The Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) shared the announcement it would begin to phase out its high school division.
The announcement was made February 11 in letters to parents from OJCS Board of Directors President Aaron Smith and to the Jewish community from Jewish Federation of Ottawa President and CEO Andrea Freedman and Chair Steven Kimmel.
The decision of the OJCS Board to close the high school division was made regretfully, Smith told the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, “due to lack of enrolment and no current path to financial viability.”
The decision follows an extensive examination by OJCS leadership, which included a study by the school’s sustainability committee that determined an additional $250,000 per year was needed to sustain the high school division.
OJCS will begin to phase out the high school program in the 2015-2016 school year when Grades 9 and 10 classes will not be offered. The letter to parents assured them that students currently in Grades 10 and 11 will be able to reach their high school graduation at OJCS.
The Ottawa Jewish Community School was created in 2009 by the amalgamation of Hillel Academy, a Jewish elementary day school, and Yitzhak Rabin High School. The current head of school is veteran educator Marlene Wolinsky.
“I’m heartbroken for the students that this is the direction we have to take,” Smith said.
“It comes down to the fact that the high school is losing too much money [which] is putting our entire school at risk. The status quo is not an option. We have to take a fiscally responsible approach [and] not making this decision [would have] put the school on a path to a deficit of significant proportion.”
He said the decision to stop operating the high school “allows time for consultation and research into alternate options without jeopardizing the financial state of the school in its entirety.”
In his letter to parents, Smith also assured them “the elementary school is strong, sustainable and is receiving continued support.” However, in explaining the high school situation, he wrote that a minimum enrolment of 50 high school students was needed to make the high school division sustainable.
“This year, we have 24 students, and next year, we expected 20 students total [to be] enrolled.
“The decline in participation in Jewish day schools is not a phenomenon unique to Ottawa; this is the case across North America. In Ottawa, we have seen a steady decline in participation in day schools, with no significant increase in participation in supplementary schools,” he wrote in the letter.
The school’s board of directors, Smith said, is “incredibly disappointed that OJCS must phase out the program.”
In their letter to the community, Freedman and Kimmel said the decision to close the high school was “a difficult day for our community,” but reiterated the Federation’s commitment to sustainable Jewish education in Ottawa.
“Thanks to gifts to the Annual Campaign, Federation provides over $780,000 every year to organizations delivering Jewish education in Ottawa,” they wrote.
The Ottawa Jewish Community School, in fact, receives the largest allocation of all Federation beneficiary agencies in Ottawa.
“Enrolment in the high school has suffered for many years,” Freedman told the Bulletin. “While a small group of exceptionally committed parents have made the decision to send their children to the high school, the number is too small to be sustainable.”
The Federation CEO pointed out the OJCS high school division has been faced with declining enrolment trends over the long-term and that projections for the future were not encouraging.
“Everyone is proud of the high school program and the accomplishments of its students,” Freedman said, adding that the OJCS high school program had been on life-support for so long because community leadership believes in its importance.
“Unfortunately, at this point, to keep doing so will imperil other programs. This decision has been avoided for as long as possible, but it is now apparent that there is no alternative.”
Freedman said Federation hopes “this difficult decision will in fact galvanize committed, well-meaning people to act and help create and design a new vision for Jewish education for our community’s teens …
“This is an opportunity to build something that better suits the needs of more in the community.”
Smith echoed that hope. Noting that the elementary level at OJCS remains strong and sustainable, he said “supplementary programs for high school age students will be explored with consultation from the community.”
‘Where will families committed to Jewish education send their kids?’
By Hannah Srour
Ottawa Jewish Community School
The high school division of the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) was perhaps the most underrated aspect of our community. I’m referring to the OJCS high school division in the past tense because it already seems to be in the past. The high school has been deemed financially unviable and is therefore being phased out.
That is a shame. My four years at the high school have been some of the greatest years of my life. The fantastic education aside, the school is unparalleled in its community feel and unique opportunities.
Coming from the public school system when I entered Grade 9, I was used to a sense of anonymity. I was never bothered by being invisible as I was shy and I had never the confidence to explore my own abilities. However, this all changed once I began at OJCS where I was forced to not only be visible, but to develop a voice. My teachers encouraged me to share my opinions and participate in class.
In addition, I joined the school’s drama program, which especially allowed me to discover myself and build confidence. If not for OJCS, I would never have directed a school play – let alone joined a production. I would never have joined Student Council or participated in extracurricular activities in general. In short, I would never have received or taken the chance to develop into myself.
The phasing out of the OJCS high school program poses another problem that is equally sad. There will no longer be a Jewish community day high school in Ottawa.
As a young person in this community, I find this especially troubling. With no Jewish community high school, where will families committed to Jewish education send their kids? For me, there is no question that whenever I have my own family, my children will be in Jewish day school from kindergarten to Grade 12. This option, however, is no longer open to me in Ottawa should a Jewish community day high school no longer exist here.
I realize that perhaps a small high school like OJCS cannot entirely prepare you for the size of a university lecture hall, but no high school can – that is the reality.
However, OJCS has ensured we will enter university with a strong Jewish identity and the ability to maintain it when we leave home. This is a useful tool most Jewish teens do not have when they graduate high school.
As I approach my high school graduation this year, I know I will feel confident going to a university campus because my precious little high school equipped me with perhaps the most important gift you can give to a young Jewish person: a voice and a strong identity.