Empty Chairs: Why Some Schools Close While Others Open

June 6, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe

Students across Baltimore are finishing up their academic year, eager for a little fun and sun after 10 months of classroom learning. For many, it’s a time of celebration. For others, reflection. And while most of Baltimore’s schools will spend the summer cleaning house and preparing for another year, some will be shuttering their windows and locking their doors.

In the last half-decade, half-a-dozen area independent and/or Jewish day schools have closed.

A handful of others have opened. This begs the question: If some schools aren’t making it, then how can others freely open and test the market.

“Baltimore is an expanding community, and we should be able to offer multiple options when it comes to … education,” said Ellie Kagan, a parent at Ohr Chadash Academy, which opened in 2011.

But it’s not so clear.

As a parent — or even a potential investor — how do you know what to look for in a school? How do you determine if the school in which you enroll your child is stable and sustainable?

The answer, say experts in the field, is that you don’t. Nonetheless, there are key indicators and best practices that reveal how a school is operating.

Number one is determining if there is a need and a niche for the institution, according to Harry Bloom, the Yeshiva University School Partnership’s director of planning and performance improvement.

“One of the fundamental indicators [of a school’s health] is whether it is in touch with its target constituency. A school needs to have a clear view of who the customer is, who it is trying to serve and how many of those customers are out there — a clear plan for research that tells it what that constituency cares about and a long-term plan that shows it how to get the highest net share of that constituency,” said Bloom.

Bloom equated the decision to send a student to, or invest in, a school to the decision for involvement or investment in any company. He said that just as one would look for a company that has a good product, happy customers, good leadership and governance and efficient use of money, “these are the same things you look for in a school. It all comes back to, does it know who its market is and is it in touch with that market? Does it know how well it is penetrating that market?”

Yehuda Neuberger, co-chair of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Day School Task Force, said he believes lack of understanding of the market may have led to the demise of the Shoshana S. Cardin School. He told the JT that from the outside, it appeared that Cardin did not sufficiently differentiate itself from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, which already had high academic standards and a robust extracurricular program.

“There was a group of individuals seeking a pluralistic community school, not under the auspices of any particular denomination,” said Neuberger. “But I am not certain that there was ever a huge constituency clamoring for that type of institution, especially when, for many people, there was a more established and viable option. … In my mind, Cardin never took off because there was an insufficient number of people who saw it as a compelling need, and this is a necessary element of the success of a start-up school.”

In Baltimore, the landscape has shifted substantially in the last 10 years, with the Orthodox community growing while other denominations — Reform, Conservative — are contracting. This affects the marketplace.

Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, explained that within the Orthodox community there are “a lot more kids; birthrates are higher in the Orthodox community, and clearly those are families in which there is not a choice to not send kids to Jewish day school.”

The numbers are striking. According to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, thereare approximately 3,900 children under the age of 4 living in Orthodox homes, 1,150 living in Reform households, and only 750 living in Conservative homes. These families were asked if they would consider a Jewish day school. Ninety-six percent of Orthodox families answered in the affirmative, while only 36 percent of Conservative families expressed interest, and only 5 percent of Reform.

But that does not mean Baltimore cannot sustain a non-Orthodox Jewish day school, noted Bloom. He said there is a sizable cohort interested in Krieger Schechter Day School — “There are more than enough kids for that school.” He said BT, while affiliated with a Modern Orthodox synagogue, serves a diverse population — successfully.

Amy Herskowitz Katz, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, sided with Bloom. She said sustaining a diverse mix of Jewish day schools is the responsibility of the community.

“In a community where there is a culture of wanting to lead meaningful Jewish lives and educating children to lead meaningful Jewish lives [day schools do better],” said Katz. She talked about Boston’s The Rashi School, a K-8 Reform Jewish independent school, as “vibrant.”

“Four years ago, many of these families never would have dreamed they would send their kids to Jewish day school. But there is a culture in the community that values day school and talks about it and pumps it up,” said Katz. “There is no real difference between Baltimore and Boston.”

Katz did note that Rashi is considered to be head-to-head with the best local independent schools, which makes parents comfortable with choosing that option.

Community buy-in is a second and important piece of a school’s success. As Neuberger noted in reference to Cardin, there might not have been a community belief that the school filled a local need.

