Day School Squeeze Play


As most eighth-grade yeshiva students begin their summer vacation — secure in the knowledge that come September they’ll have a seat in the yeshiva high school of their choice — a growing number of 14-year-olds in recent years have been sweating out July and August searching for a school that will take them.The wait can be agonizing.“We have no strings to pull, no one to call who is connected, no ability to make a large donation,” said a mother who asked not to be named, so her child would not be stigmatized.“We are emotionally drained. We have been forced to grovel. Writing letters, having additional meetings, tears, making phone calls to solicit help from rabbis, principals and friends has made us feel demeaned. Our family life is affected.

This is not a pleasant dance.”When summer ends, some of these non-elite students, rejected from the day school system, may have no choice but to attend a public high school — a blow to the Jewish continuity movement that has stressed the primacy of a day school education.The students, almost exclusively from centrist and Modern Orthodox families, are victims of several converging trends in day school education: the success of the Jewish elementary school system, which has witnessed an explosion of students in the lower grades but an actual retrenchment in high school; the increasingly high standards set by the elite yeshiva high schools; and the relative unwillingness of Jewish high schools to work with students with learning disabilities, some quite serious, or difficult psychological profiles, and the paucity of programs to handle such students.Chaim Lauer, director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, said statistics aren’t available but the problem is undeniable. Anecdotal evidence, though, is mounting.

Is there a guaranteed place in Jewish education for every child that wants one? No,” he said. “Are there enough slots? No. Are there the appropriate slots for all kids? No.”The situation is exacting a toll. Shelly Cohen, a board member of Edah, the Modern Orthodox group, said she knew of several families that were suffering from considerable stress as they were still jockeying in mid-June to find a high school that would accept their children.

Also in mid-June, Marvin Schick, a longtime educator who conducted a recent national census on Jewish schools for the Avi Chai Foundation — which found a burgeoning interest and soaring enrollments in the lower grades — said he was having difficulty finding high school seats for two students whose families turned to him for help.“It’s painful to me when I know that a child is not being accepted anywhere,” said Judy Rosenblatt, director of guidance and coordinator of admissions for Torah Academy of Bergen County. “It’s not fair for a 13-year-old to go through the admissions process, a process unique to the New York metropolitan area. They’re fragile, just budding adolescents.“When I interview these children, some of them are so nervous. Their records are examined, their teachers are called, their principal is called. It’s a tough, pressure-filled experience. Then they sit and wait for their letters. It’s tough enough for college-bound seniors, but 13-year-olds shouldn’t have to go through that.”High school rejections are found primarily in the centrist and Modern Orthodox group. Children from Conservative and Reform families are less inclined to attend Jewish schools, and are more willing to attend non-Jewish private or public schools.By contrast, the main problem in high schools among fervently Orthodox Jews is dropouts and expulsions for social deviance rather than rejections because of high academic standards in secular studies or overcrowding. Satmar schools have been known to hold classes in hallways rather than turn children away.The Jewish Week spoke to parents — several of whose identities are known to the BJE and some of whose children have since been admitted to a high school — who wondered if yeshivas, flooded with enough “normal” applicants, were increasingly “defining deviancy up” — setting the bar too high when it came to labeling children as “problems.”One mother said her son was branded after nothing more than being caught smoking a cigarette in sixth grade. Other parents said their children’s emotional problems were natural and transitory, stemming from deaths or catastrophic illness within the family, or a divorce.Families, some of whom are new to Orthodoxy, expressed the pain that the rejections seemed a rejection of the entire family and their religious journey.“[Our son] has heard loud and clear from the Jewish educational community that he is not OK in their book,” one mother said. “The parts destroyed in him over the last few months could take years to recover.”A father asked: “Aren’t even bad students supposed to grow up and live an observant Jewish life? We often talk about non-Orthodox kids giving up on Judaism after bar mitzvah, and here we are, telling Orthodox kids that they’re not wanted, just one year after bar mitzvah.”One yeshiva official said the BJE convened a meeting of principals with the aim of creating a system of dividing among themselves those students who, at the end of the admissions process, remained without a high school. According to this official, a prominent yeshiva principal firmly objected, threatening to drop out of the BJE rather than allowing anyone to interfere with his school’s admissions.

