The Leo Baeck Day School is closing its northern campus at the end of the 2018-19 school year. It’s the latest in a string of Jewish day schools to leave Toronto’s northern suburbs.
The school’s board announced it would close its campus on the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in York Region, where it moved two years ago, and consolidate students in its southern campus.
“Today is an incredibly sad day for Leo Baeck, as well as the entire Jewish community, which is losing another Jewish day school in York Region,” said Lisa Dack, president of the school’s board of directors, in a statement announcing the closure. “For eight years, we have tried to find a way to reverse the trend of declining enrolment. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves with no option but to close the campus.”
Currently, the northern campus has 14 preschool students and 146 elementary students, while the southern branch, in Toronto’s Cedarvale neighbourhood, has 110 preschool students and 392 elementary students.
The school had an operating deficit in “the hundreds of thousands” of dollars last year and is estimating a similar deficit this year, according to its website.
Two years ago, Leo Baeck sold its building on Atkinson Avenue in Thornhill and moved farther north onto the Lebovic campus, intending to share a building with the TanenbaumCHAT high school there. Leo Baeck spent about $500,000 renovating the space for its students. However, before it moved in, TanenbaumCHAT closed the campus and moved its students to its southern campus.
“We moved with the best evidence that we had two years ago,” Dack said in an interview with The CJN. “There was no evidence we would have been successful in the old location, either.”
The school’s efforts to boost enrolment included not only moving closer to where the majority of its northern Jewish families lived, but also offering subsidizing busing, capping tuition for middle-income families and extending its hours.
“The administration and the board of directors put everything they had into this. We know the problem we had is bigger than our school, but it doesn’t make it any less terrible for our school,” Dacks said.
The declining enrolment meant that the school could not continue to offer single grade classes with a good balance of boys and girls.
“We were at the point where this extended beyond finances. The majority of grades don’t have enough children to maintain a healthy learning environment. Money doesn’t fix that,” Dack said.
Next year, Bialik Hebrew Day School, which has 280 students enrolled in its northern branch on the Lebovic campus, will be the only non-Orthodox day school north of Toronto’s city limits. The school announced last week that is opening a third Grade 1 class in the next school year, due to increased demand.
TanenbaumCHAT and Associated Hebrew Day Schools have also closed their northern campuses in the last two years.
Eitz Chaim Schools, an Orthodox school, announced earlier this year that it will be consolidating from three campuses to two. In 2012, Robbins Hebrew Academy closed its campus on Bayview Avenue, moving students further south.
“It’s part of a pattern that’s hit Thornhill hard for all sorts of reasons, the pre-eminent one is the cost of tuition,” said Mordechai Ben-Dat, one of the founders of the advocacy group Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education.
“The excellence of the schools has to be drawn to people’s attention.… If tuition were completely affordable, parents would be likely to try it.”
The high cost of housing and the good reputation of the region’s public schools, two of which offer Hebrew-language options, have also been credited as factors in the precipitous drop in enrolment in the area’s day schools.
Leo Baeck has said it will offer free busing to students from the northern campus next year.
Today is an incredibly sad day for Leo Baeck.
– Lisa Dack
The school is also discussing the lease of the building with TanenbaumCHAT and the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto.
Mandie Orvitz, president of the parents’ association at the north campus and a member of the board, said that while news of a school closing always comes as a surprise, “everyone has seen the writing on the wall.”
Her family lives in North York and she said that her children will be moving to the southern campus.
Many families are still considering their options, but a number of them have asked for tours of the southern campus and are speaking to parents who have children enrolled there.
Still, she said, the news was “heart-breaking.… This is a community, it’s not just a school.”