JData: Findings on Day Schools and Community Size

by Amy L. Sales, Associate Professor

Much of my current work involves JData, an extensive project that gathers core data on Jewish education and makes it publicly available to communities, national agencies, funders, and others with a vested interest in building a strong Jewish educational system. The importance and utility of such a resource was made patently clear recently when we were contacted by the Jewish Federations of North America. JFNA was seeking information to inform the deliberations of a task force convened to address the issue of the sustainability of day schools in smaller communities. Through JData, we were able to gather information from these schools on enrollment, staffing, financial resources, and governance. We were able to compare their data with those from schools in large communities that also participate in JData. And most importantly, because JData is a longitudinal database that gathers information every year, we now have a system for tracking how these day schools fare over time.

The results of the initial data gathering point to significant challenges facing the day schools in smaller communities. These communities have fewer and smaller day schools than larger communities do. They lack upper grade options with the result that their high school enrollment numbers are very low. As well, they have experienced greater decline in their enrollment numbers over the past several years than have larger communities.

Two-thirds of the day schools in smaller communities posted financial losses last year. On average, they were operating at 68% of their capacity, a rate lower than the large city comparison group. Part of the cause is higher rates of attrition than elsewhere. Unfortunately for the Jewish community, students that leave a day school in a small community less often move on to another Jewish school.

This past January, I presented results of the study at the small school/community “deep dive” at the RAVSAK/PARDES day school conference in Los Angeles. The opportunity provided insight beyond the numbers. For one, it was clear that these communities felt alone. They were not aware of the similarity of their circumstances and believed it was theirs alone to find solutions. I could literally feel the relief—and excitement—in the room as they reviewed the data, joined the wider conversation, and shared ideas across communities.

It was also clear that Jewish life in smaller communities is qualitatively different from Jewish life in metropolitan areas. The difference is most pronounced in relationships among people and among communal organizations. In a large city, the day school may be considered a grant recipient. In the smaller city it is considered an anchor institution, a pillar of the community along with the JCC and the synagogues. The federation-school relationship is more often a partnership that works to build Jewish life and learning in the community.

Over the years, many Hornstein students have come from these smaller communities; most seek jobs in large cities when they leave Brandeis. The magnetism of New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Atlanta is understandable. And yet, the smaller communities offer a valuable kind of professional (and personal) experience that cannot be found elsewhere. These are places where individual agencies, organizations, and professionals can have a profound impact on the entire local Jewish community. JData’s job is to provide the information that measures and supports those efforts.