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Census Shows Day Schools Becoming Increasingly Popular

January 19, 2000
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After years of anecdotal reports about new schools and across-the-board enrollment increases, Jewish day schools have finally stood up to be counted.

The results from the most comprehensive census ever conducted of American day schools generally confirm the community’s estimates of the past decade – – 185,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade attend 670 institutions, an increase of approximately 25,000 students from a decade ago.

The day school census, commissioned by the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation, is intended to assess the world of day schools and provide a benchmark so that future changes can be tracked.

“It’s important that studies like this be conducted regularly,” said Marvin Schick, an educational consultant and president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Schools in Staten Island, N.Y., who authored the study.

“If American Jewry is investing more in day schools than anything else, then you have to know what the story is.”

Day schools, which offer secular and Judaic studies under one roof, have become an almost magical concept in Jewish communal life in recent years.

Federations, philanthropists and even national organizations that in the past rarely discussed day schools — including the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee — are now cheerleading their success at stemming the tide of assimilation.

The love affair with day schools has even begun to chisel away at the longtime American Jewish support of public schools and opposition to school vouchers, as people search for ways to finance day school educations.

Among the findings of the new study:

Enrollment in Conservative, Reform and nondenominational schools has grown by 25 percent in the past decade, with the sharpest increase — almost 50 percent — at the high school level.

Although liberal high schools are rapidly growing — with several schools in the planning stages and an association recently created to address these schools’ needs — they currently enroll only 2,200 students nationwide.

Eighty percent of all day school enrollment is in Orthodox schools, a number that is expected to remain steady — despite growth in liberal day schools – – because of the high birth rate in Orthodox families.

Orthodox schools range in outlook from “Yeshiva-world” and Chasidic to modern Orthodox, with the more fervently Orthodox schools accounting for the largest enrollment.

Enrollment is greatest in the lower grades and diminishes over time. Nonetheless, the curve is flattening, as more day school students choose to remain at least through eighth grade.

Nearly two-thirds of all day school enrollment is in New York and New Jersey. The other states with sizeable numbers of children attending Jewish day schools are California, Florida, Illinois and Maryland.

Nearly 40 percent of all day schools enroll fewer than 100 students. However, the overwhelming majority of day school students — 93 percent — attend larger institutions.

Occupancy rates range from 80 to 96 percent in day schools, indicating that – – if enrollment continues to increase — there will be a need for new or expanded facilities.

Leora Isaacs, director of research and evaluation at the Jewish Education Service of North America, which issued a report last summer urging greater funding for day schools, said she was “really happy that the findings were not so surprising. They’re very consistent with the less precise and less systematic data we’d had before.”

She praised the census for reaching previously undercounted schools, mainly fervently Orthodox institutions, and said the census would be useful for communities that are evaluating allocation and education needs.

However, the next census will be more important, she said, because “then we will be able to track growth and change.”

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