Jewish high schools across the country, buffeted by forces beyond their control –including rising costs and shrinking enrolment – are looking for new ways to survive in a competitive landscape.
The announcement last month that Ottawa’s main community Jewish high school was closing because of low enrolment sent a shock wave of fear and sadness across the country.
“It scares the hell out of me,” said Rory Paul, head of Winnipeg’s Gray Academy of Jewish Education and CEO of the Winnipeg Board of Jewish Education.
Gray Academy, with 170 students in grades 9 to 12, is in much better shape than Ottawa’s high school, where only 24 students are currently enrolled.
But in Winnipeg, as in other schools, principals and administrators are aggressively wooing new students and re-examining their programs.
Pluralistic, co-educational, Jewish high schools can be found in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto. Except for Vancouver, they are all facing declining enrolments, but the problems and solutions vary in each community.
Winnipeg, which has a community of about 13,000 Jews, similar in size to Ottawa’s, had fairly stable enrolment until this year, when 50 students who were registered didn’t show up in September. Their parents, recent immigrants to Canada, had found better jobs outside of Winnipeg and moved over the summer.
“That was a completely unexpected phenomenon,” Paul said. In response, the school has hired its first director of admissions to look at student recruitment and retention.
Gray, like other day schools, is being hit by two factors, Paul said. “The cost of Jewish education is increasing and the ability to pay or the interest in paying is waning,” he said. “The second issue is there’s less of an interest in Jewish day school education in the secular world.”
On the financial front, except for in Ontario, Jewish high schools across the country receive some form of government funding. In Winnipeg, Gray receives half of what public schools get, and without that money, the school would likely not exist, Paul said.
Meanwhile, schools are working hard to convince parents that Jewish education is worth the investment.
“There was a time that Jewish curriculum was the value-added proposition people were looking for,” said Paul. Now “we have to have the ‘Jewish curriculum, plus’ – that’s what people are looking for.”
A decade ago, Gray Academy was one of the city’s first schools (and one of the first Jewish schools) to go through a rigorous accreditation process with the group, Canadian Accredited Independent Schools.
“That accreditation was a parent’s assurance that the school was of the highest quality,” Paul said.
High schools in both Montreal and Toronto are also facing declining enrolments, although their problems differ.
Montreal has four Jewish high schools for grades 7 to 11, varying in size from 205 to 427 students and divided by language and levels of observance. Forecasts predict that the student populations in all the schools will be declining, said Shimshon Hamerman, director of formal education at Montreal’s Bronfman Jewish Education Centre.
“The trends are not looking pretty. The community is working hard to improve the situation.”
A new subsidy program, squarely aimed at middle-class families has been launched, and federation funding has been allocated to encourage excellence in the schools.
While it would be cost effective for Montreal to amalgamate its small high schools, it’s a difficult proposition, since the schools have diverse philosophies and different forms of governance.
“It will require quite a leader [to create a school] where all these ideologies are reflected,” said Hamerman. “Or the numbers will decline, so everyone will put some water in their wine.”
Montreal, like Winnipeg, is battling two formidable obstacles. The first is the shrinking size of the anglophone Jewish community. The second is a waning commitment to Jewish education.
“We don’t have issues of quality of education. We have issues of identity,” Hamerman said. “I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of instilling identity. Until that changes, we’re in a downward spiral.”
In Toronto, numbers have also dipped precipitously at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, from a high of 1,500 students six years ago to 1,161 today, on two campuses. Next year, enrolment will hover between 1,000 and 1,100, said head of school Rabbi Lee Buckman, who arrived at TanenbaumCHAT 18 months ago.
The problem is one of demographics. Comparing census data from 2001 and 2011 shows that the number of Jewish school-aged children in the Toronto area has dropped by nine per cent, or by about 3,000 kids, said Daniel Held, executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.
The commitment to Jewish education has not wavered, Held said. About one-third of Jewish children attend day school, a percentage that has remained consistent over the years. Meanwhile, the percentage of Jewish youths attending TanenbaumCHAT continues to grow.
To compensate for dropping enrolment, the school is intensifying its recruitment efforts, hoping to attract students who are not currently in day school, but could enter high school in specialized classes, Rabbi Buckman said.
The high school also maintains close ties with the numerous elementary Jewish day schools, to encourage students and parents to consider day school education after Grade 8.
Before coming to Toronto, Rabbi Buckman headed an Atlanta Jewish school that turned around its enrolment figures. While he is still learning about the Canadian experience, he said, “I would be very cautious about projecting a decline in enrolment for too many years out.”
Vancouver, with 190 students in King David High School, up from 140 students four years ago, is proof that there are strategies that can reverse declining enrolment.
Ari Shiff, co-president of King David High School, said he found Jewish day schools were in difficult financial straits when he and his young family first moved to Vancouver from Toronto several years ago.
Applying the same principles he used to run his business, he and a group of like-minded community members began to overhaul the Jewish day school system.
One of the first things they did was to help the schools qualify for a higher level of government funding, which currently deposits an extra $500,000 into the schools’ coffers annually.
Even while the schools were in the red, money was spent to improve education, increase financial assistance and build fundraising departments in each elementary school. A concerted push to attract parents who could pay full tuition was also made.
To keep the high school healthy, growth must happen at both ends, with strong preschool programs in the elementary schools and innovative offerings at the high school, he said.
King David, for example, is initiating a new outdoor education program. “We go out and write grant proposals, and we bring in other donors. Eventually it grows the enrolment. It starts to attract a whole different crowd than we were attracting before,” Shiff said.
Having a thriving high school changes the Jewish culture of the entire city, Shiff said.
Many years ago, his wife’s family left Vancouver to find Jewish education for their teenaged children. Today, kosher bakeries, butcher shops, yeshivas and even a mohel are more likely to stay, when they know there is a high-quality Jewish high school in town, he said.
“Jewish professionals can now settle in the city.”