The problem is trickling up, affecting good students as well. William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, serves as president of the North Shore Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Great Neck, L.I. Despite the school’s strong academic reputation, “a lot of what I do is deal with kids who can’t get in to the Jewish high schools of their choice,” he said.“In the end, every kid from our school that wanted to go to a Jewish high school got in somewhere. But all the seats are taken in the best schools, which means some kids are getting rejected,” Helmreich said.The North Shore Hebrew Academy is dealing with the crisis by building a high school of its own, at a cost of “approximately $15 million,” said Helmreich. The new high school will offer preferential admissions to graduates of its eighth grade, much as other Jewish high schools with elementary schools are making it easier for incumbent students of their own.On the one hand, said Helmreich, the problem derives from the fact that Modern Orthodox elementary schools are thriving, and even are becoming attractive to traditional Conservative families. Increasingly threatened by intermarriage, said Helmreich, these Conservative families believe day schools to be the best firewall.Conservative families, said Helmreich, nevertheless will draw the line at sending their kids to right-wing yeshivas; they are attracted to Modern Orthodox schools with a message of tolerance and high academic standards. Now, though, said Helmreich, 70 percent of these Conservative students are opting to continue in Modern Orthodox high schools after graduation.Elementary schools are growing to accommodate the Modern Orthodox demographic surge. SAR Academy in Riverdale, for example, is expanding and will have as many as four classes in certain elementary grades.High schools, however, are not keeping pace, say observers. According to Helmreich, when the North Shore Hebrew Academy opens its high school next year, it will be the New York area’s first new Modern Orthodox (coed) high school in 25 years.

In that same time, however, high schools have actually closed.Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of the centrist and Modern Orthodox community, once operated four yeshiva high schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, two for boys (known as BTA and MTA) and two for girls (both known as Central). YU, though, has been phasing itself out of the high school business. The Centrals closed, with one opening in Queens, and so did BTA. And last year YU announced it was shutting down MTA, before allowing MTA to reorganize as a smaller school with higher standards and lower enrollment.

Rabbi Ellis Bloch, MTA’s former associate principal and now the director of the BJE’s department of yeshiva and day schools, estimated that MTA “now has 300 kids, but when I was there [1985-’97] we had between 400 and 500,” which means that as many as 200 students that would have been admitted to MTA alone, just a few years ago, are now looking for other Jewish high schools to take them in.

Bloch downplayed the idea that the lost seats from the YU high schools triggered the crisis. A bigger problem, he said, is the growing recognition that many students have problems that high schools don’t want.“What do you do with kids who are academically weak or have a particular emotional problem?” Bloch asked. “Where do you draw the line? Some parents refuse to accept this about their child. Principals ask, ‘How many kids can we take who don’t fit the profile and expectations for our school?’ ”Bloch observed, sadly, “The students who are incapable of handling the type of academic program that any of our yeshivot will throw at them, these kids don’t have an address.”In addition, there is no Jewish school for emotionally troubled youngsters.According to TABC’s Rosenblatt, “There is a tremendous lack of willingness in our yeshiva high schools to work with kids who have learning problems. Many elementary yeshivot finally have excellent resource rooms and a range of services and extra support. Suddenly, these kids get to ninth grade and there is no help. There is nowhere near the same number of yeshiva high schools offering these programs.”Torah Academy has offered a modified curriculum and support services for the last five years for a significant but limited number of students per grade.“We’re proud of our program, and word got out. Everybody was calling us,” she said. “All schools should be sharing this responsibility but, instead, we were getting all the phone calls and the pressure from parents and elementary school principals. They’d say, ‘You know, if you don’t take him, he’ll go to public school.’ But we can’t accept every child who applies.”