In the case of the Cheder Chabad, the opposite is the case.

The school, located in the Beth Jacob building, is completing its sixth year on June 20. It opened not with the goal of becoming a community school, explained Director Chanie Feldman, but rather because parents at the area Chabad synagogue wanted a learning environment that better met their unique needs and the Chabad philosophy.

“The goal was to … invest a little more energy in exploring the best practices in early childhood education and how we could combine those with a strong Jewish program,” said Feldman. “Everything we do is about Chabad philosophy. That does not only refer to traditions and practices. … There is a very rich tradition that has been passed on by the rebbes of Chabad about what education should look like and why.”

Feldman said the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, focused on building character traits while having good academics as well, on trying to build strong people and — not just — knowledgeable ones. The Chabad philosophy also puts stress on the positive aspects of Jewish texts and stories, for example celebrating Esther of the Purim story rather than scorning Haman, and acceptance of all Jewish people, regardless of their level of observance.

The student body has grown from 12 students to 91 in its six years and has drawn community att-ention and support. With mainstream Orthodox schools literally bursting, the community is looking to the Cheder Chabad, which now offers classes for girls ages infant through third grade and boys ages infant through fourth, to carry some of the burden.

“We had requests from some of the local day schools because of the numbers problem,” said Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, Cheder executive director. “There is a need for more classrooms and desks for the children. They came and they encouraged us.”

Staying true to its mission — and making it a viable option for mainstream students — Feldman said the school only accepts children who can be successful in a regular classroom. Twenty-one percent of the students are from non-Chabad families now, and she expects that number to grow. The school was recently approved to next year receive funding through the Associated-Weinberg Foundation Day School Initiative.

“I think a huge difference between the schools that succeed and the ones that don’t is the degree to which the broader community perceives them as being necessary institutions in the community,” said Neuberger. “That helps the image of the school and people’s perception of its value as something they want to give money to.”

Leadership. Vision. Mission. Partnership.
The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) set out to determine a list of key indicators for school sustainability, as has the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). The PEJE list is still in the approval stage, but according to Katz, will likely include 18 key markers. The first of which is alignment between leadership and governance.

“There needs to be alignment between the professional vision for the school and the strategic vision for the school and financial stability to make it all happen,” Katz said. “If you don’t have the right educational leader, the school is going to suffer. If the board does not fulfil its responsibility to provide strategic and financial oversight, the school will be challenged.

The other piece is mission. A school, said thought-leaders, must know its mission and check it against its policies. Filling seats with the wrong students can mar a school’s reputation and detract from its ability to do the work it set out to do.

One new independent school is watching its mission closely: The Auburn School.

Marjorie Hoffman, head of school, has 40 years of experience as an educational professional. She said, “You have to have a mission and stick to your mission. Once you divert from serving the folks you say you are going to serve, it gets complicated.”

Auburn is a for-profit private school. The first of its kind opened four years ago in Herndon, Va., with a mission to serve bright kids with social/communications challenges. The school opened in Baltimore this year with nine students. Throughout the year, said Hoffman, the school has expanded. Next year, 22 children are enrolled.

“We have a lot of diversity in terms of ethnic, religious, racial background, but the commonality is that the social piece is missing. … We are very consistent in sticking with the mission,” said Hoffman.

To stay afloat as the school builds, Hoffman said Auburn is backed by its CEO and a cohort of venture capitalists.

“They believe in the mission. It is a socially conscious mission,” she said.

Hoffman, who has had leadership roles at Krieger Schechter and the Cardin School, said she has seen schools close when the mission gets muddy. It tends to harm a school’s reputation and it’s tough to rebound. She offered Ruxton Country School in Owings Mills, which closed down in 2009 because of financial problems, as an example.

“Something wasn’t right there. Was it that they didn’t stick to who they were or that they could not figure out who they were?” she said.

Beth Cohen Raymond said she had her qualms about Auburn’s sustainability before she enrolled son Seth, but those concerns have dissipated.

“There is a huge need for this,” said Raymond. “We are fortunate the school’s founding fathers have deep pockets and a really good fundraising plan. … The parents are really committed because we need it badly. … There is no way Baltimore can live without The Auburn School.”

