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Number Crunching – Pilot program works to improve flagging enrollment at CT Day Schools

By Cindy Mindell

WATERBURY – Hillel Adler knows what keeps Jewish parents from considering dayschool education for their children.

For one, the price-tag and financial-aid application process are notoriously challenging. A CPA by profession, Adler was director of finance at Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE) in West Hartford until last year, when he set out to solve the problem of day school enrollment. From his perch at HHNE, Adler was privy to the financial considerations and struggles of applicant families, many of whom would be forced to abandon day school education because of the associated costs.

Adler also taught at HHNE, as well as at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford. Now, he is an educational consultant for the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools, a Manhattan-based organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish day-school education across North America, with a special focus on communities outside major metropolitan areas.

Earlier this year, Adler launched a pilot program in Connecticut and Longmeadow, Mass., funded by the consortium and designed to stanch falling enrollment numbers among non-Orthodox Jewish families.

Another barrier to choosing day school education is that many Jewish parents don’t value Jewish education, says Adler, who takes a page from the classic sales-force playbook, meeting one-on-one with families to dispel the misunderstandings and confusion surrounding day schools.

“Many people think, ‘It’s not for me’ – because of tuition costs or financial-aid eligibility and application process, or they may believe that it’s only for Orthodox Jews and that the school might look down on them if they’re not observant. I’ve taught in those schools and I know what they’re about from the inside, not just from the office. I understand how welcoming the schools are and accepting of people from all across the Jewish spectrum. So I feel I can break through those barriers. For me, working with parents is not just a job; it’s a mission.”

Though outreach to parents is standard procedure, Adler has found that many schools do not have the budget for such a recruitment position, leaving the task up to the principal or parent volunteers. With the principal involved in day-to-day operations and fundraising, and volunteers not available consistently, such one-on-one marketing is difficult to sustain.

As an independent consultant not affiliated with any single day school, Adler says that he advocates for day school education in general rather than as a recruiter for a specific school. “I just want to get the child into a day school because I feel that that’s what’s best for the child,” he says.

Adler works to get parents to simply visit a day school. If they decide to enroll their child, he then serves as liaison between the parents and the school to put together a financial-aid package, using the school’s resources and outside grant programs.

While assuaging parents’ fiscal fears, Adler also gets parents to think about what kind of child they want to raise and how a dayschool experience can serve as a powerful tool.

Why has non-Orthodox day school enrollment been steadily declining since the late ‘90s?

Aside from the misconceptions about affordability, Adler says, many non-Orthodox American Jewish parents define a child’s success in the secular world as more important than his or her involvement in the Jewish community. That means getting the best education possible, the highest SAT scores, and admission to an excellent university.

To address that concern, Adler points to studies which indicate that private religious schools produce the most accomplished students, not only in terms of SAT scores, critical-thinking skills, and second-language ability, but also in social responsibility.

“Most parents of young children don’t think longterm about what kind of parents, spouses, or co-workers they want to raise,” Adler says. “We have to think about what type of environment we are exposing them to. As much as we try to inculcate our values, and even if our kids are in good public schools, they are spending the majority of the day at school and with their friends, not in an environment that helps them develop those values.”

Adler’s work is about knitting together individual families into a stronger Jewish communal fabric. Jewish continuity can only be ensured if the next generation understands what Judaism has to offer – the belief that lies at the foundation of Jewish dayschool education. “As parents, children are our most important asset and we want what’s best for them,” Adler says. “I want to be the person who gets every kid into a dayschool, no matter what. If a parent wants it, I can make it happen.”

For more information: Hillel Adler, Consortium of Jewish Day Schools: (203) 768-8693 or hadler@cojds.org

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