Day schools are worth the money

Day schools are worth the money

I want to continue the dialogue regarding day schools, speaking from the inside, and add some realistic points to the discussion.

Even the average day school provides features that are non-negotiable for many families: a Jewish environment, a calendar and a schedule compatible with religious observance, idealistic and professional men and women who are role models for our children, a student body that substantially shares similar values and goals, opportunities to learn Torah and daven on a daily basis. Having begun my own schooling in public school as the only Jew in the school, learning all the Christmas carols word for word as we sat around the tree in the main hall, I am grateful that my children and grandchildren have better alternatives.

As to notions of quality and getting your money’s worth, that varies from family to family. It always did. My parents didn’t expect me to like all my teachers, they expected me to learn from them and respect them. The motivation to live a Jewish life came from home, not school. The values at home were in sync with the school’s mission. Students who come from a harmonious home, who are well adjusted, and who are not protesting circumstances and features of their life, are usually successful, admired, and benefit greatly from their school experience. A parent cannot expect that simply by paying tuition, your child will become a Hebrew speaker and a lover of Judaism. Families need to recognize that their choices regarding their own use of time, resources, lifestyles and priorities contribute to outcomes regardless of their expectations. Sometimes it is the little things that send a message. For example, which homework is done first in the evening – Jewish studies or general studies?

The day school I eventually attended didn’t have learning specialists, remedial teachers, assistant teachers, librarians, gym teachers, art teachers, computer teachers, nurses, psychologists, or security personnel. We also didn’t have (or identify) learning differences, spectrum issues, therapists, life-threatening allergies, terrorist threats, technology, and home/child issues as we have today. How many families are willing to forego these services and opportunities in the name of lower tuition?

When I eventually enrolled in day school, the tuition was $500. That laughable-sounding amount today was a much greater percentage of my single-income parents’ budget than $15,000 is today for most families. It was a sacrifice for them and they still needed assistance, and got it. Day school changed my future and my life. My observant Orthodox parents felt they got their money’s worth.

Students are distracted by a lot more than baseball and comic books today. The relative prosperity of the culture, the explosion of entertainment opportunities, the emphasis on external appearance and physical possessions, and maybe most significantly the instant access to powerful communication, has made life out of school much more distracting than it used to be. It is hard to compete with 60 inch TVs, iPods and iPads, second homes, skiing vacations, Passover in Europe, etc. And in a surrounding culture that values innovation over tradition, it is challenging to transmit values of commitment, respect, and timeless wisdom, over the bells and whistles of this morning’s gadget.

At a recent chag ha-s’michah – rabbinic ordination – the eminent scholar and leader of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic program said “Ten months of the year I’m an entertainer and in the summer I get to learn a little.” And he was referring to his graduates, who were about to be ordained as this generation’s new rabbis! So our rebbeim and morot – our rabbis and teachers – need to be knowledgeable, creative, interesting, inspiring, caring, skilled, relevant, personable, well-spoken, and driven to educate/entertain our children. They need to do this for a salary of somewhere between $25,000 and $60,000 a year. And they need to choose this over other possible opportunities. I am proud that my own children are all serving Jewish children in schools and related venues. It was their choice and they are happy. They won’t get ahead financially and now have their own tuition bills to contend with. Yet none of them are considering anything else. But they have close, talented friends, Yeshiva graduates, who have made other choices.

I loved camp myself, the year we could afford it. (Other years, I played with the kids on my block and it was fine.) I stretched to send my own children to camp. What could be better than to play and grow in a wholesome Jewish environment? Schools have noticed the successes of camp and tried to capitalize on them. How else can you explain the inclusion of shiriyas – song festivals – and color wars in a school calendar that is already tight? We will yet see the impact of this trend.

I’m sure that camp leaders will tell you of their own attempts to hold onto their clientele. Air conditioning in the bunks? Use of electronics? Obligatory trips outside camp for longer duration and farther distance? And yet kids don’t stay a whole summer anymore. They need to get home for the family trip to Israel or overseas. It’s hard to flunk camp without grades and so most (not all) students find it a welcoming, satisfying experience.

Day school needs to be efficient, needs to economize, needs to keep step with educational technology and to be aware of emerging studies, theories, and techniques in the field. It needs to continue the struggle to identify and attract talented people to the staff and support them in a variety of ways. It needs to partner with the home in fashioning goals and expectations that are as consistent and relevant as possible. It does not need to apologize for its product.

Day school continues to be a vital institution in preserving our culture and values for the next generation. And like many things, success will depend much on what you bring to the table. You will get out of it according to what you put in to it. There have never been guarantees but when the home and the school are on the same page the results can be priceless.