Enrollment in greater Seattle area Jewish day schools has been something of a roller coaster over the last decade, according to several longtime educators here, but the onset of the global economic recession in 2007 forced many families to rely on grants and scholarships to continue giving their children a private school education. Most day schools are seeing more young faces in their classrooms, but the trend is that many of those children are receiving much more financial assistance than they had in the past.
School heads agree that “no child is ever left behind” — families who cannot afford the tuition will be given the help they need, which has kept many of the day school enrollment figures fluctuating within a fairly narrow range.
But Rabbi Rob Toren, executive director of the Samis Foundation, the primary granting agency for K-12 Jewish day schools in Washington, told JTNews he would still like to see more Jewish families choose a Jewish day school education across the board.
“Enrollment, currently, is about where it was 15 years ago,” Toren said. “Orthodox enrollment is up, whereas enrollment in the community or in ‘egalitarian’ schools is down over this time period, consistent with trends elsewhere in the U.S.”
At the Seattle Hebrew Academy, the student population hovered between its high of 215 in 2005 and a low of 199 students in 2011, with a close second occurring this year in 2013, showing an enrollment of 214, according to Rivy Poupko Kletenik, SHA’s head of school.
“If the economy has affected anything,” said Kletenik, “it’s that we have less full-tuition payers. Eight years ago, it was more like 44 percent of our students that were on tuition assistance and now we’re well over 60 percent.”
When asked if these figures reflected the effects of the catastrophic downturn in the economy, Kletenik was unequivocal.
“It absolutely did,” she said.
The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle in Bellevue told JTNews the school is thriving in its 2012-13 academic year.
“This year, enrollment at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle is the highest it has been in four years,” said Amy Adler, the director of admissions and external relations at JDS. “We currently have 236 students enrolled in our preschool through 8th-grade program.”
Adler credits a new tuition-grant program at the school for providing the incentive for many families to enroll there, according to feedback she has received.
The Torah Day School, located in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle is also experiencing a significant growth spurt.
“We have grown from 52 students in year one,” said Rabbi Sheftel Skaist, TDS’s head of school, “to just over 130 students in year seven, an average annual enrollment increase of about 17 percent. Neither the economy nor the cost of tuition seems to have been a direct factor in our enrollment trend.”
The Seattle Jewish Community School is experiencing strong growth as well. Its kindergarten has a waiting list, head of school Shoshana Bilavsky told JTNews, while it is enjoying a 14 percent increase in enrollment overall.
But SJCS was not necessarily a victim of the recession. A rather significant drop in enrollment, nearly 25 percent during the 2006-2007 academic years was the result of leadership changes and the loss of their building, said Bilavsky.
“Finding our current location, exercising a right of first refusal to actually purchase the building, having the founding head of school return to the helm, followed by another experienced head of school these past three years, has seen enrollment making its way back up to the 2006-7 numbers, in spite of setbacks due to the economic downturn of 2009,” Bilavsky said.
However, like so many of the other Jewish day schools in the area, the noisier halls have not translated into a rosier balance sheet.
“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of our families applying for financial aid and our tuition assistance is a larger percentage of our budget than it has been in the past,” Bilavsky said.
Rabbi Bernie Fox, head of school at the Northwest Yeshiva High School on Mercer Island, told JTNews the most significant factor in his school’s enrollment is the size of the 8th-grade graduating classes from the local Jewish middle schools, but a close second, he said, is the cost of tuition.
The 75 students currently enrolled at NYHS are a little more than half of what the student population was in 2001-02, its highest enrollment number in the last 15 years, when 132 students attended classes there.
Like other Jewish schools, Fox said enrollment at NYHS increases and decreases from year to year.
“NYHS provides financial aid to its families that cannot pay full tuition,” said Fox. “Our goal is that no child should be denied a Jewish education because the family lacks the resources to pay full tuition.”
Still, he said, some parents are willing to pay and others won’t. The cost of tuition, said Fox, is also a concern for non-day school students who may want to transfer to the NYHS.
“NYHS is currently offering a $5,000 merit-based scholarship for incoming freshmen and sophomores,” added Fox. “The scholarship is renewable for the balance of the recipient’s years at NYHS.”
According to Toren, the highest enrollment figures for the entire K–12 day-school system in Washington occurred from 2001 through 2003 when there were 730 students, but those numbers “declined rapidly until 2011,” when it rebounded to 642 students.
Today, said Toren, “the increase of students that brought the current total up to 688 has come mainly from the Orthodox community.”
The number of students attending the Menachem Mendel Seattle Cheder, a Chabad-affiliated Orthodox school, “has been stable and steady over the past 10 to 12 years,” according to Tziviah Goldberg, an MMSC board member.
MMSC, located in Seattle’s Northend in the Maple Leaf neighborhood, has a preschool and grade school for boys and girls, and continues through 12th grade for girls. Despite holding steady in enrollment, however, the school has experienced ongoing financial concerns.
“We are at 90 students now, and it’s been varying between 85 and 95,” Goldberg said. “Samis supports us with financial aid dollars, however, we are up to 82 percent of the population [that is] on some sort of aid and the Samis dollars do not cover it all. Our student body is generally committed to Jewish education, regardless of cost. Trends seem to indicate that it will be about the same going forward.”