OJCS Board decision to phase out high school was difficult to make and not taken lightly

Aaron Smith, president of the Ottawa Jewish Community School Board of Directors

Aaron Smith, president of the Ottawa Jewish Community School Board of Directors

It is “critical to pause, to reflect as a community, and to put our efforts and energy into exploring how a Jewish high school experience can be offered in Ottawa in a way that attracts and engages more students,” writes Aaron Smith, president of the Ottawa Jewish Community School Board of Directors.

There is no question that the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) had to navigate a very challenging decision over the past few months. I applaud each director’s commitment and level of engagement as we worked many hours, days and months to evaluate the high school program at our school.

We are great believers in Jewish education. It is why we spend the time and effort it takes to support the school and ensure that it grows and flourishes. The question we faced was never “Do we want a high school?” or “Does the community deserve a high school?” The question was “Can our current high school be sustainable within the resources we have available?”

If there were a referendum on whether or not we should have a Jewish high school, we know, unequivocally, the answer would be yes. Every Board member would be in favour. However, this decision is around what is affordable, what is sustainable and what the community will support.

Our best estimate for next year’s high school program was an enrolment of 20 students in Grades 9 to 12. That is 20 students of approximately 800 to 1,000 high school age Jewish students in Ottawa. With 20 students, our annual operating deficit for the high school division would be at least $360,000. With 25 students, our annual operating deficit would be at least $260,000. Running the high school for the duration of the time it would take to graduate next year’s grade nine class would result in cumulative losses of $1.2 million or more. This is after taking tuition, fundraising and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s annual allocation into account.

We live in a community where the Federation and generous donors give a lot to Jewish education. We have a mandate as a Board to be fiscally responsible to the families who send their children to the school, to our donors and to our entire community.

The decision to phase out the existing high school program was very difficult to make and was not taken lightly. For many months, our administration and Board have been evaluating the options, given the constraints that exist, and were unable to see a path for sustainability for the high school. We engaged the top donors in our community, the Federation leadership and Board, and we worked right up until the announcement was made. We made this decision to avoid a situation where the entire school would be put in jeopardy.

OJCS has a strong elementary school, and all efforts must be directed to its success and sustainability. Our elementary program is thriving, and we are constantly enhancing our offering and curriculum to meet the needs of our parents and children. Best practices from our community, and from other Jewish communities, show that growth is achieved from the bottom up. Continuing to fund an unstainable high school puts the elementary school at jeopardy, as well as other important community priorities.

This is why it is so critical to pause, to reflect as a community, and to put our efforts and energy into exploring how a Jewish high school experience can be offered in Ottawa in a way that attracts and engages more students.

The question we now are faced with as an entire community is what kind of community do we want to leave as our legacy? What does the community desire for Jewish education from preschool through high school?

A task force will be struck to address these and other key questions in relation to Jewish education in Ottawa. These are complex questions that require thoughtful effort and energy to address. But, most importantly, it requires community engagement and involvement and the desire and commitment from all of us to support the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.

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