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

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

At Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, enrollment, which decreased as a result of the recession, said its treasurer, Steve Levy, is now on an upward trend. 
At Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, enrollment, which decreased as a result of the recession, said its treasurer, Steve Levy, is now on an upward trend. 

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

NJJN asked administrators at the five 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.

Day schools responding to NJJN were: the Jewish Education Center schools in Elizabeth, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and the Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph. 

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.

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. 

At the Conservative-affiliated Golda Och Academy in West Orange, there are 559 students in grade kindergarten-12, up in the last two years but below the number for 2001-02, the earliest date for which the school has numbers. That year, the school had 835 students, including 96 students at the lower school in Cranford, which closed in 2008.

GOA head of school Rabbi Joyce Raynor said enrollment had been hurt, especially in the high school division, by the closing in recent years of two elementary “feeder” schools, its own affiliated lower-school campus in Cranford and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick.

She attributed the current rising trend to aggressive outreach, improvements to the school’s physical plant, and major academic initiatives, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum. The school also boasts an expanded arts program, and recently overhauled its Judaics curriculum. 

With the costs of day school tuition still prohibitive for many parents, despite a community-wide scholarship and support program for all schools, non-Orthodox parents often revisit their decision to continue with day school on a yearly basis, Raynor said. But attrition at GOA is down from its historical 10 percent, to under 5 percent last year.

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.

Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, the former Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County, had a very loose affiliation with the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association, but adopted a formal association with Ravsak in 2006.

The academy’s enrollment has decreased from 148 students in kindergarten-eighth grade in 1998, to 133 today. School treasurer Steve Levy pointed out that enrollment was at its nadir in 2010, with 129 students, and has been on a steady rise since. He attributes the dip to the recession, and credits the steady rise in the last four years to a tuition subvention program, regularly cited as a national model.

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

At the Modern Orthodox Kushner schools in Livingston, high school enrollment has jumped 15 percent from 2007-08, according to head of school Eliezer Rubin (who declined to provide specific numbers).

Most of that growth has been in the high school and middle school which have a more regional appeal and attract students from outside the immediate area. 

If not for the increase in upper school enrollment, however, the numbers would be going down, said Rubin. He points to a finding in a 2012 study by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which indicated that the overall number of Jews in the GMW area is declining. According to that study, the number of Jews in historic “MetroWest” (Essex, Morris, Sussex, and northern Union counties) decreased from 96,000 in 1998 to 90,000 in 2012. 

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. Steven Karp, executive director of the Orthodox Jewish Education Center schools in Elizabeth, said that in the 2003-04 academic year, his schools had 875 students, and then started losing students until 2011, when there were 810. He did not have numbers from before 2003-04.) 

Karp attributed some of that drop to the opening of several regional Centrist high schools in Bergen County, which for several years attracted students from the JEC elementary schools.

In 2012 there were 836 students at JEC schools, and this year, 850 students are enrolled. The upward trend for JEC includes an “explosion” of enrollment in the youngest grades — a second kindergarten had to be opened, Karp said. Part of that is due to the growth of the Orthodox communities in Hillside, Linden, and Springfield, he said.

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. There are no such schools locally. 

Chabad-Lubavitch, which is separated as its own division in the survey, has seen the number of its schools grow from 44 to 80, and its enrollment rise to 12,650 from 8,650 in 2003. 

Locally, Cheder Lubavitch, which offers classes through eighth grade on the campus of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, declined to provide numbers of students; however, office manager Tanya Kogan said she believes the school is growing. 

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