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Day school numbers up after recession dip
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Day school numbers up after recession dip

National survey finds decline in ‘middle,’ growth for Orthodox

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick has grown from seven students when it opened in 2000 to 125 today.     
Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick has grown from seven students when it opened in 2000 to 125 today.     

Enrollment at local day schools has largely stabilized and has even grown after a few years of decline, both reflecting and bucking national trends found in a new national survey.

NJJN asked administrators at area day schools about their enrollment in light of the latest national day schools census by the Avi Chai Foundation.

That survey, the fourth since 1998, showed enrollment growing among Orthodox schools, reflecting high birth rates and a near universal commitment to the model, and declining numbers among Conservative and Reform schools. Unaffiliated “community” schools have also shown growth.

The survey also placed New Jersey and New York as the center of the day school world, although most of the growth in the Garden State has been taking place in Lakewood, a center for haredi, or fervently Orthodox, Judaism.

Area day schools responding to NJJN were: Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County in Marlboro and Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick. 

Nationally, 255,000 students are enrolled in 861 day schools, an increase of 27,000 students since the last census, when the number of schools was 802. In 1998, there were 676 schools. 

Almost all the increase is from haredi, or fervently Orthodox, schools, especially hasidic ones.

Breakout by affiliation

Nationally, non-Orthodox schools have experienced a sharp decline, now representing just 13 percent — down from 20 percent in 1998 — of all day schools. Avi Chai pins waning enrollment in non-Orthodox schools on the high cost of tuition, the recession, changing attitudes in non-Orthodox homes toward day school education, and the closing of non-Orthodox day schools in smaller communities.

In 1998, there were 63 Conservative day schools; last year, the study counted just 39, with enrollment down from 17,700 to 9,700. In New Jersey, at least four Schechter schools have closed since 1998. 

The Conservative-affiliated SSDS of Greater Monmouth does not publish its enrollment figures. However, director of admissions Linda Glickstein said the school’s enrollment is “stable,” largely due to shifting demographics. She said, “There have been ups and downs. The catchment area of the school has grown tremendously. We now have families from a wide geographic area — from Forked River and Staten Island and Somerset.” In addition, she pointed to the closing of several other Schechter schools that brought students to Monmouth. “When the Solomon Schechter Day Schools in Howell and East Brunswick closed, we absorbed many of those students,” she said.

Nationally, the Avi Chai survey paints a comparatively rosy picture for community day schools, most of which are associated with Ravsak, a coalition of nondenominational schools. The number of community schools has risen from 95 to 97 since 2008-09, and enrollment has risen from under 15,000 to 20,000.

Avi Chai says the schools have grown for various reasons. Some schools offer less rigorous Judaic studies. Others have gained heavy philanthropic support. And still others are recruiting and accepting non-Jewish students.

Nationally, enrollment at Modern Orthodox schools has barely changed since 1998, according to Avi Chai. 

Meanwhile, Centrist Orthodox schools (defined by Avi Chai as schools with secular academics that divide students by gender), have seen a modest decline in enrollment nationally. By contrast, Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick opened in 2000 with seven students and now has about 125 enrolled. Head of school Rivky Ross attributes the growth to the yeshiva’s Montessori approach. “I think families are looking for more progressive methods of education for their children,” she said. While Ross considers the school centrist, boys and girls learn together in the classroom, except for certain periods during their middle school years when they separate for hevruta (partnered study) and collaborative work. “Part of that is our Montessori approach. There’s a place for separation, but we are also trying to teach them something about the value of healthy interaction,” said Ross. While she thinks the school’s growth will eventually plateau, she said, “This is an exciting time for Jewish Montessori schools and all kinds of alternative Jewish educational models.”

Haredi and hasidic schools, representing what Avi Chai calls the most “insulated” of the major denominations, have grown dramatically, by 60 percent and 110 percent, respectively, on the national scene. These now represent 60 percent of all day school enrollment. 

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