Jewish day schools are in the news. Some of the attention comes in the form of negative publicity about health risks that schools in the more insular sectors of Orthodoxy have taken to keep classes in session during the COVID-19 pandemic. On a more positive note, day schools with a more modern orientation have received praise for doing an unusually good job of helping their students get through the spring lockdowns—and, where possible, for how rigorously they planned and executed reopening the current school year. Their efforts seem more successful than those of many public and nonsectarian private schools. These achievements have not been lost on parents, including some who had not enrolled their children in the past but over the summer showed new interest. Why day schools have done well and what parents are seeing when they give them a second look is a story that can be understood only in the context of their significant, yet largely unremarked, educational transformation over the past two decades.

Numbering some 427 separate institutions, modern Jewish day schools range ideologically from the Modern Orthodox to those affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements. They also include pluralistic community schools that are committed to exposing their students to the spectrum of Jewish viewpoints, including secular Jewish identification. All regard the inclusion of a robust general-studies education as nonnegotiable; all identify positively with Zionism and Israel; and it seems that all are affiliated with Prizmah: the Center for Jewish Day Schools, the umbrella organization offering support services and training programs for administrators, boards, and teachers. (In all three of these ways, they differ from the more insular Orthodox yeshivas, and therefore we’ve excluded the latter from this discussion.)

Despite their ideological differences, Jewish day schools share two additional common characteristics. They offer a mix of Jewish and general-studies classes; and with few exceptions, they enroll only students being raised as Jews. These distinguishing features have prompted criticism over the years. How, skeptics ask, can day schools possibly offer a strong academic education in the STEAM subjects—science, technology, engineering, arts (including humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design, and new media), and math—when they set aside anywhere from two to four class periods each day to teach Hebrew language skills and Jewish subject matter? The exclusiveness of day schools also has elicited criticism from those convinced that if Jewish adults are to contribute to the civic life of this country, they must be educated side by side with classmates of other ethnic and religious backgrounds during their school years. “How else will they learn tolerance?” they ask.

Advocates of day schools neither lack concern about the academic excellence of general-studies offerings, nor are they indifferent to how well students will be prepared to function as adults in the wider society. But they also ask themselves an entirely different question: What is the most efficacious way to prepare the next generations to participate actively in, if not lead, Jewish institutions? No other educational vehicle offers comparable opportunities to immerse young students in intensive study of the Hebrew language, the classics of Jewish sacred literature, the rituals of Judaism, and the history and disparate cultures of the Jews. Day schools, advocates contend, represent the best hope for nurturing a knowledgeable generation committed to Jewish life.

Within Orthodox circles, day-school proponents have won the argument, as is evidenced by the fact that nearly all children raised by Orthodox families are enrolled in Jewish day schools from early childhood through high school. As to concerns about the ability of day-school alumni to function at a high level in modern societies, Orthodox communities offer tens of thousands of living examples of adults who contribute richly to their chosen fields of endeavor and to their Jewish communities.

Convincing non-Orthodox families to invest in a day-school education for their children has proven a tougher sell. It seemed for a brief period around the turn of the current century that the case for a day-school education was gaining traction in some non-Orthodox circles. But as a newly released Avi Chai Foundation census of Jewish day schools reveals, that may have been illusory. Over the two decades from 1998 to 2018–19, the number of non-Orthodox day schools in the United States dropped from 158 to 134. Student enrollment in these schools declined by 17 percent, despite the overall growth of the Jewish population during the same period.

Yet new evidence is emerging during the COVID-19 crisis of a modest though perceptible reversal in the fortunes of non-Orthodox day schools. Enrollments have risen in many of them; some, in fact, now have waiting lists. The influx of new students is largely due to transfers arriving from public schools, and in smaller numbers from nonsectarian private schools. It has taken the terrible COVID-19 crisis to draw attention to the many ways day schools have transformed themselves over the past two decades.

