Naomi Zeveloff (at the Jewish Daily Forward) began a series this week on “Day School Solutions”… and I am very much heartened to see that it began with a school that did the impossible and unthinkable: slashed tuition in half.  As I read the piece about Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, I kept waiting for the part where Zeveloff described the building imploding under its own weight or shrivelling up into a dessicated hulk and blowing away in the wind… but it did not happen.  Instead, as Zeveloff reported:

According to [Board President Eric] Kaseff, about 40% of the families donated at least $10,000 per student on top of tuition. Private donors from the community helped make up the difference, giving $40,000 in the first year of the program.

Some good old-fashioned belt tightening also helped close the gap in the school’s operating budget. For example, Hyman Brand now has one principal overseeing the entire school, rather than its former model of having separate lower, middle, and upper school principals.

The school is still operating at a deficit, but it’s about $100,000 per year, down from $300,000 to $400,000.

What’s more, the middle class seems to be coming back. In the first year of the program, enrollment jumped to 222 from 212. This school year, another 20 students enrolled. Most of them are new recruits, but there are a few returnees. According to Kaseff, parents are unanimous in their appraisal. “They said, ‘Before, I was on financial aid, but now you have turned me into a donor,’” Kaseff said.

(Side note: I am an avid listener to the Forward podcasts.  Having heard Naomi Zeveloff and listened to her voice resonating in my earbuds, it seemed almost rude to refer to her as “Zeveloff” in the paragraphs above, but a bit too cheeky and familiar to call her “Naomi” either… Podcast listeners, do you experience this as well?  Or do I just have a podcast crush?)

And now back to the tuition rant…

I am sure the naysayers (or more like the folks that regard yearly tuition hikes to be as natural as what a bear does in the woods) will be quicker than light to dismiss this seeming success story…  After all, they will say, HBHA is in Kansas.  It’s a small school.  222 kids!   It’s still is running a deficit…

But I wonder how long these naysayers will be able to continue to say “NAY!” when the Jewish middle class, who are the base and backbone of the Jewish community (and, I might add, its demographic anchor) are pummelled by economic hardship and tuition increases that far outstrip cost of living and inflation… Who will go to these schools when these families sadly conclude that their commitment cannot balance their chequebook?

And for those who have been through the subsidy-seeking process, imagine how being perceived as a donor radically changes that demeaning dynamic…  I could go on, but I think y’all get the point.

The rest of the Forward series will report about other day schools who faced daunting challenges and managed to overcome them… like another school in Massachusetts with a substantial population of kids with special learning needs.

Feel free to contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com and let her know what you think of her series … and you can follow her on Twitter @naomizeveloff too!

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