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June 17, 2011

JData helps schools get bigger bang for the buck
By Leah Burrows
Advocate Staff

 A screen shot of the JData home page at  

A screen shot of the JData home page at

It started out with a question posed by a Jewish philanthropy to a social researcher at Brandeis University: What is the extent of Jewish education in America and who supports it?

That shouldn’t be too difficult to answer, thought Amy Sales, the associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis.

Sales figured that all she had to do was count the number of day schools, camps and Hebrew schools in the country; ask where they get their funding; and build an Excel spread sheet.

Five years later, that spread sheet has turned into a $1.8 million project that is just beginning to scratch the surface of the complex Jewish educational system.

“It turned out it wasn’t just a simple spread sheet,” said Sales. “A two-dimensional frame could not capture the complexity and richness of this endeavor.”

Called JData, the project involves creating an online database of enrollment numbers, tuition fees, budgets and other statistics from Jewish educational institutions. It is the first online database for Jewish educators that can connect institutions and track complex trends in the education field at both a regional and national level, Sales said.

JData is operated by Brandeis and sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to promoting Jewish education.

This week, Sales presented JData at Brandeis University to a small group of educators and scholars. Sales, with a panel of representatives from CJP’s Initiative for Day School Excellence, highlighted the program’s potential.

Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, opened the presentation by urging the educators and researchers to embrace new methods of evaluation and open themselves to new ideas. “JData gives us the opportunity to take what we learn at the macro level and apply it to every single institution in Jewish life,” he said. “This is critical because if we don’t understand what’s coming, and we don’t understand what the data means, we’re simply going to miss all the opportunities.”

JData began with a pilot program, studying the Jewish educational system of eight communities, including Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Cleveland. The data suggested that the Boston community led the sample group with its investment in Jewish education.

The database allows educational institutions – such as day schools, after-school Hebrew schools, Jewish camps and early childhood centers – to compare themselves with similar institutions regionally or nationally.

Each institution fills out an online form that includes questions about its size, denomination, enrollment, tuition, budget, teacher turnover and student-teacher ratio.

JData compiles a report that the institution can use for its own records and then plugs the information into the online database. The school’s identity remains anonymous in the database.

Sales said schools requested anonymity out of concern that the data would be misconstrued out of context.

As part of a database, a school can find out how it stacks up against other schools in particular categories. Federations and philanthropies can use data on, say enrollment trends or teacher turnover, to decide how to allocate funds and refine strategic plans.

In Boston, the Initiative for Day School Excellence worked with JData to examine transfers into and out of day schools in higher grades. It found a surprising amount of movement in sixth grade: students transferring between day schools as well as from public and private secular schools into day school, according to Elisa Deener-Agus, assistant director of the day school initiative.

CJP has collected day school enrollment data for years, Deener- Agus said, but working with JData has allowed the organization to dig deeper and identify factors that explain the findings.

“This data has shifted our thinking,” Deener-Agus said. “We’ve noticed the underlying patterns and trends and we’ve been able to share them with the schools.”

Each user level has different access to the information.

Say someone wants to research day school enrollment in Boston.

Big organizations like CJP have access to everything. They can see the enrollment figures for each school in their region by name. For example, Rashi has this many students and Gann Academy has this many students.

A head of school can see their enrollment numbers and how it compares to the region’s average enrollment, for example. Any sideby side comparison with another school of equal size would be anonymous. The head of Gann could compare his school with another of similar size, but he wouldn’t know which school it was.

A parent can look at the total enrollment of day schools in Boston or the number of schools of a certain size, but cannot see statistics for particular schools.

Anyone can use the site as educational Yellow Pages. They can look up schools nationwide based on location, type of institution, denomination and sponsorship.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center and professor of Jewish community research at Brandeis, said JData’s importance boils down to money.

“Our ability to be successful depends on our best use of resources of the philanthropists of the community that supports us,” said Saxe, who also serves as an advisor for JData. “What we are really talking about here is how to squeeze every bit of educational power out of the dollars, the shekels, that we are given.”