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THE MOST obvious signs of change in recent years are in the academic sphere. Contrary to the concerns of skeptics who regard the academic quality of Jewish day schools as inferior (a perception not without a foundation of truth in the past), both the general and Jewish studies offered in these schools have been upgraded considerably. Today’s parents won’t accept anything less. They are far more sophisticated about pedagogy and preoccupied—some would say obsessed—with ensuring that their children will be able to get into the best colleges and then compete with their peers in the adult workplace. Somewhat paradoxically, then, even though Jewish day schools are distinctive primarily for their intensive Judaic content and for warmly embracing Jewish ambience, parents enrolling their children in day schools tend to be most vocally concerned above all else about the quality of the general-studies classes. This is true even of Modern Orthodox parents, who regard it as unacceptable if a school fails to provide strong preparation for serious high-school learning and eventually a path to acceptance at sought-after colleges.

A great deal of effort has been invested in enhancing the educational experiences of students in general-studies classes by drawing upon the best practices and curricula developed in the wider sphere of American schooling. No longer do teachers pose as the “sage on the stage”; instead, they work to engage students in dialogues, both with themselves and one another. The sheer kinetic energy in classes, with rapid-fire give-and-take, is striking. It’s far less likely these days that students will zone out without being noticed. Teachers now are adept at project-based learning, assigning students to explore and then report on what they have been able to ferret out about a topic on their own. Sometimes students work individually or more often in small groups, while the teacher circles around the classroom to answer questions and makes sure everyone is progressing well with problem-solving.

In the past, learning was measured almost exclusively through written tests. Now schools additionally provide settings for students who prefer to demonstrate what they’ve learned by creating artifacts, conducting experiments, or expressing their ideas artistically. Maker Spaces, robotics labs, 3-D printers, even greenhouses are available for students to explore and create.

Learning how to adopt new curricula and incorporate new technologies necessitates new training for teachers and administrators. Day schools now invest significant sums in professional development. Some of this learning takes place in settings open to educators from a range of schools; some is offered by bureaus of Jewish education to help educators in Jewish schools apply blended learning or other new approaches in their work with students; and some has been sponsored by major foundations committed to providing a cadre of day-school administrators with a sophisticated understanding of the ever more complex responsibilities they will shoulder as they move into positions of leadership.

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HOW HAVE Jewish studies been affected by these same developments? The introduction of progressive educational pedagogy in Jewish-studies classes has proven a complex task. It’s not only that Jewish religious texts and Hebrew language classes traditionally have been taught frontally and therefore teachers know only one way to communicate their material. When it comes to sacred texts, “this is the way we’ve always done it” is taken by some as a near-religious justification for stasis: We learned this way, as did our teachers going back to the yeshivas of yore; if it worked in the past, why change our methods now? Schools have had to work with their teaching personnel, especially with veteran Jewish-studies teachers, to induce them to adopt new pedagogical methods.

Experienced visitors observing Jewish-studies classes in day schools will be struck by how much they have changed in recent times. Here are some examples from visits we made to schools over the past few years:

  • After the conclusion of a model class taught by a rabbi who had applied for a position teaching Talmud in a Modern Orthodox high school of a more traditional bent, the principal acknowledged that the candidate clearly “knew his stuff” but nonetheless rejected him out of hand because the man proved himself incapable of interacting with students and exhibited little interest in their thinking. Placing such priority on student learning experiences did not characterize that or similar schools on the right end of Modern Orthodoxy in the past, as the principal ruefully admitted.
  • A fifth-grade class in a Modern Orthodox school studying Mishna, the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism, was conducted on a blended-learning platform, with the teacher moving seamlessly from quick back-and-forth exchanges with students to asking them to reply to questions on their Chromebooks, so that he could instantly see which students grasped the material and which required additional review.
  • In a Solomon Schechter school (officially part of the Conservative movement), students were learning Hebrew on iTal Am, a blended-learning platform used in over 170 elementary schools in this country, which combines the study of modern Hebrew with excerpts from earlier Hebrew texts, such as the Bible and rabbinic works.
  • Students in a pluralistic community school were given the opportunity to translate what they have learned about Jewish holidays into physical objects. For example, before the Purim holiday, one group of boys made a knife that converts into a gavel to illustrate Haman’s initial power and eventually how justice prevailed. Another put together a house of cards to illustrate the precariousness of Jewish existence, but the cards were well glued and therefore did not fold, a metaphor for Jewish perseverance in the face of persecution.
  • For anyone familiar with the way Jewish-studies classes were taught in day schools during the second half of the 20th century, the changes are remarkable; even in classes eschewing high-tech learning, the sheer level of student interaction with teachers, the rapid-fire exercises in Socratic give-and-take, and the genuine interest of teachers in what students have to say attest to how much learner-centric pedagogies have been applied to Jewish-studies classes.

