Times have changed. With the exception of Orthodox schools, Jewish day school enrolment has dropped across North America. To this news, I hear two common responses: First, that parents today do not value Jewish education, and second, that we must change parents’ attitudes to grow Jewish schools.
I believe neither of these to be true and, what’s more, I believe that, without a paradigm shift, this downward trend will continue. It was more common among the previous generation of parents to send their kids to Jewish day school no matter what. If the academics were not perfect, so be it. If this meant fewer vacations or driving used cars, it was worth it.
This is no longer the case. We, as a community, can bemoan this change in priorities and assign blame as we see fit, or we can try a fresh approach: To accept this reality.
Today’s parents are not willing to make the same sacrifices for a Jewish education. Most parents are not willing to drastically reduce their quality of life to send their children to a Jewish day school. And we cannot change parents’ values or attitudes. We must accept this reality.
Times have changed. So what can we do? How can we engage families in Jewish education?
Two years ago, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, in conjunction with the research firm Measuring Success, published a report on what drives Jewish day school enrolment. The report was based on interviews with 25,000 Jewish parents – a huge data pool of market research that should command the attention of any serious community builder.
Here’s what the research showed: The primary factor weighed by parents in choosing to enrol their children in Jewish day schools is perceived value, that is, the combination of how they view the quality of the school, relative to its cost. With 75 per cent of parent inquiries at Jewish day schools stemming from word-of-mouth, a parent’s willingness to recommend the school is its most powerful marketing tool to boost enrolment.
So, what leads to perceived value?
The results of this largest-ever study revealed three commonalities among all Jewish school types that lead to parental satisfaction and choosing to recommend the school to others.
Firstly, parents want their Jewish schools to prepare their children for the rigours of high school and university academics. Interestingly, the research showed that parents were less concerned with individual academic subjects, and more with the school’s ability to open doors and options as their children transition through their educational career.
Secondly, parents want schools to instil in their children a Jewish identity that aligns with their own values of Judaism. The research showed that a “positive perception of the school’s support of Jewish development is more than five times as powerful as a positive perception of science, math or other significant subject areas.”
Thirdly, parents want customer service and communication. When parents have a concern, they expect a quick reply. Schools that are attentive and responsive to the needs of parents, and demonstrate it in concrete measures, are most likely to be recommended to friends.
What this study is saying is that we shouldn’t be trying to change parental attitudes, but rather, we should be changing ourselves – the way that we, as a community, do business – so that parents want to send their children to Jewish schools.
That’s the quality side of the value equation, but what about the cost? While rising tuition is often blamed for declining enrolment, a separate study by the same research firm found that, among 200 Jewish and non-Jewish private schools, there was simply no relationship between increasing tuition and declining enrolment. Cost matters, but free Jewish day schools would unlikely result in a drastic increase in enrolment.
Today’s parents regard Jewish day school as a choice. We may not like that, but, unless we embrace this choice, we will continue to lose young families from a mechanism central to our ongoing prosperity as a community. Day schools that offer the right balance of quality and cost – perceived value – are reversing trends throughout North America. The Jewish day schools of 1995 would not survive in today’s market.
Times have changed, indeed.
Bram Bregman is vice-president of Community Building for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.