A few days ago, we posted the the sad news that the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) Board of Directors has made the very difficult decision to phase out its high school division.
OJCS came into being in 2009 when Hillel Academy of Ottawa, the city’s community day school founded in 1949, amalgamated with Yitzhak Rabin High School, founded in 1995.
The groundwork for the amalgamation began about two years earlier when community and school leaders – understanding various problems faced by both schools, including declining enrolment and financial viability – formed committees tasked with bringing the schools together as an institution that would be stronger than the sum of its parts.
In recent years, we have published many articles chronicling the innovative strides OJCS has made in reinforcing its credentials as a first-class educational institution from kindergarten to Grade 12. We have also covered such major issues as declining enrolment, tuition fees and financial viability.
While enrolment in the elementary grades is closer to sustainable levels at OJCS, enrolment at the high school has remained too low for too long. It was hoped that, when Hillel Academy amalgamated with Yitzhak Rabin High School, many more families would choose to have their children remain at the school for their high school years. But that has not happened.
Over the past two years, only seven of the 51 students who graduated from elementary school went on to high school there. This year, there were just 24 high school students at OJCS and only 20 were projected for the 2015-‘16 school year. When the school surveyed parents of current Grade 6, 7 and 8 students about their high school intentions, it was clear there was no way forward to a sustainable enrolment number for the high school.
As OJCS Board President Aaron Smith wrote in his letter to parents explaining the decision to phase out the high school, enrolment of at least 50 students was needed to sustain the high school.
The high school division’s deficit of $250,000 per year effectively amounted to $1 million for each class as it moved from Grade 9 through Grade 12.
It is estimated there are about 900 high school-aged Jewish students in Ottawa. That means only about two per cent of Jewish families in the city are choosing Jewish day high school for their children.
With efforts in the years since amalgamation to raise enrolment to sustainable levels unsuccessful – even among families who chose Jewish day school education at the elementary level – despite the school’s success an institution of excellence, the decision to phase out the high school had to be made.
There is probably no greater testament to the school’s educational success than the passionate feelings of its students. The day after the announcement was made, Grade 12 student Hannah Srour submitted an article (posted online with the news story) about what the school means to her, while Grade 10 student Ella Sabourin launched a quixotic grassroots attempt to raise enough funds to keep the high school alive.
As the OJCS prepares to move forward as a strong and viable elementary school, it is clear the community must create new models for supplementary Jewish education at the high school level, which will serve a much broader proportion of our community’s teenagers.
Problems of declining enrolment and financial viability of Jewish day schools are not unique to Ottawa. Many communities throughout North America face the same problems. But, on one level, those problems are exacerbated for day schools in Ontario where the province remains the only jurisdiction on the continent that provides educational funding to one faith community to the total exclusion of all others.
A number of other Canadian provinces, including Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, have formulas in place to provide public funding to faith-based schools that meet the provincial standards in their secular education (something that was never in question for OJCS).
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has twice ruled – in 1999 and in 2005 – that the province’s funding of Catholic schools but not those of other religions was discriminatory and a violation of Canada’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
An effect of Ontario not providing public funding is that tuition rates must be higher than elsewhere, which, of course, affects both enrolment and financial viability.