Enrollment at Jewish elementary and secondary schools in the United States is on the rise, according to the findings of a new AVI CHAI Foundation census.
But the news isn’t all good, and some of the report’s conclusions were criticized by leading educators.
There are 228,174 students in Jewish elementary and secondary schools in this country, according to AVI CHAI. That’s an increase of 23,000, or 11 percent, from the previous census 2003-04.
AVI CHAI has just released its “Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2008-2009,” a follow-up to previous day school censuses done for 1998-99 and 2003-04.
From Pittsburgh, Community Day School, Hillel Academy/Girls and Yeshiva Schools participated in the AVI CHAI census.
The findings of the census show Orthodox day schools with strong enrollment figures, while the results for non-Orthodox schools are mixed.
Solomon Schechter schools, which are closely connected to the Conservative movement, have seen their combined enrollment drop 25 percent over the past five years.
“In stark statistical terms, the pattern of Solomon Schechter enrollment shows a bleak picture,” Marvin Schick, who compiled the census, wrote in his report.
The census also claims that the Reform movement has “downplayed” day school education, with more emphasis being placed on supplementary and Sunday schools. It said there are only 17 Reform day schools — two fewer than in the 2003 census.
“This de-emphasis of day schools is a nod to reality, as relatively few parents who identify as Reform accept the day school concept,” Schick wrote. “Tuition is a factor, for sure, yet I believe there are far more children from Reform homes enrolled in high-tuition private schools than there are in Jewish day schools. There are, of course, children from Reform home sin transdenominational Community schools and a scattering of other day schools.”
Reform leaders took strong exception to that finding.
“I have no idea under which anyone would arrive at that conclusion,” said Rabbi Jan Katzew, lead specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group.
According to Katzew the URJ engaged a full-time day school specialist over the past year; it will dedicate a new building for its Rashi Day School in Needham, Mass., next fall, and it has just established a day school committee under it s commission for lifelong learning.”
“Why would you create a committee to support day schools if you were seeking to deemphasize it? Katzew asked. “If anything there’s been greater recognition.”
Community day schools demonstrated growth both in numbers of schools — 98 in 2008 compared to 75 in 1998 — and enrollment, which is up more than 40 percent in the past decade.
Community day schools, according to the census, are generally affiliated with RAVSAK, an organization of schools that do not have a common denominational base.
While enrollment in non-Orthodox schools is down 2.5 percent since the last census in 2003-04, it is 5 percent higher than it was in 1998-99.
Elaine Cohen, lead professional for the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, said the AVI CHAI census doesn’t accurately reflect the state of her school system.
While enrollment and the number of Schechter schools are both down, she said, several of the larger schools “are holding or have increased their enrollment.”
She said the system still educates nearly 15,000 students, and is actively engaged in professional teacher development.
She also balked at some of the language in the report used to describe Solomon Schechter
“When he (Schick) uses words like ‘stark’ and other such words, I don’t agree with that bleak interpretation of things, though we are definitely experiencing a downturn.”
Today, non-Orthodox families have choices, Cohen said. Many of them live in communities with quality public schools, and they opt for them.
But Solomon Schechter also faces competition from the community day schools.
“There is a growing appeal of nondenominational/trans-denominational schools,” Cohen said. “And community day schools have an appeal because of that. They’re like a big tent.”
But there may be trouble ahead for day schools of all streams, regardless of affiliation, the study census warned.
“The enrollment data in this census were gathered during a period of sharp economic decline, a development that inevitably has affected organized American Jewry in a significant way,” wrote Schick. “The impact on day schools has been severe, although in all likelihood, it will not be possible to know how severe until some time in the 2009-10 school year.”
Closer to home, the census reported that Pennsylvania had 3,227 students enrolled in day schools in 2008, down 19.6 percent from the 4,016 enrollment figure for 1998.Locally, the census reported 873 students enrolled in Jewish day schools — 278 at Community Day School, 210 at Hillel Academy and 385 at Yeshiva Schools. Those numbers fluctuate during the year, though.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)