Running on shoestring, Fremonts Atid school to close

Unless a generous benefactor drops half a million dollars or more in its lap, Atid Jewish Day School in Fremont will close its doors after a three-year run.

"It has not closed," emphasized school board President Hallie Bernstein, "but it's going to. Unless by the love of God we get a major donor, we will be closing in June."

Belt-tightening, including staff cutbacks, has not solved Atid's basic problem: There's just not enough money in the bank to keep the school in healthy financial shape.

"We've been operating on a year-to-year basis," said Bernstein, "but until we got to the next level, it just didn't make sense to keep going — and we just weren't there."

The school obviously filled a need. It opened in September 2000 with seven kindergartners, grew to 18 students its second year and added a first grade, and started this school year with 17 students in a kindergarten and a grades one-two combination class. Enrollment is now down to 15.

A number of factors seemed to work against long-term stability.

From the beginning, Atid lacked a large donor to help cushion the budget, and tuition — at $7,800 for kindergarten and $8,700 for grades one and two — simply didn't cover operating costs. Additionally, a "significant number of children were on financial aid," said Bernstein.

With 10 to 12 active members in the Atid parent community, efforts were made throughout the summer and fall to raise funds. Bernstein herself was "in the office, writing grants, supporting the classroom" the first half of this school year, and she still spends a few days every week helping out at the school.

Yet the financial picture remained grim. This school year, day care was cut and a teacher let go midstream, leaving one K-2 combination class "in order to stay open through the year," said Bernstein. "We thought it best for the children and for the school to close gracefully."

Jamie Hyams, who was Atid's founding head of school, felt that parents were neither overly ambitious nor to blame for the pending closure. "We tried. We did everything right," said Hyams, whose son has attended Atid since it opened. "We provided an excellent education. I have no regrets."

Most day schools open with the help of at least one large donor, since tuition never fully funds the cost of operation, Hyams pointed out. And though Atid secured startup funds from a number of Jewish communal sources and garnered support from area synagogues, that just wasn't enough to sustain it on solid footing.

Geography also played a hand.

The school, located at Temple Beth Torah, serves southern Alameda County and the Tri-Valley area. "This community is still young, from a Jewish community standpoint," said Bernstein. "People were starting to come into the idea of a Jewish community day school, but it's still kind of a new idea."

Said Hyams: "While people are very supportive, it's not a community that has a lot of money. That's a very important factor." Also, the Tri-City and Tri-Valley area encompasses some 600 square miles, she noted. Recruiting students from the outlying areas was a challenge.

The economic downturn hasn't helped either. "Everyone has seen a decrease in donations," said Hyams, who is now the development director at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale.

Still, in its short life Atid has made a positive and lasting impact, said Hyams, whose son is "heartbroken" about the closure. "I think the message is that Jewish day schools are acceptable and something of value; it's a lesson that our Jewish community has learned."

Already there are plans to bring in heads of Jewish day schools in Palo Alto, Oakland, San Jose and possibly other areas to talk with parents.

"Everyone's interested in continuing" their child's day-school education, said Bernstein, who lives in Fremont and said her daughter has "been thriving" at Atid. "It's a matter of people's willingness to commute."

People "are sad," she said, about the school's fate.

In closing, Atid will follow in the footsteps of another parent-run, independent Jewish school in the Bay Area.

Marin Kindershule called it quits in June 2001, after 30 years. "Its time had come," said Debbie Katz of Novato, the Sunday school's director and head teacher since 1984. Though its location changed over the years, the school always had a hardworking board of directors.

But board members came and went as their children passed through, and the challenges of finding a suitable location and recruiting and retaining teachers, year after year, finally took its toll.

"It certainly filled a need, especially among the unaffiliated and interfaith" community, said Katz, whose daughter began attending Kindershule in 1983.

"Part of me still misses it. I think we did an awful lot of good things."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.