Strong academics are but one aspect of the mission that day schools have set for themselves. Schools now lavish a good deal of attention on what the wider field of education calls Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). They work to ensure that psychological issues do not impede student learning, and they also invest in educating students on how to interact sensitively and productively with peers. To be sure, the presence of counselors or psychologists on staff is not a new development. Day schools have long relied on trained specialists to aid students and parents struggling with psychological issues; they still do. But SEL is not only about those at greatest risk. It seeks to help all students build resilience in the face of setbacks and more generally to teach them how to manage their emotions at times of stress.

To accomplish these tasks, schools have hired counselors, social workers and psychologists, and specialists capable of helping students with specific learning challenges. These personnel work with individual students and their parents, while others teach classes at regularly scheduled intervals on aspects of SEL. Class time is devoted to aiding students to develop empathy for one another, learn how to listen to what really is being said by their classmates, encourage self-awareness and emotional self-regulation, develop a moral compass, and incorporate ethical responsibilities into their lives. Day schools filter these discussions through a Jewish lens. At a Solomon Schechter school, for example, younger children explore Jewish teachings about honoring one’s parents and avoiding embarrassing a peer. In the higher grades, students are paired to study texts with an SEL focus, Hevruta-style—that is, in the manner of study at traditional yeshivas, even as the subject matter couldn’t be more au courant. Discussions about developing resilience in the face of frustrations are partially based on Jewish texts. Here, as in many other classes, day schools integrate Jewish and general-studies perspectives. As a psychologist at a Modern Orthodox school put it, the purpose of SEL interventions is to foster kindness and build character. “The focus is on the whole child,” he notes. “We want to have a happy and healthy child, too.”

This hardly was the mission that day schools set for themselves in the past. Longtime administrators attribute the need in part to the high level of anxiety that current parents exhibit: Numerous educators report that today’s parents seem less certain than their predecessors about how to raise their children, what to expect of them, how to limit their time online, and how to help them develop the skills to compete in an economy undergoing massive changes. Schools are assuming unprecedented responsibilities as auxiliary supports for parents. No doubt some schools feel pressured to invest in SEL in order to keep up with their competitors. Their primary motivation, though, stems from research demonstrating how academic achievement is affected by the emotional state of learners and how it can be undermined by unhealthy behaviors. Not least, individualized attention for each student and the fostering of a warm, embracing school environment devoid of bullying and other types of antisocial activities are among the virtues that parents most value in day schools.

These efforts, moreover, are part of a larger mission that day schools have embraced to create community among not only their students but also their families. At smaller schools, this may mean weekly gatherings combining prayer with opportunities for students at all grade levels to speak before the entire assembly. This is intended to help students become comfortable speaking in a public setting and also as a means to acknowledge the contribution of every student as a valued member of the school community. Larger schools may do the same, but at gatherings for specific grades. Some schools have assigned students at different levels to informal “families” as a means to have those in higher grades serve as older “brothers” or “sisters” to students in lower grades. In advance of Jewish holidays, schools sponsor special fairs, carnivals, and other festive gatherings to enhance a sense of school spirit and connection.

Parents and grandparents also join many of these gatherings. Parents are welcome to attend Tefila, prayer services, on the theory that their presence communicates that prayer is not just for children. Schools run grandparent days to welcome extended families into their communities. All of these activities have been interrupted by the pandemic, but they are so central to the new day-school experience that they will resume as soon as they can.

