Day schools in the time of covid
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Day schools in the time of covid

MetroWest’s Jewish educators report on their year

Masked, separated students study in a classroom at Gottesman RTW.
Masked, separated students study in a classroom at Gottesman RTW.

It’s been a real interesting year for schools.”

That statement — from Naomi Bacharach, director of institutional advancement at Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph —really says it all.

Gottesman and the other Jewish schools serving about 2,160 children in Greater MetroWest — the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston — implemented safety measures enabling them to remain open as much as possible through the covid months.

That piqued the interest of many parents of public-school students who were attending class over Zoom.

Gottesman RTW, a 200-student nursery-to-eighth-grade community day school, saw 25 new children from 16 families enrolled during the pandemic. So far, 11 new families have registered their children for the 2021-22 school year. “Some were already living in the area and wanted to move over from public school. And some moved out from New York City to the suburbs,” Ms. Bacharach said.

Jordana Horn and her husband, Jon Gordon, fall into the former category. They live in Short Hills with their four daughters and two sons. “When covid began, I had five children in public school and one in Jewish nursery school,” Ms. Horn said. “Everyone went remote for the rest of the year.”

Rebecca Hindin, left, and Dov Ben-Shimon

While her now first- and third-graders were “competent and comfortable” with virtual school and her two high school-age children were “extremely content learning remotely,” her 4- and 5-year-olds found the online experience difficult.

“It was very sad for me, because there should be so much joy in learning at that stage,” she said. “So we started looking into options for September 2020.”

Being a “covid-conservative” family, the journalist and lawyer explained, “we measured by a new metric — not just where the child’s educational needs would be met but also where it was safe enough for the child and the rest of our family.”

The Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston checked all those boxes for Ms. Horn.

“I’m a strong advocate of public school generally, but I was really blown away by JKHA’s covid-anticipatory protections, by all they did to make sure families and staff were safe,” she said. “They did pool testing for students and staff twice a week and they have clearly laid out expectations of families regarding exposure and travel.”

The decision therefore was made to switch Aliza Gordon to JKHA for first grade, while her younger sister remained at her preschool in a Reform congregation, instead of going to public kindergarten as her older siblings had done.

Aliza Gordon, 7, of Short Hills is in first grade at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy.

Although JKHA is a modern Orthodox school and the Gordon family is actively engaged in the Conservative community, “I’ve been so impressed by how welcoming and open they’ve been to us,” Ms. Horn said. “It’s been a remarkable actualization of the ideals of Judaism, with the entire community looking out for each other. I’m so grateful their precautions have let my daughter have as close to a normal year as possible. It would be hard to switch her back now that I’ve seen how good it is.”

The Gordons were one of 50 new families sending children this year to the Kushner elementary and high schools, which together have a student population of about 720. As at Gottesman RTW, not all who applied were accepted, mainly due to covid limitations on how many children could be in a classroom.

Rebecca Hindin, the director of the Greater MetroWest Federation’s Day School Initiative, explained, “Our schools had capacity issues because of social-distancing rules and couldn’t necessarily accommodate everyone who inquired in August and October, when public schools announced they were not opening.”

The Greater MetroWest Federation, the largest Jewish philanthropy in New Jersey, oversees a variety of initiatives — first envisioned about 14 years ago by a group of donors led by Paula and Jerry Gottesman — to enhance the excellence and affordability of the local day schools.

“We help day schools because quality Jewish education is a key factor in building leadership and strong community ties for today and tomorrow,” the federation’s executive and president and CEO, Dov Ben-Shimon said. “Many of our lay volunteers come through the day school system. And it’s a wise investment to build up strong families within those schools.”

In the 2019-2020 school year, Greater MetroWest gave the day schools grants for buying PPE and other equipment so they could open safely. Mr. Ben-Shimon says it was the only federation to offer emergency grants to families experiencing job loss, totaling nearly $300,000.

