Dr. Jonathan S. Woocher of JESNA discusses the options facing Jewish day school stakeholders faced with global economic recession, combined with underlying demographic factors which endanger the growth and development of day schools. This paper is based on a comprehensive study, Day School Education in Challenging Times: Examining the Strategic Options, carried out by JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute.
Among his recommendations that should guide the decision-making that school and community leaders will engage in:
· The day school model as we have generally known it should be the “default” option and starting point for decision-making. As intriguing as some of the alternative models may be, none offers all of the benefits that the traditional day school does. Thus, strengthening day schools where they exist and opening them where they can be viable should be our first choice.
· As a practical matter, therefore, schools and communities should consider the full range of options for strengthening schools educationally, administratively and financially before they pursue alternatives.
· Nonetheless, at a time when we are seeking to grow Jewish educational participation in general and when “consumers” are both more diverse and more likely to exercise choice among educational options, the alternative models identified have merit in their own right, and not just as options when no day school is available. Communities should consider whether one or more ought to have a place on their Jewish educational landscape alongside their efforts to strengthen day schools.
· Leaders can take a number of practical steps to help them make good decisions: using a skilled consultant / facilitator; conducting a local scan to examine in detail both the situation of its day school(s) and the general environment for Jewish education; taking advantage of outside resources from organizations like PEJE, the day school associations, and foundations supporting day school education; involving key stakeholders throughout the decision-making process; developing explicit criteria to guide decision-making so that those involved understand and agree to the extent possible on what will define “success.”
· Schools and communities must accept the fact that there are unlikely to be “perfect” solutions to the challenges they face. Every option has strengths and weaknesses; each involves trade-offs; not all can be pursued simultaneously. Leaders and supporters of day school education should not be looking for magic bullets or quick fixes. They must be prepared to experiment and persist as they seek to optimize their strategies.
In the final analysis, what matters most is that all Jewish children receive the best education we can provide. For decades, day schools have been a major part of the effort to meet this mandate. They will continue to be so. Whatever we can do to strengthen these schools and to find ways to bring their benefits to as many children as possible – even, when necessary, in forms other than the conventional day school itself – will be a worthwhile investment, not only in our children, but in our collective future.