students in full-time Jewish schools, according to The New York Jewish Week, which reported that the merger is estimated to save more than $1 million annually.

The merger comes as enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools is declining and centrist and modern Orthodox school enrollment is flat. Haredi Orthodox schools, which will not be represented in the new group, have been rapidly growing, accounting for more than half of all full-time Jewish school enrollment.

The decision to merge “recognizes that a combined day school organization will more effectively meet the diverse needs of local schools by pooling the talent, expertise and resources originally dispersed among its founding agencies,” according to the news release.

The merging organizations began combining their annual conferences in 2010.

The still unnamed new entity is “committed to improving financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools, and supporting a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field,” the release states. “It will work directly with schools, cohorts of schools, and individual professional and lay leaders to strengthen skills and build capacity in areas of teaching and learning, leadership, governance, affordability, recruitment, retention, fund development and endowment building.”

The new group will “network colleagues and schools of different ideologies and geographies to address shared challenges and capitalize on shared opportunities, while still providing distinct services and counsel to schools from within similar streams.”

The decision to merge follows an almost year-long planning process facilitated in part by the Avi Chai Foundation, which has pledged financial support for the new organization until the foundation shuts down operations in 2019.

In a joint statement, the planning team, representing leaders from each group, said,“The formation of a single integrated day school organization will optimize the quality of services we provide to the schools we serve, giving them the resources they need to build the strongest possible future. It is a definitive affirmation of the centrality of day schools in Jewish life and reflects our dedication to seeing Jewish learning, literacy, culture and commitment flourish in a rapidly changing world.”

The new organization, which has begun a branding process to select its name and “develop an identity that reflects a unified, cooperative and fresh vision of the day school field,” plans to launch this summer.

MATCH to donate $9M to Jewish day schools

The MATCH program will hold its fourth launch this August to encourage expanding the donor base for Jewish day schools.

The program, founded by the AVI CHAI and Kohelet Foundations in 2004, aids Jewish day schools by matching donations from new sources at a rate of 50 cents to the dollar. Donations above $10,000 qualify for the grant, and individual schools can receive up to $50,000.

In partnership with the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), the AVI CHAI and Kohelet Foundations will match the first $6 million in donations to Jewish day schools throughout the United States with an additional $3 million.

JFN Director of Communications Avi Zollman said the program has helped support Jewish day schools nationwide.

“Since 2004, our matching grant programs for day schools and Jewish education have brought more than $51 million of new funding to the field,” he said, “and 385 donors have supported 232 schools and programs.”

The latest launch of MATCH, beginning Aug. 1, features a new rule that prohibits schools from going to parents for donations. Alumni parents, grandparents and community members are the target donors for this year’s program.

“There has been a recognition among funders that these schools are a community resource and that they need to be funded not just by parents but by members of the community as well,” Zollman added.

The last program was held in 2007, with $14.9 million raised by 200 donors, with an additional $4.9 million raised by JFN donors.

Miriam Prum Hess, director of Centers of Excellence in Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles, said that BJE coaches participant schools on how to fundraise effectively.

“We are very excited about the launch,” she said, “We will work with schools and train them so they can meet the needs of schools and help them learn how to fundraise.”

She also said the program has experienced a lot of growth since its founding.

“In its first year, we had two schools in L.A. taking part in the program,” she said. “The second time, we did some training and coaching to help them develop strategies to achieve their goals; 15 schools got involved, and several were successful with reaching their targets with more than one donor.”

Applications will be accepted from Aug. 1, 2012, until Jan. 15, 2013. Applicants will be notified on a rolling basis until the entire amount has been allocated.

Four L.A. schools win PEJE Challenge Grant Awards

Four Los Angeles-area day schools were selected last month as winners of the 2011 Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) Challenge Grant Award, making Los Angeles the city with the most winners.

The four L.A.-area schools included both the YULA Boys and Girls high schools, which submitted a joint application focused on building enrollment, and Valley Beth Shalom Day School in Encino and Weizmann Day School in Pasadena, both of which boosted their general fundraising efforts. 

Of the 127 day schools that submitted applications for the $25,000 cash award, 27 received the award for their creative initiatives to make themselves more sustainable, whether through building enrollment, increasing endowment or boosting general fundraising.

Applications were scored based on a weighted formula and ranked by PEJE professionals and a team of outside readers that included PEJE board members and experts in the field of Jewish day school education.

“The challenge for applicants was to think innovatively, to defy their status quo and to initiate bold changes within their school with the intention of stimulating growth in one of their key revenue streams,” PEJE Executive Director Amy Katz said.

All four schools have been working steadily with PEJE and the BJE, formerly the Bureau of Jewish Education, to enhance sustainability, according to Miriam Prum Hess, director of the Centers for Excellence in Day School Education and Educational Engagement at BJE.

Through increasing differentiated instruction options and boosting community outreach, the two YULA schools were able to attain dramatically increased enrollment over the past three years: 10.6 percent for the boys school and 19.7 percent for the girls school.

