Back to school, back to poverty?

Back to school, back to poverty?

Community looks for solutions to day-school tuition crisis

Kids returned to school this month and parents returned to worrying about how to pay for it.

Earlier this year, the community began looking for solutions to stem the rising cost of day-school tuition, which can reach as high as $30,000 a year per student. The result has been a host of ideas ranging from fund-raising initiatives to low-cost education models. Some ideas have moved forward, while others have languished. Everybody involved, though, has agreed on the need to keep exploring new ideas.

The American economy is pulling itself out of recession, according to several analysts, but even if the economy bounces back, the tuition crisis will remain, said Gershon Distenfeld, a board member of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

“It’s really becoming unaffordable for the average family,” he said. “People are coming around to the realization that we have a serious long-term crisis on our hands and that something has to be done to preserve the future of our day schools.”

Earlier this year, a group of area educators, under the encouragement of Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, created Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, a community fund to distribute money to local schools, with the goal of offsetting burgeoning scholarship needs, mitigating future tuition increases, and assuming communal responsibility for Jewish education. The program launched in June and has thus far collected $125,000.

About 625 families contribute now to NNJKIDS, averaging monthly donations of $40.

Based on current monthly subscriptions, the program projects annual collections of $300,000, said Distenfeld, chair of NNJKIDS and treasurer of its parent organization, Jewish Education For Generations. Though the organization is striving to raise as much as possible, what’s more important is getting full participation from the community.

“That’s the major impact of NNJKIDS,” Goldin said. “Going to the community at large and saying, ‘Here we are establishing this fund, to which we are urging all members of the community to contribute.’ Its goal is to change the mindset of the community at large.”

With the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, NNJKIDS has begun campaigns in almost every Orthodox synagogue. About 20 percent of the Orthodox community has responded, Distenfeld said, and participation is steadily growing among the area’s Conservative synagogues.

In the coming months, the group expects to reach 50 percent participation from within the synagogues, he said, and steadily move toward 100 percent participation.

To increase the campaign’s visibility, Distenfeld said, RCBC rabbis will make new pleas to their congregations in coming weeks, similar to the speeches that kicked off the campaign after Shavuot. NNJKIDS will also be one of three charities represented at the Chol Hamoed Sukkot carnival next month at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

A recent grant from the Avi Chai Foundation will allow the organization to hire a part-time administrator, who will work with the schools to distribute the funds. Next month the schools will certify their enrollment numbers and NNJKIDS will use those numbers to determine allocations for the rest of the year. NNJKIDS will divide the funds among the eight elementary schools – including the two Solomon Schechter schools and SINAI – based on their enrollment from within the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey catchment area. The first allocation is planned for November and others will be made quarterly. Though the money will be distributed this year, the schools have been asked to put their allocations toward the 2010-11 budgets, Distenfeld said.

Conversations between JEFG and UJA-NNJ are also continuing, toward creating a larger community endowment fund for day-school education. The federation is exploring the feasibility of such a fund, said David Moss, UJA-NNJ’s assistant executive vice president for endowment.

He could not quantify how much such a fund could bring to the schools, but said it would contain “significant amounts of money.”

More important than the money, he said, is the “recognition that this crisis requires all of us to be working arm-in-arm,” Moss said. “We would not be nearly as successful if we weren’t working on this together.”

The federation, Moss said, wants its response to include not just the day schools but the congregational schools as well. UJA-NNJ has circulated a survey among the leadership of the congregational schools to assess their needs.

“We recognize this is an issue that is pressing,” Moss said. “We’re trying not to address it as if it’s a short-term problem with a short-term fix.”

Fund-raising and cost cutting aren’t the only solutions on the table. This year saw a host of other alternative ideas.

The Orthodox Union is moving forward with a proposal for a joint insurance program for some 600 day schools across the country. A deadline recently passed for schools to express interest and the OU is now waiting on proposals from four insurance providers.

“It has been slower moving forward than we had hoped,” said Rabbi Cary Friedman, assistant director of the OU’s department of day school and educational services.

On the fund-raising front, he said, the OU plans to launch its Education Fund Toolbar through its new Click4Kids program within a few weeks. The toolbar, which will be sent to all of the country’s Orthodox day schools, has various corporate sponsors who will make 5-cent donations every time the toolbar is used.

“That promises to be a source of money for the schools from sources we don’t usually [target],” Friedman said.

