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Few choices left for day school parents in York Region

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Marni Herskovits and her husband have a hard decision to make about where their two children will go to school next year: will they leave their house at 7 a.m. and drive more than 20 km through rush-hour traffic to continue at their Jewish day school, or will they look at other options closer to home?

When Leo Baeck Day School announced in October that it was closing its northern campus, which Herskovits’ children attend, it left just one non-Orthodox school, Bialik Hebrew Day School, in York Region, which covers a large area north of Toronto.

“A lot of (Leo Baeck) parents are on the fence. People are looking at non-Jewish public schools. I know Bialik has been getting a lot of inquiries,” Herskovits said. “Everyone’s trying to gather as much research as they can to find the best fit for their kids.”

The situation was different when her daughter and son, now in grades 5 and 3, started school and she attended Jewish education fairs to learn about the available programs. “It wasn’t that any school was better, it was about finding the right fit for our family,” she said. “In the north, there isn’t the option of finding the right fit. I think that’s unfortunate for families.”

Leo Baeck, a school affiliated with the Reform movement, was the best solution for her family. But in the face of declining enrolment, the elementary school decided to consolidate and move everyone to its Toronto campus.

Leo Baeck’s move is the latest in a turbulent few years in York Region that has seen several day schools sell buildings and merge campuses. Among those that have closed branches in Toronto’s northern suburbs are Associated Hebrew Schools, TanenbaumCHAT and Eitz Chaim Schools. Robbins Hebrew Academy consolidated onto one Toronto campus several years ago.

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In September, there will not be a single Jewish day school in the 100,000-sq.-ft. Kimel Family Education Centre, which opened with great fanfare 11 years ago as the northern home of the Jewish high school, TanenbaumCHAT.

The building, on the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus, is used weekends and evenings by supplementary schools, youth groups and in the summer by day camps, said Daniel Held, executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.

Unless the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto finds a new tenant, the only students in the building during the week will be those attending the private, non-Jewish RoyalCrest Academy, which rents about 40,000 sq. ft. of space in the building.

Sara Dobner’s children attended Leo Baeck and the Kimel (northern) branch of TanenbaumCHAT, a time she refers to as “the golden age of day schools in York Region.”

“It breaks my heart to see kids in Vaughan will not have the same opportunity,” she said. “It’s obviously a time for soul searching. There must be ways to make the schools more affordable and efficient.”

Before the Kimel branch closed, Dobner, a former board member of TanenbaumCHAT, said the northern campus was intended to attract students who had not previously attended Jewish day school. The program was dubbed “new stream.”

The Kimel Family Education Centre. FACEBOOK

“This was the original plan, but I don’t think this happened. There wasn’t enough emphasis put on opening the school to new stream students,” she said. “This was a huge missed opportunity.”

Parents with students who are still in Jewish day schools say the closures make them wonder about the stability of the entire system.

Sarah Maged, who was involved in the fight to keep the northern branch of TanenbaumCHAT open and still has one child in the high school, said she would not have been able to drive into the city to take her kids to school when they were younger.

Her daughter’s commute now is at least 20 minutes longer than it was previously, depending on the notoriously slow rush-hour traffic.

“If we had to drive to Finch (Avenue), we could not have possibly done it with our schedules,” she said. “If kids aren’t going to start in Hebrew (elementary) school, what are the chances they’re going to start in high school?”

Elementary day school enrolment in the Greater Toronto Area has dropped by about 13 per cent over the last decade, Held said. In 2018, there were 4,266 students in elementary Jewish day schools, down from 4,325 the previous year.

The Leo Baeck Day School’s northern campus in York Region.

The introduction of full-day kindergarten in 2014, and the reality that some public schools in York Region have large Jewish student populations, have attracted students to the public system.

But expensive tuition, in a region with high housing prices, has been the biggest obstacle for day schools, Held said. The evidence is in the hallways of TanenbaumCHAT, where enrolment increased substantially after a $14-million gift enabled the school to cut the annual tuition by one-third, to $19,000, for a five year period, starting in 2017.

Nearly 300 students entered Grade 9 in 2018, compared with 200 in 2017 and about 175 in 2016.

“We all know that the decrease in tuition has enabled the school to grow dramatically … and that it has strengthened education in the school,” Held said.

But TanenbaumCHAT is just one school. “We know that what we need to do is to deal with the issue of affordability in elementary school,” he said. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto continues to work with “donors, schools, parents and grandparents on the issue.”

Even Bialik Hebrew Day School, a Zionist school that’s not affiliated with any religious movement, would “more than thrive, it would blossom,” if the problem of affordability were addressed, he said.

Associated Hebrew Schools Kamin Education Centre, on Atkinson Avenue. ASSOCIATED PHOTO

Bialik’s northern branch, located on the same campus as Leo Baeck and TanenbaumCHAT, has been growing steadily and planned on adding a third Grade 1 class next year, even prior to Leo Baeck’s closure, said Bialik’s head of school, Benjamin Cohen.

“We’re in the right place at the right time. Our board made a courageous decision about eight years ago to build a northern branch and that investment has paid off tremendous dividends.”

The school’s Jewish philosophy is “comfortable for a wide range of families and a wide range of religious backgrounds,” Cohen said. “We teach language, tradition and Jewish history, but we don’t tell families how should they behave. There is no particular approach to Jewish ritual practice that we teach.”

There is a “misconception” that the northern branch is subsidized by the larger southern campus, but that’s not true, Cohen said. “We make sure our classes operate in a way that’s fiscally responsible. All our classes at both branches pay for themselves.”

Registration is still ongoing for Toronto day schools for next September, so it’s too early to tell how many parents will opt to bus kids farther afield.

But while some parents are deciding where their children will go to school next year, others are looking at the demise of day schools in York Region and asking hard questions.

Day schools need to run more like a business and reduce the number of expensive administrators, said parent Sarah Maged. “If you look at ads for private schools, their tuition is lower and the student-to-teacher ratio is lower and they’re managing.”

The closing of day schools in the north has created “resentment,” said Dobner, who is a member of the advocacy group, Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education.

“It makes people feel neglected by the community, when schools are moving to the south. I think people can’t help but feel the larger community doesn’t care about them as much.”

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