Day Schools: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

A former Head of School and long-time educator reports on the state of Jewish day schools.

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Finally, the schools are struggling to deal with substantial financial challenges such as escalating tuition, insufficient flexibility to provide needed scholarships, salaries for faculty that are not always competitive with public school salaries, and extensive building and endowment needs to support increasingly large institutions.

Against a background of these marvelous accomplishments and the enormous challenges that the expanded day school world faces, I offer the following three key areas that I believe must receive comprehensive and simultaneous attention immediately, if we are to protect and increase the potential of the day school world.

First, the Jewish community, including federations and foundations, must embark on an aggressive campaign to recruit and retain talented lay people and professionals for the day school. On the lay front, the need for experienced volunteer leaders from other organizations is crucial. The demands on day school boards today are exponentially more complex than they were 20 years ago. On the professional side, we need to launch a multifaceted recruitment and training program to target potential teachers even while they are in college. Meaningful incentives need to be offered to enable students to see teaching in a Jewish day school as a viable and positive career choice. In addition to raising salaries and benefits, we need to grow first‑rate training programs at many universities across the country. Some new programs are already underway; we need to increase their availability. Mentorships and apprenticeships must be carefully crafted to enable young teachers to receive the proper supervision and modeling early in their careers.

On the administrative side, we cannot and should not wait for people to be trained and groomed over the years. There is an available pool of talented educators who are Jewish but who have not worked previously in Jewish education. They are currently in independent and public schools. They are mid‑career and need to be approached about the possibility of devoting the second half of their careers to Jewish day school education. A substantial number of individuals have already made this switch; we need to provide incentives and mid‑career training and learning to facilitate this transition for others.

Second, to help day schools reach a higher level of excellence, we must plan and launch a venture devoted exclusively to delivering expertise and technical assistance to Jewish day schools. This expertise should include help with the development of vision and mission, curriculum, fundraising, and marketing. Such a venture will help to grow a deep culture of excellence within the day school world in all aspects of school operations, capitalizing on the available wisdom of successful schools.

And finally, all those concerned about Jewish day school education must embark on a vigorous advocacy program for the support of Jewish day school education. Even with the growth of the day school population, approximately 80 percent of the North American Jewish community is unconnected to this phenomenon. There is a need to communicate the story of Jewish day school education and the highly positive impact it is having on so many individuals and families across the nation. This advocacy effort should be multifaceted, including promoting general positive awareness, helping to recruit students to enroll in day schools, and laying the groundwork for substantially increased financial resource development to support ever ­increasing needs.

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Rabbi Joshua Elkin

Rabbi Joshua Elkin is Executive Director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a grant-making & advocacy organization for Jewish day schools. He was head of the Solomon Schecter Day School of Greater Boston for 20 years. He has also served as Adjunct Lecturer in Jewish Education at the Brandeis University Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service.