For non-Orthodox families, the day school itself has come to serve as the primary Jewish community for the parent body. Schools are chosen by parents not only for how they feel their children’s educational needs will be met, but also because they seek Jewish peer groups for themselves. It’s not unusual for parents of day-school children to develop lifelong friendships with one another and to become engaged in Jewish communal affairs together. Executives at federations of Jewish philanthropy who take a broader view of their communities are alert to the contributions of day schools in the formation of cadres of connected and activist volunteers for Jewish communal life. Schools, in turn, are well aware of their responsibility to build social capital within their parent bodies and for the wider Jewish community.

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THE MAJOR areas of transformation we have highlighted help explain why day schools are enjoying a special moment during the current COVID crisis, despite the great stress and dislocation the pandemic has caused. Exactly those assets that schools had built up in recent decades, often at great expense and occasionally in the face of some resistance, have proven to be especially valuable under emergency circumstances. The substantial work they have done upgrading their academic offerings and enhancing their learning environments has reassured parents who had opted in the past to send their children to public school or non-sectarian private schools that their children’s academic learning would not suffer in a Jewish day school. Most day schools offer competitive, if not better, general-studies classes plus a compelling Jewish education. So, too, the efforts of schools to integrate technology into their programs and invest in meeting the social and emotional needs of children, have become priceless resources.

Whereas parents previously questioned the price tag for some of these features and the numbers of personnel needed to maintain them, they now are seeing the value in such investments. If COVID-19 constituted a giant stress test, then the assets that schools had built up helped them not only get through this moment but flourish, too.

By educating their teachers in the uses of technology and especially programs in blended learning, most day schools were in a strong position to pivot to online learning last spring when classes could not be held in school. Some schools made the switch to remote learning in 24 hours; others required a few days. The building blocks had already been put in place.

Efforts by schools to build lines of communication with and among families also stood them in good stead. Day schools already had built a platform for regular contact with parents. They had already forged a common community spirit. As the crisis struck in March 2020, schools were able to communicate rapidly with their parent bodies about everything from school-wide programs to the specific times each student was expected to join an online class and the online address for entering virtual classrooms.

Over the summer months, many schools invested time and money preparing for the new school year. Their improvisational efforts during the spring had offered short-term fixes, but educational administrators understood that more would be needed to satisfy students and parents over the course of an entire school year. They responded by investing in new learning-management systems to help parents keep track of each child’s assignments. They sought out additional online resources for teachers to utilize and offered teachers professional-development seminars, including guidance on how to teach a class consisting of some students who would be seated in the classroom while others would be present only remotely, an unprecedented educational challenge.

Most important, they worked assiduously to open their schools for in-person classes, spending money on protective gear; construction of barriers to keep apart students in different classes and divisions; and, in schools with outdoor grounds, newly built learning spaces. In greater Los Angeles, the eight day schools overseen by the local Jewish bureau of education spent an average of nearly a quarter of a million dollars each to prepare for school openings. A number of individual day schools around the country invested more than $1 million to add new facilities on their grounds for housing students in smaller, separated “pods.” Though these expenditures were made to ensure that their current student body would be able to partake of classes in person, a fair number of schools enjoyed a significant increase in newly enrolled students at different grade levels.

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A MORE CYNICAL explanation for the heavy investment in reopening for in-class learning during the current school year might go this way: Of course, day schools have done everything possible to reopen. Otherwise, they would lose their students, possibly permanently. There’s no way parents would pay steep tuition fees to have their children stay at home and be educated virtually.

No doubt such considerations helped motivate boards and school leadership to do everything necessary to reopen. Yet when speaking with day-school administrators around the country, we heard something else: a genuine commitment to bringing their students back to school so they can reengage with their friends and teachers; a deep concern about the toll social isolation was taking on their students; and a commitment to hold their school communities together through the pandemic crisis. Why else, to take an example, have day schools organized Zoom programs for students and their extended families to welcome the Sabbath on Fridays or recite the Havdala when the Sabbath departs (even in schools open for in-person learning), if not to maintain their communities and preserve some continuity?