Ohr Chadash Academy, like Auburn, has clearly defined what it is doing and who it is trying to reach. Recently, the school worked with an outside branding firm to solidify its message and mission. The OCA educational program, according to the school’s marketing chair, Terri Rosen, is based on three central pillars: excellence in Torah Studies; excellence in general studies; and Israel engagement.

“Ohr Chadash is about community, individuality and excellence,” she said.

OCA was founded in the shadows of Yeshivat Rambam, which shut its doors after the 2010-2011 school year. Parents who felt they did not identify with any of the other area Jewish day schools opened OCA on their own. This year, the school hired Akevy Greenblatt to move the institution forward on the educational side and is working with The Associated and other consultants to strengthen board governance and oversight.

Parents such as Eva Gonsher said they recognize that one of OCA’s biggest challenges is “establishing itself in the community as the wonderfully viable option that it is for a strong, successful day school education. This means overcoming the community’s uncertainty about a newer school and showing all the great things the school offers.”

Reputation. Reputation. Reputation.
A negative reputation can throw an otherwise successful school into extinction.

Neuberger said he thinks some of that played into the demise of the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew.

Neuberger recalled how the Day School launched with upward of 300 students, but the school, at some point, felt pressure to grow.

“There is a very delicate balance between, on the one hand, building the robust student census that is necessary to create an economically viable institution that is capable of achieving high standards of academic excellence and, on the other hand, maintaining rigorous admission standards. If a school accepts students who do not have the same baseline academic standard, parents do not want to send their kids there,” he said.

Reputation (read word of mouth) drives enrollment.

According to the February 2013 report by PEJE, “Learning From Parent Voices,” 75 percent of day school admission inquiries come from word of mouth or siblings, and only 8 percent from advertising. Word-of-mouth marketing can be fostered, according to the report, by training ambassadors and framing opportunities for them to engage with potential families.

“What happens if word on the street is bad?” asked PEJE’s Katz. “No one is going to come.”

And enrollment is essential for a healthy school. There is no magic number of students, but there are fixed costs when it comes to education, and
tuition is the greatest source of income for schools.

Dan Perla of the Avi Chai Foundation said that on average tuition should account for 70 to 80 percent of a school’s operating budget. In Baltimore, according to Bloom, average day school tuition is $10,000.

This can be especially difficult for independent schools, since market shifts are based on what NAIS’s Patrick F. Bassett calls “baby booms and baby busts.”

“The enrollment in private schools — general and parochial — fluctuates with the school-age population. We’ve been in a baby bust for the last several years, which translates to fewer 4- and 5-year-olds,” he said.

Secondly, enrollment can be impacted by economics. Tuition, he said, has grown well beyond inflation for the last 50 years.

“When that happens, you begin to price yourself out of the market, at least for the broader range of families that might be interested,” Basset explained.

But independent and secular private schools are also charged with being better and offering more to their college-bound audience. Bassett said the tuition price is inflated because the parents who pay full want more services and expensive programming, such as several foreign languages, 25 interscholastic sports teams, college counselors, guidance counselors, school psychologists and small classes.

For schools such as Ohr Chadash, which now has around 120 students, the goal is to grow — not large, but large enough.

YU’s Bloom has been consulting with the school and said he believes Ohr Chadash has the potential to increase its size over the next several years.
He noted that in his estimation, schools need a minimum of 150 to 200 kids to be viable.

“Most costs of a school are fixed. One hundred kids is a very difficult school to sustain,” he said.

Nonetheless, studies indicate there is no evidence that tuition prices directly impact enrollment at Jewish day schools, said Perla. Rather, he said, parents are looking first at whether the school promotes desired Jewish development, at whether it academically prepares students for high school or college and at whether or not the school responds quickly and effectively to parent concerns.

Money Matters … Sometimes
It’s a myth that money solves all problems.

“A lot of schools think money is the answer. They say, ‘If only we had more money,’” noted Katz. “They should be saying, ‘If only we were more aligned.’”

Katz said that money is sometimes a contributing factor — and not the lone or even major factor when one examines a school’s sustainability.

Still, money can help. And in Maryland, the state is not doing enough. The rift between public and private education couldn’t be much larger. The public schools are boasted about as No. 1 in the nation, and the private schools receive less state funding than several neighboring states.