Free Cause, which developed the bar for the OU, created the same set-up for the Susan G. Komen Fund. The toolbar generates approximately $600,000 a month for Komen.

“The toolbar is a great idea because it’s coming from corporate sponsors,” Friedman said.

Toolbar proceeds will be deposited into a superfund, which the OU will disperse in segments.

Twenty percent will go toward an emergency fund to help financially stressed schools in communities where said school is the only one in the community for that grade level.

“If such a school fails, it is not only the failure of the school; it is the failure of the community, and that must be prevented,” Friedman said.

When signing up for the toolbar, potential donors can mark their school affiliation. Forty percent of the money raised will be distributed among the schools whose affiliates click the most. The final 40 percent will be divided among all the schools to be used as credits to help lower tuition.

Groups like JEFG are not looking to change the day-school model but find other ways to fund it, Goldin said. Some members of the community, however, are looking to different models altogether.

A group of parents began meeting in the spring to discuss a low-cost day-school model. The idea called for tuition of $6,500 a year, which would be made possible through fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and fewer electives. The idea garnered some interest, attracting more than 100 people to information sessions but, said organizer Abby Flamholz, there was not enough interest to move forward.

“We did a survey to gauge demand for this kind of thing,” she said. “The feedback said there wasn’t necessarily enough interest at this time to start a new school.”

At one of its meetings, the group behind the idea introduced Rabbi Richard Ehrlich of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island. The school offered to bus in students from Bergen County this year for an all-inclusive price of $8,500, well below the average regional price tag.

Uri and Devra Gutfreund of Bergenfield were the only parents to act on the offer. Their three children, in kindergarten, third-, and fifth-grade, make the 40-minute trip to Staten Island every morning with the school’s assistant principal, Linda Edelman, from her Bergenfield home.

“I was intrigued by the value and I love the product,” Uri Gutfreund said earlier this week. “The school has gone out of its way to make us feel welcome. The education is excellent.”

To keep the cost low, the school makes do with less, Gutfreund said. His children have not noticed a difference, though, he added.

Ehrlich said he was disappointed that only one family decided to try his school, which could be attributed to hesitation to send their children so far. The Gutfreunds will act as ambassadors, though, he said, and he remained hopeful that the numbers would increase for next year.

“We feel we offer as good if not better product as they’re getting there,” he said. “We’re very confident that at this time next year we’ll have many more students.”

Some 400 students are enrolled this year, with three from Bergen County and about 40 from Brooklyn.

Still, Ehrlich’s low-cost school is not going to solve the tuition crisis, he said.

“Ours is not a solution,” he said. “It’s a more viable option. The real solution to this problem has to come from the larger Jewish community. Each parent alone cannot do this, but the entire Jewish community can.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierlier of the Jewish Center of Teaneck wanted to create a different alternative. Though himself an advocate for and a product of the day-school system, he said he realized that some families are being squeezed out of Jewish education because of its high costs. His idea was to create an “open yeshiva,” an intensive after-school program four days a week for former yeshiva students who, for whatever reason, had switched to public schools.

The school did not attract enough interest to begin this year, but, Zierler said, if one cohort emerges, then “we’re in business.” The center will continue to promote the idea in hopes of getting it off the ground for next year.

“It will happen when enough people coalesce around the idea and the need,” he said. “That’s a message we have to sustain.”

Also in the not-happening-this-year category is the Hebrew charter school that Englewood resident Raphael Bachrach hoped to start. After his original application to the state was rejected in 2008, Bachrach turned his attention to creating a Hebrew immersion program in one of Englewood’s public elementary schools. That program, however, hit resistance from the local school board, and Bachrach has refocused on the charter school idea.

On Wednesday, the New Jersey Department of Education announced nine new charter schools that had been approved from 27 applications. Bachrach’s was not among them.

“We’re not giving up,” Bachrach said. “We want to persevere and make it happen.”

He plans to reapply for the 2011-12 school year but first he intends to find out what issues prevented his application’s approval this time around. Depending on those issues, he said, he may appeal the rejection.

Though Bachrach’s application was denied, the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick was approved. The school, said Yair Nezaria, would offer a partial Hebrew language immersion with Hebrew culture.

“It would be naïve if the community as a whole doesn’t open its minds to some other possibilities,” Zierler said. “There is a statement in the Gemara that a person who makes the necessary preparations Erev Shabbat will eat on Shabbat. We’re trying to do our homework now.”

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