NEW YORK, Dec. 18 (JTA) – For what is believed to be the first time in recent history, an American Jewish high school is offering completely free tuition to all its students.
The tuition is only one of several unique aspects of the American Hebrew Academy, a coed boarding school scheduled to open next fall in Greensboro, N.C.
The academy, a prep school that combines secular and Judaic studies, also will be the first non-Orthodox Jewish boarding school in the United States, and is believed to be the first full-time Jewish school funded entirely by a small group of anonymous donors.
Another distinction is its focus on recruiting Jews living in small communities far from the major metropolitan centers, where most Jewish high schools are located.
The academy’s unique funding and tuition policy comes at a time when Jewish leaders tout day school education as an effective way to give children strong Jewish identities, but lament its high cost.
Most day schools operate with far less money per pupil than do public schools. Some have large deficits, while others survive financially only by charging tuition so high that low-income and middle-class families don’t consider them an option.
To remedy that situation, the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation and the Seattle-based Samis Foundation have experimented with tuition subsidies for students at selected day schools. But none has offered completely free tuition.
One of the few examples in contemporary Jewish life of such a free ride is the Birthright Israel program, an effort launched last year that offers college students and young adults 10-day trips to Israel.
According to recent evaluations, students considered the fact that it was free a powerful incentive to participate in Birthright.
The American Hebrew Academy’s tuition policy is “essentially a $30,000-a-year gift,” said Rabbi Alvin Mars, the school’s headmaster.
“We are anxious to let the Jewish world know we are very serious about this school, that its success is assured and that we are going to be accepting students on the basis of merit,” he said.
School officials have not yet determined whether the free tuition will be a permanent policy, but all students admitted for next year will be guaranteed free tuition until they graduate.
So far, the school has received almost 100 requests for applications, and will start sending acceptance letters in March 2001, Mars said.
The expected enrollment for next year is not yet clear, but the academy, for students in grades 9-12, can accommodate up to 95 boarders, and will enroll additional day students from the Greensboro area.
The school’s mission is “to be available to those kids who live in the Greensboros of North America,” Mars said.
While students from large metropolitan areas also will be considered for admission, the school will not actively recruit in those places, he said.
Mars and other senior staff have visited more than 12 communities in the past few weeks, including Birmingham, Ala., and Tampa, Fla.
Lynn Raviv, director of the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, describes the academy as a “new wonderful star on the horizon that will give parents another way of continuing their children’s education.”
Seven families from her school, which has 112 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, have expressed interest in the academy, Raviv said.
Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, said he hopes the academy will “raise people’s sights,” encouraging more Jewish schools to seek ways to offer affordable tuition.
“People will say, ‘Wow, we can have Jewish education that is this good and really is geared toward every Jew that wants to take advantage of it,'” said Woocher, whose organization issued a task force report in 1999 calling for greater communal funding of Jewish day schools.
Will the tuition-free option lure families away from other pluralistic day high schools, which are proliferating around the country?
Woocher doubts it, as the new school will not be able to accommodate large numbers of students.
Also, he said, “not everyone will want to send their child to a boarding school.”
Instead, the academy is an option for people who lack day high schools nearby, Woocher said.
“We get calls all the time from people asking if we have a list of Jewish boarding schools that are not yeshivas,” he said. “This really fills a niche.”