Scholarship aims to curb exodus of day school students

A New York-based nonprofit with Bay Area ties will give away thousands of dollars next year to encourage more families to continue their children’s Jewish day school education.

Keren Keshet has pledged to award scholarships to any student who graduates from one of five K-8 Bay Area day schools and goes on to high school education at Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

How it works: All students entering JCHS in fall 2007 are eligible to receive a scholarship of $500 for each year they attended an elementary day school, up to $4,500, an amount that would be distributed during the four years of high school.

The goal is to reduce the herd of students who stop attending Jewish day schools after eighth grade. Nationwide, 12 percent of day school students go elsewhere after eighth grade, and only three out of four students who enroll in ninth grade end up graduating from a day school, according to the day school census published in 2005 by the Avi Chai Foundation.

“An enormous number of students fall off after eighth grade,” said Mem Bernstein, a trustee of Keren Keshet and chair of the board of JCHS. “And so we said, ‘Look, is there anything we can do to correct this disturbing trend?'”

The continuity grant is exclusive to the Bay Area and JCHS. Bernstein said if the grant succeeds in boosting the number of eighth-graders who graduate from a Jewish day school, she may consider replicating it in other communities.

Bernstein is a former San Francisco resident who lives in Jerusalem and New York.

“It could be that in other cities it’s not the amount of tuition that’s the trigger” for discontinuing day school education in ninth grade, she said. “We need to determine the needs of other cities. Our interest is in having young people continue their Jewish education through high school.”

Slightly more than half of last year’s graduating eighth-graders at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School enrolled at JCHS or Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. Mervin Danker, who has been Wornick’s head of school for the past 10 years, said there are numerous reasons families choose a public or non-Jewish high school.

The local Jewish high schools are still in their infancy, he said, and so some families may hesitate to put their kids in such a new school. Some want more academic and athletic choices, some just want a different environment. Often, a good public high school, which they can attend tuition-free, is around the corner from their home.

“It’s very tempting. This is our challenge,” he said. “I think [the scholarship] is a far-sighted move, a helpful move that will encourage those who were on the cusp of deciding or affording JCHS to make up their minds in favor of a Jewish high school.”

Marily Lerner, director of admissions for Kehillah, said the continuity grant is an intriguing concept, but she doubted it would be a cure-all.

“The way I view it is not that we’ve lost students who should be coming here, but that we’re still getting on their radar,” Lerner said of the five-year-old high school. “It’s a total mind shift to think of us as an alternative.”

This fall, Kehillah enrolled 25 freshman, six more than the previous year. Next year, Lerner expects that 5-8 students who tried public school for a year will transfer back into Jewish education.

“It’s getting people to see what this school has to offer — we aren’t simply a continuation” of day schools, she said. “Yes, we’re continuing Jewish studies, but it’s at a very sophisticated level, very compelling and engaging.”

Keren Keshet will also partner with the Avi Chai Foundation, a New York-based foundation that supports many Jewish organizations. The pair of donors will for the first time offer day schools $10,000 grants to implement programs that will better link elementary and high schools, and figure out what would make attending a Jewish high school more appealing.

An estimated 15,500 students were enrolled in California Jewish day schools in the 2003-04 school year, according to the 2005 day school census. That’s 800 more students, or about 6 percent more, than were enrolled in the previous census, conducted in 1999. A total of 205,000 American Jewish children attended day schools in 2004.

Keren Keshet gave JCHS a $20 million grant in 2001 so it could have its own building. The organization is committed to increasing the number of day school students who enroll, Bernstein said.

“We consider Jewish education to be a right of every Jewish child, and consider providing it a community responsibility,” she added.

Of the more than 150 students who graduate yearly from Bay Area day schools, an average of just 16 students continued at JCHS since its founding in 2001.

“It’s not a very impressive number,” Bernstein said. “We’d like to see every graduate from an elementary Jewish day school come to Jewish Community High School of the Bay.”

For more information, contact Marcia Levin, director of admissions at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, at (415) 345-9777, ext. 104.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.