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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Demographics cited for CHAT enrolment drop

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Rabbi Scot Berman

TORONTO — The student population at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto has decreased more than 10 per cent over four years, from a high of 1,530 in 2008 down to 1,369 this year, but director of education Paul Shaviv attributes the drop to post-baby boom demographics, not economic factors.

“I can’t persuade parents to have more babies 15 years ago,” he said, referring to people born after the mid-1960s. This group, sometimes called Generation X, represents a smaller demographic cohort than so-called baby boomers born after the end of World War II.

TanenbaumCHAT’s enrolment drop has meant that it’s had to address new financial realities.

For example, some teachers at TanenbaumCHAT have retired or left and haven’t been replaced, Shaviv said, declining to specify how many.

Also, he added, in the last couple of years, some probationary teachers that in previous years would have been kept on had to be let go. “We haven’t been able to offer them long-term posts.”

He said no administrative positions have been affected.

In a little more than a decade, tuition at the school – the largest Jewish community high school in North America – has risen dramatically, mirroring rises in tuition at other Jewish and private schools, but consistently surpassing the rate of inflation. In the past 14 years, TanenbaumCHAT’s tuition has doubled: in 1998/99, it was $10,700, just under half what it is today.

This year (2011-12), tuition was $21,500, seven per cent higher than the previous year (when it was $20,100). At the time, the increase was about twice the rate of inflation, which was 3.1 per cent last June, as reported by Statistics Canada.

Tuition for the coming school year (2012-13) is $22,650.

Such high tuition costs for Jewish day school are unsustainable, says Rabbi Scot Berman, headmaster of Toronto’s Bnei Akiva Schools – Ulpanat Orot and Yeshivat Or Chaim.

He told The CJN that if tuition is not made more affordable, the numbers of students attending day school “will continue to decline.”

He predicted that even in Orthodox schools – where families are more committed to Jewish day school education than their non-Orthodox counterparts – alternatives to “the standard full-day school” will come into play. It’s already happening in the United States, he said.

“There will be new models that parents will be willing to experiment with, because of the crushing costs of tuition,” Rabbi Berman said.

He cited some American examples: Hebrew charter schools in the public system, and “academies where part of the day’s teaching is online.”

Technology makes it possible to “escape the need for paying teachers for every actual moment of instruction,” Rabbi Berman said.

“There may be cheaper alternatives, but they are not substitutes” for Jewish day school, said Shaviv, who is leaving TanenbaumCHAT this summer to take a position in New York. (He’s being replaced for 2012-13 by Rhona Birenbaum, the school’s CFO/executive director, who will serve as interim director of education until Shaviv’s replacement can be found.)

Shaviv noted that despite the decrease in student numbers, retention of students is “at an all-time high.”

As well, he said the school, which is putting $7.5 million into a new science wing at its Wilmington Avenue campus, “has made tremendous strides in independent fundraising” and will continue to increase its income from fundraising.

At Bnei Akiva Schools, there are currently 217 students – 100 girls at Ulpanat Orot, and 120 boys at Yeshivat Or Chaim.

That’s down from 238 students three years ago, a drop of nine per cent.

“We basically get more or less the numbers we expect, based on enrolment in Grade 8 in our feeder schools,” said Norman Winter, interim president of the school.

Regarding the increased cost of tuition, Winter said requests for subsidies have risen in the last couple of years. “There are more incoming parents asking for subsidies, and also during the school year, parents who had signed up as full fee-paying parents, or who had been accepted at a certain subsidy percentage, have come back during the year and asked for subsidies or increased subsidies. That’s relatively new.”

In the Orthodox community, particularly the modern Orthodox segment, it’s less likely that families will pull out of day schools, but they may have fewer children “because it’s so darn expensive to educate their kids,” Rabbi Berman said.

Tuition at Bnei Akiva Schools this year was $21,400, but next year’s fees had yet to be determined at The CJN’s deadline. “One thing I can guarantee you,” said Rabbi Berman. “It’s not going down.”

Winter said that the school hasn’t had to let teachers go for budgetary reasons, although some teachers may be teaching for fewer hours than before.

Rabbi Berman’s contract has not been renewed for next year, and neither has that of rosh hayeshiva Rabbi Shlomo Gemara. Winter said neither decision was based on finances. Rather, he explained, the school decided, after a study by outside consultants, to adopt a different administrative structure for the coming year.

As of earlier this month, 27 girls and about 20 boys were expected in next year’s incoming class, Rabbi Berman said.

Initially, Winter explained, parents “were holding back” until new administrators were named. (The school has since hired Rabbi Yair Spitz as principal of Jewish studies and interim head of school, and Winter said the school was “hopefully close to finalizing” arrangements with a new principal for Ulpana, a position that didn’t exist before.)

Winter noted that the “overwhelming percentage” of the school’s budget goes to teachers’ salaries.

“We’ve always had to fundraise,” Winter said. “Now there’s pressure to raise even more funds.”

He added that “all schools look to the community at large to try to get increased funding for education, and that means looking to [UJA] Federation [of Greater Toronto]. They’re under pressure as well, and we’re very appreciative of what they contribute. We’re hoping they can step up to the plate or provide increased funds for the growing gap between what we’re able to get in tuition and fundraising, and in order to cover our expenses.”

The federation allocates more than $10 million a year to fund Jewish education, mainly for tuition subsidies.

A spokesperson for Bais Yaakov High School for Girls declined to comment on tuition issues, and a call to Tiferes Bais Yaakov, also an Orthodox girls’ high school, was not returned by press time.

At Ner Israel Yeshiva College, Rabbi Moshe Friedman, the school’s executive vice-president, said numbers have not been affected by high tuition. “Our tuition is lower than most high schools. The parents are already committed… we don’t turn away anybody for financial reasons.”

In the past, the community has sought – unsuccessfully – to solve the tuition problem by seeking provincial funding for day schools.

But recently, other solutions have been proposed.

In a CJN column last month, Rabbi Jay Kelman, a co-founder of Torah in Motion, wrote that the amount of money currently in Jewish philanthropic foundations is a potential solution, “provided one does not feel that capital must be preserved indefinitely.”

To preserve capital, he has proposed that parents be required to buy life insurance plans for less than the cost of one year’s tuition, “the proceeds of which would replenish any ‘capital depletion.’”

Rabbi Berman said that sustainability “is and should be the highest priority in tackling the issues of day school involvement.”

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