The Berkowitz family — Ellen, Jonathan, Noah, Jesse, and Sydney — moved to Livingston last summer and send their kids to Golda Och Academy. (Ann Dreiker)

Six years ago, the Day School Initiative implemented Tuition MAX, a program “for families in a middle-income range as defined by each school in coordination with us,” Ms. Hindin said.

Aimed at households earning approximately $150,000 to $300,000, Tuition MAX ensures that no qualified family pays more than 18 percent of its adjusted gross income in tuition, no matter how many children it sends to the catchment area’s day schools.

“Tuition MAX is formulaic and noninvasive,” Ms. Hindin said. “Our goals are to provide predictability, a true change in affordability, transparency, and dignity. Families applying should never feel they are getting a handout. They are full members of a community with large expenses and a high cost of living.”

The Day School Initiative also awards a Smart Move grant of $1,800 to any family that moves to Greater MetroWest and registers children in one of the day schools. This grant is awarded through a reduction in tuition fees, after adjustments for any scholarship and grants including Tuition MAX.

“We try to use the day schools as a lead generator to encourage families to move to Greater MetroWest,” Ms. Hindin said. Mr. Ben-Shimon added that there’s been “steady growth in Greater MetroWest for some years.”

Smart Move was a welcome surprise for Ellen and Jonathan Berkowitz, who relocated to Livingston last summer from Needham, Massachusetts, with children in fourth, ninth, and 12th grades. All three now are at Golda Och Academy, a Conservative-affiliated school with 460 students in pre-K through 12th grade.

Children at Gottesman RTW play during recess.

“My husband got a new job, and we were looking for a town that was close to a day school and to a public school,” Ms. Berkowitz said. “We decided on Livingston. I connected with a family friend my kids knew from camp, and her kids were at Golda Och.”

Noah, the 12th-grader, had attended a day school until eighth grade and then had gone to public high school.

“We wanted a kinder, gentler, more supportive year for him, and Golda Och agreed to let him attend even though they don’t usually admit new seniors,” Ms. Berkowitz said. “He’s had a great year, and got into the college of his choice.”

Ninth-grader Jesse began public high school in Livingston. But when learning went virtual in February, he transferred to Golda Och “and he loves it,” his mom said.

As for fourth-grader Sydney, “Going to Golda Och was a no-brainer,” Ms. Berkowitz said. “The class has really embraced her and she’s much happier in school than she’s ever been before. We’re so grateful

“It’s been amazing for each of our kids.”

The school told the Berkowitzes about the Smart Move grant, which they were pleased to receive. Ms. Berkowitz also has become an active member of several federation committees and finds her involvement to be “a great way to meet people.”

Students at RTW at work in a tent at school.

“Our school has seen a significant increase in website traffic, inquiries, and applications this admissions season,” Adam Shapiro, the head of school at GOA, said. “To date, we have already accepted more than 50 new students for the 2021-22 academic year, with many more still in the pipeline.”

Ms. Hindin noted that some families also moved into the catchment area from Philadelphia and Florida over the last year. Although many Manhattanites relocated to the tristate suburbs, only “a handful” of school-age families from New York City came to Greater MetroWest. She speculates that this was due to a spike in housing costs.

Despite the covid bump, she added, overall day school enrollment wasn’t significantly higher than in other years, as there’s always migration in and out. “A typical year sees around 30 new families across the day schools, which can be around 50 to 75 new kids just from migration,” she said.

Attempts to obtain current enrollment figures from JEC in Elizabeth were unsuccessful as of press time; Ms. Hindin said that there are about 780 students, from nursery to 12th grade, across JEC’s Lower School, High School for Boys, and Bruriah High School for Girls.

The Greater MetroWest Federation encompasses 65 towns in Essex, Morris, Union, Sussex, and eastern Somerset counties, including 95 synagogues and approximately 150,000 residents of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and nontraditional Jewish households.

“That makes us the seventh largest Jewish community in North America and the largest non-city Jewish community in North America in terms of fundraising and numbers,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said.

The federation soon will publish results of a community study done by a team at Brandeis University, led by social psychologist Len Saxe. The data from this study will inform planning over the next decade, Mr. Ben-Shimon said.

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