September 23, 2019

Making Jewish high school affordable

Los Angeles residents Dafna and Scott Taryle hoped to send their son Adam to a Jewish hight school when he graduated from Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy. But, Scott Taryle said, “We didn’t know for sure that we would be able to.” 

The Taryles aren’t alone. The annual tuition at most Jewish high schools in Los Angeles is upward of $25,000, and in some cases closer to $35,000, when you count all the add-ons (such as textbooks, technology and security fees, grade trips, etc.) — a price that is simply out of reach for a lot of people.

So the Taryles, who have a younger son as well, considered their options, including an LAUSD magnet school. Adam attended orientation events at various schools and his dad said he “fell in love with Shalhevet,” a Modern Orthodox co-ed school in the Fairfax neighborhood. 

“We thought this would be the environment that would be best for him and nurture him,” he said. But there was still the matter of tuition. 

Fortunately, the Taryles learned about the Los Angeles High School Affordability Initiative (LAHSAI), a program spearheaded by the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation with major help from Los Angeles-based Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). Among other things, the multiyear program, which was introduced in 2008 and wraps up this coming school year, provides tuition assistance to Jewish middle-income L.A. families hoping to send their children to one of five area high schools: Shalhevet, YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). 

It is worth noting that “middle income,” as defined by LAHSAI, is very different from what most people, especially those outside Los Angeles, might consider “middle.” When BJE developed the parameters for applicants, they started with the figure of $74,044, which the California Budget Project defined as the subsistence level for two working parents with two kids, said Miriam Prum-Hess, director of BJE’s Center for Excellence in Day School Education. BJE then took into account the additional costs of living in a Jewish neighborhood, synagogue membership, keeping kosher and sending kids to summer camp, as well as school tuition. BJE set the maximum aid at 40 percent of tuition, and each school determined the amount awarded based on each family’s need.

The Jim Joseph Foundation, whose mission is “to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews,” did not simply write checks to the five high schools. In the interest of assuring the schools’ long-term financial health and sustainability, they made their monies dependent on the schools building significant endowments. In this way, even after the six-year initiative runs its course, the schools can continue to help middle-income families for at least six more years and, hopefully, well beyond.

The carrot approach worked. Including more than $4 million that the schools received, together, from the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund, they will have raised over $21 million in endowment funds by the program’s end, said Sandy Edwards, associate director of the Jim Joseph Foundation. “None of that includes Jim Joseph money,” she added. “We felt our money was the incentive and stimulus. … Schools are now thinking differently. That’s what we mean by culture change.”

Prum-Hess elaborated:. “Prior to this program, very few schools had any sort of endowment. Thinking long term into the future was not something that was in their consciousness at all. … As one head of school who wasn’t part of this program said to me, ‘I so get it now. If I want my school to be around in 10 years, I have to begin building an endowment.’ It made real for us what must be done. Schools were too busy working in the today to think about working in the future.” 

Raising millions of dollars was not easy for any of the schools. Some did not have dedicated development staff. Now they all do. Boards worked tirelessly. BJE offered direction and hand-holding along the way.

“The key was the inspirational piece,” said Bruce Powell, head of NCJHS. “Our people were so inspired. We need huge endowments to make sure we never have to be in the position to turn a Jewish family away from a Jewish high school education. What a great day that will be. … In the short term, [LAHSAI] helped us. … In the long term, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Adam Taryle is one of 367 students receiving tuition assistance thanks to the initiative. In September, he’ll start his second year at Shalhevet. According to his dad, it’s a good fit. 

“I’ve really seen it bring out a lot of confidence in him,” he said. “The financial commitment, even with Jim Joseph, is a little daunting. But I’m really happy with what I’ve seen it doing for my son.”

Arlene Davidson, whose daughter Morgan moved from a well-regarded public school to NCJHS last year to begin her junior year, is equally enthusiastic. 

“She needed something different,” the Woodland Hills resident said. “She needed to be around other kids who, [like her], want to make this world a better place.”

For the Davidsons, too, even with the assistance, the tuition is a stretch. “We still have had to make a lifestyle change,” said Arlene Davidson, who is quick to add that they live very comfortably. Although they have not taken a vacation in more than two years, she has no regrets. 

“This is what Morgan needed,” she said. “She has blossomed 100 percent.” In fact, Morgan recently was named a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipient, one of 15 from across the country.

“If there’s one thing I can stress to other parents, it’s don’t let the financial part turn you away,” Davidson said. “I know a lot of parents who decide to send their kids to Catholic school because it’s half the cost. This makes [Jewish school] more doable.”