According to MarylandReporter.com, Pennsylvania puts about $300 million toward private education, New York puts $180 million, New Jersey provides about $150 million. Maryland, in 2012, allocated just $4.4 million state dollars for nonpublic education. That’s 7⁄100 of 1 percent of the $6 billion Maryland supplies to public K-through-12.

That $4.4 million (which will be $6 million in 2013) goes toward Maryland’s Nonpublic Student Textbook Program. The purpose of the program is to provide funding for the purchase of textbooks, computer hardware and software for loan to students in eligible nonpublic schools, with a maximum distribution of $60 per eligible nonpublic school student for participating schools. At schools where at least 20 percent of the students are eligible for the free and reduced price meal program, the distribution will be $90 per student. The decision to push for the additional funding came at the suggestion of State Delegate Sandy Rosenberg and was moved forward with the help of Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange.

DeGrange was also instrumental in securing a $3.5 million allocation for aging nonpublic school facilities. The terms of the program provide funds to be used to update aging school buildings and to improve building security.

The funds, of course, come with strings attached, explained Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director at Agudath Israel of Maryland. And according to Rosenberg, the funds are not guaranteed but up for review each year by the governor and the legislature.

“They say, ‘If you want our money, we will give it to you, but you will have to do some things the way we tell you to do them,’” he said.

For Bassett, government funding is not an option.

“The greatest strength private schools provide to the whole sector is our freedom from government control. We would never give that up,” he said. “[At independent schools] we are free to accept only those students who meet our mission.”

He noted that he thinks government regulations are slowly causing public schools to deteriorate.

“The government is killing public schools in America by dictating curriculum,” he said, instead of leaving that to individual teachers.

Sadwin said it is a balance, and the Jewish schools — and the Catholic ones with which they lobby — are careful with what strings are attached to the money that comes. Right now, those obligations are minimal and mainly required reporting.

Whether a school receives help from the state or not, the key is a balanced budget and transparency.

“Schools need to have a strategic financial plan,” said Katz. “And there needs to be transparency to the plan. If you want me to invest in your school, you need to make a case for your school.”

And the same goes for enrollment — or it should.

Bassett called on parents to research public, private and parochial schools before making a decision about where they want to send their children.

“Spend as much time researching school opportunities within reach as your next refrigerator purchase. People spend a lot of time worrying about washing machines and refrigerators and make assumptions about schools based on no evidence or documentation,” he said. “If you have a school-aged kid, go to at least three schools — some private, some parochial, some independent and some public — and sit in the classroom. You will know if it is the right culture and environment for your child.”

Neuberger called on the community to learn.

He said whenever a private or day school closes it has the potential to impact not just the families and teachers who were involved with it, but the
entire community.

“When you have an institution that espouses a certain philosophy or ideology that closes, it oftentimes means our community of … schools is less hospitable to all segments of the community,” he said.

Neuberger noted that Rambam’s closing for many Modern Orthodox families was a statement that our community was not capable of supporting a school with a Modern Orthodox ideology. But now, he said, we know there is still a place for this in the community with Ohr Chadash. Nonetheless, there were families who did leave for other communities as a result.

“When we see schools closing, we should analyze whether it is indicative of problems in our community. For example, we need to think about whether, as a community, we have made a sufficiently compelling case for day school education, whether we need to strengthen the skills of our school administrators, or whether we ought to be examining other models of Jewish education,” said Neuberger.

He noted that all of the schools in the community “had the blessing of extremely dedicated staff, faculty, administration and lay leadership, all of whom were remarkably dedicated to the cause of Jewish education. There are many factors that can lead to a school closure, but lack of effort or caring was most definitely not a factor in any of these [recent] instances. All I know is that, at the end of the day, our community is diminished by the closing of each of these schools and our overall communal day school offering is, to some degree, now lacking.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

Photo captions:
1. Ohr Chadash Academy has a mission: community, individuality, excellence.2. Chanie Feldman, director of Cheder Chabad, says the school stresses the positive aspects of Jewish texts and stories.3. Marjorie Hoffman, head of The Auburn School, says, “We are very consistent in sticking with the mission.” Shown here: An Auburn teacher works with students.
(Photos by David Stuck and Justin Tsucalas)

ADD COMMENTS