For Valley Beth Shalom, the challenge was “reaching out to stakeholders and donors and exciting them about the opportunity to give with real purpose and passion,” Prum Hess said. 

And at Weizmann, which doesn’t have a formal development department, the focus was on creating a strategic development plan and helping board members to make the case for giving, she said.

The $25,000 cash awards are unrestricted, meaning schools can use them as they see fit.

“It’s really an award to help them and to acknowledge schools that created innovative work,” Prum-Hess said.

It’s hard to find good day school leaders these days

A dearth of leadership talent is affecting not only the likes of Yahoo! and Microsoft, it’s also wreaking havoc on the Jewish day school system as schools find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified heads.

Representatives from 11 Jewish educational organizations will meet next month at a think-tank at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Working with strategic planners and other Jewish and general education experts, they will look for solutions to what they describe as a crisis.

“As soon as you bring it up with those involved in Jewish education, it’s like bringing up the topic of in-laws with a group of married people — there are a lot of nodding heads,” said Nina Butler, an educational consultant at the Avi Chai Foundation. The foundation has a special focus on day school education, and is one of the think tank’s organizers.

To some extent, the day school system is a victim of its own success, said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

“This is basically a story about the phenomenally rapid growth of the day school system in North America,” he said. “For the last couple of decades, the addition of new schools and the expansion of schools has put a tremendous demand on the Jewish community to supply leaders and teachers. The growth has outstripped the capacity.”

There are roughly 800 North American day schools, and 60 new schools have opened since PEJE, a collaboration of major philanthropists to improve Jewish education, started in 1997, Elkin said. The number of children in day schools has increased by 100,000 since 1982 to more than 200,000 today, according to a 2003 Avi Chai census.

Frances Urman, director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, founded by Avi Chai and run out of JTS, said her office has seen a “tremendous” influx of calls from schools across the country looking to fill their top spots. Her office runs a 14-month fellowship to train prospective day school leaders.

Marvin Schick, a senior adviser to the Avi Chai Foundation, said finding heads of school isn’t the only issue — there’s also the problem of keeping them.

Schick recently completed research for a study into Jewish day school leadership. He sent out 500 questionnaires to Jewish heads of school and got 400 responses.

The study looked at career path, salary, job responsibilities, career satisfaction and other areas. The data won’t be ready for release for several months, but Schick said it shows that a “significant number” of Jewish heads of school are “new or fairly new” at their jobs.

Most started out as teachers without expecting to go into administrative work, he said, and one out of five continues to teach on top of other duties. Schick also found that job satisfaction is very high among heads of school, with 90 percent of those who returned the questionnaire reporting less than 1 percent job dissatisfaction.

Schick said it was “remarkable that there is so much movement in the field.”

Los Angeles, home to 37 day schools serving 10,000 K-12th grade students, has bucked the national trend and enjoyed healthy stability in retaining principals and headmasters, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education.

“School heads have been drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including both Jewish education and public and private school administration. Rare are the instances of appointment as head of a day school in L.A., absent previous experience in a senior role in educational administration,” Graff said.

Still, the national crisis is cause for concern.

“Los Angeles, however, represents 5 percent of the schools and students in the American day school universe. Ensuring that, nationally, there is a sufficient pool of well-qualified heads of Jewish day schools to serve the needs of an expanding number of institutions is vital to sustaining and furthering the momentum of the day school movement,” Graff said.

PEJE’s Elkin said the average retention rate for heads of Jewish schools is three to six years, hardly enough time for an educator to leave a mark. For the schools to be successful, they have to figure out how to raise that rate to six to nine years, Elkin said.

When principals do switch jobs, it’s often because they find better opportunities, advancement or a preferable location, said Schick, who noted that “very few were fired.”

Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that schools are popping up in small Jewish communities, such as Kerry, N.C. and Asheville, N.C., said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, an umbrella organization for the country’s 90 Jewish community schools.

Getting qualified people to leave bigger Jewish communities is often a problem, and getting them to stay when a job in a larger city opens up is difficult, he said.

A head of school functions like a CEO, maintaining curriculum and serving as liaison among the school’s board, faculty, parents and student body, while making sure that school finances are in check. Finding someone who is qualified to do all this — and who also has experience working at a Jewish school — is nearly impossible, Kramer said.

He added that about eight RAVSAK schools — about 10 percent of the schools in the system — look for new heads each year.

That’s why Debra Altshul-Stark, president of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, considers her school very lucky to have found a qualified applicant to take over as head of school this year. The founding headmaster of the 25-year-old school retired five years ago, and the school couldn’t find a qualified replacement.

The board decided to try a three-headed approach. That flopped, as did a model of two heads of school.

When the board decided to go back to a single-head model, Stark was wary, because the first search had been so disappointing. This time 25 candidates applied; one had the general educational and Jewish educational background — and wanted to move to Milwaukee.