When schools are mission-driven, as Jewish day schools are, their leaders will do what is necessary to provide the type of education and social connection they take so much pride in delivering. Schools did this during the spring lockdowns online, and they are determined to do the same in the present school year, preferably by opening for in-class learning and retreating to remote learning only if necessary. One of our interviewees hammered home this point when reporting about a petition signed by private-school teachers demanding the closure of in-class schooling until the pandemic has ended. What struck this day-school administrator was the paucity of signers from day-school faculty. The latter, in the large majority, wanted to get back in the classroom. Their dedication did not go unnoticed by their students. A survey of day-school students conducted during the summer found that fewer than 5 percent felt their schools had let them down last spring. It’s no wonder that parents, too, have rallied around their day schools.

Not every day school boasts the type of leadership and resources necessary to become a 21st-century institution. Even with the best of intentions, day schools may have trouble recruiting the kinds of administrators and teachers they need, because they are located in parts of the country with small Jewish communities or because they lack the financial means to offer competitive salaries to educators. It should go without saying that no school does everything perfectly, nor does every child enjoy only the most positive experiences even in the best of day schools. Still, it is noteworthy how many day schools have transformed themselves.

Another reasonable line of inquiry might question whether student learning outcomes under present conditions are comparable to those in the pre-COVID era. According to school administrators, the focus on student assessment since last spring has not been as high a priority as in the past. We just don’t know whether remote learning has enabled the large majority of students to keep up; and even when classes have resumed in person, school days have been shortened and some schools have adopted a hybrid model combining some in-class school days with some days of the week devoted to virtual learning. All this turmoil may well have negatively affected what students have been able to absorb from their classes. In the years to come, all types of schools will have to evaluate what their students have lost.

Still a more pressing issue, thus far absent from our discussion, is the elephant in the room whenever the topic of day schools comes up: the affordability crisis. Averaging $23,000 annually per child and reaching double that sum in some urban day schools, high tuition costs prompt doubts about whether this type of schooling is affordable, let alone worth the huge financial investment. Every family must answer the second question in its own way. Suffice it to say that no other educational vehicles can accomplish what day schools do, simply because they lack the time and personnel to cover the range of subject matter, nurture the affective aspects of Jewish identification, and embed students in a vibrant Jewish community.

As to why tuition is so costly, the reason lies precisely in the kinds of changes schools have made in recent years. Parents have demanded upgraded academics, value the attention lavished on each student, and particularly appreciate how their children have been acknowledged and embraced in all their individuality. All that comes at a financial cost.

The crisis of day-school affordability—and it is a crisis—can be addressed only through a communal effort. Orthodox communities have taken responsibility for their day schools by raising money for scholarship assistance. Non-Orthodox schools have benefitted less from such communal support. Tuition payments represent a lower percentage of budgets in Orthodox schools than in non-Orthodox ones because the former raise money within their communities to help underwrite the high costs, including from people whose children no longer attend day schools. Fortunately, some non-Orthodox schools have found angels—donors who have set up large endowment funds to support tuition scholarships. Several such efforts have resulted in lowered tuition costs across the board, and these reductions have increased enrollments. In some communities served by a single day school, donors who have not sent their own children to the school still have seen reason to support the day school because they regard it as a valued asset in the community. That appreciation is necessary if day-school tuition is to be lowered.

For the first time in 20 years, enrollments at non-Orthodox day schools are up in many parts of the country. The word on the street is that these schools generally have done superbly during the crisis. But there still is great uncertainty as to whether parents of newly enrolled children will abandon these schools once the pandemic passes or will choose to keep their children in day schools and perhaps even persuade others in their social networks to consider that form of education for their children. The head of a community day school spoke optimistically of the newcomers, telling us “they are ours to lose.” He may be right, but the responsibility for retaining newly enrolled students does not fall only on day schools. Seizing this moment of opportunity requires action from the wider American Jewish community.

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