Noah, a student at Brandeis Marin, in a first-grade class in 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)
Noah, a student at Brandeis Marin, in a first-grade class in 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)

Pandemic’s impact on Jewish schools: more students, more financial need

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Over the last two years, the Bay Area’s Jewish schools have gotten larger. And while they welcome that growth, the schools have also had to expand their tuition assistance, lending support to many families whose needs increased during the pandemic.

The Bay Area is home to nine Jewish K-8 schools, from San Rafael to Los Gatos to Lafayette. They vary in size, but together have a combined student body of some 1,750 students. The two main Jewish high schools — Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, and Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto — collectively enroll approximately 400 students.

Many of the schools experienced unlikely growth spurts amid the two hardest years of the pandemic — a trend that was mirrored nationwide.The increased enrollment was greatest at non-Orthodox Jewish day schools, which, unlike Orthodox schools, had previously experienced two decades of slow decline. At the same time, more families sought aid in the face of rising tuition costs and the financial impacts of the pandemic.

Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic well into its third year, the schools are working to retain their expanded student enrollment. They know managing tuition costs is key to achieving that.

Dan Glass
Dan Glass

At the Brandeis School of San Francisco, the largest of the K-8 Jewish day schools with 336 students enrolled this year, an additional 15 students were added to the rolls during the course of the pandemic, according to head of school Dan Glass. That may not sound like a large number, but given the steady downward trajectory of enrollment in previous years, the sudden uptick was noteworthy.

The growth was “definitely a shift,” Glass said. Some of the new students transferred from public schools, and current families were not as apt to relocate out of the Bay Area during the pandemic.

At Kehillah Jewish High School, the spike in enrollment was unprecedented, jumping from 189 students before the pandemic to 206 students today. The junior class, in particular, added a significant number of students.

Portait of DDaisy Pellant, the new head of Kehillah School. She is 52, has red hair and glasses.
Daisy Pellant

“In our current junior class, we enrolled 14 transfer students between August of 2020 and January of 2022,” Daisy Pellant, the head of school, said in an email to J.

It’s not just Bay Area Jewish schools that witnessed these changes during the pandemic. Eighteen months in, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, a national network of Jewish day schools and yeshivas, commissioned a study to find out why enrollment at Jewish schools across North America was growing, rather than slumping, for the first time in two decades.

Contra Costa Jewish Day School middle-schoolers during a photography elective.(Courtesy/Dorit Hetz-Crane
Contra Costa Jewish Day School middle-schoolers during a photography elective.
(Courtesy/Dorit Hetz-Crane

Prizmah recruited Berkeley-based consulting firm Rosov Consulting to seek out the answers. The August 2021 study included interviews with 114 parents of children who transferred to one of 24 non-Orthodox Jewish schools across the United States and Canada during the pandemic. The results were conclusive: Schools saw an average growth of 4.3% in student populations during the 2020-2021 school year.

Five Bay Area schools were included in the survey: Contra Costa Jewish Day School, Brandeis SF, Brandeis Marin, JCHS and Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.

(Orthodox schools, a separate October 2021 Prizmah study found, didn’t have remarkable enrollment gains, growing by about 2.5% over the course of the pandemic.)

The August study found that parents were opting for Jewish day schools because they’d reached a “tipping point” during the period when many public schools were slow to return to in-classroom instruction, and their children were suffering academically and socially. Jewish day schools were faster to return to full-time classroom instruction, a major draw for “Covid transfers,” according to the study.

Peg Sandel
Peg Sandel

Parents who transferred their students out of public schools “were looking for a more stable and reliable place for their children,” said Peg Sandel, head of school at Brandeis Marin. The San Rafael school saw enrollment grow from around 175 to 195 students in the 2021-2022 school year.

Jewish day schools were also attractive to families interviewed in the study because they felt the schools did a better job of communicating Covid-19 updates, maintaining strict health and safety protocols, and giving their children more individualized attention from teachers.

Peg Sandel teaching an 8th-grade class at Brandeis Marin with hybrid students in attendance, February 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)
Peg Sandel teaching an 8th-grade class at Brandeis Marin with hybrid students in attendance, February 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)

“We were very meticulous,” said Sandel. “I think that really helped.”

In Palo Alto, Ronit Alcheck Bodner, president of the board of directors at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, said “we put together a risk management crew. It really kind of became like a Covid task force.”

Drawing on responses collected a year and a half into the pandemic, the survey concluded that, by all indications, this growth would be sustained. Three-quarters of parents who enrolled because of the pandemic planned to enroll their children for another year, while 15% expected to leave and the rest were undecided.

In the October 2021 study, more than 30% of respondents who planned to leave noted that cost was the main factor.

“Staying in the school would require a change in their families’ lifestyle to a degree they are not able or willing to bear. Some of these families also mentioned social factors and the claustrophobic sense created by the small class sizes,” the study found.

Annual tuition at the two largest Bay Area Jewish high schools, Kehillah and JCHS, tops $52,000 — just shy of the $56,000 tuition for undergraduates at Stanford University. JCHS confirmed that tuition costs increase by approximately 3% to 5% on average every year, standard for most independent schools in the Bay Area, including Jewish day schools.

Tuition at Brandeis SF costs $38,775 for grades K-4 and $39,835 for grades 5-8. In Palo Alto, Hausner, the area’s second-largest day school with 315 students this year, costs $33,750 for K-5 and $36,780 for grades 6-8.

Other day schools fall somewhere in between those figures. At the lower end are Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, which costs $21,750 for K-5 and $24,750 for 6-8, and South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, which is $24,050 for K-5 and $26,310 for 6-8.

A Brandeis School of San Francisco first-grader poking around the library. (Photo/Niall David Photography)
A Brandeis School of San Francisco first-grader poking around the library. (Photo/Niall David Photography)

That said, the amount of financial aid many of these schools provide to families is often significantly more than what large private, non-Jewish peer institutions in the Bay Area provide, according to Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school at JCHS.

Rabbi Howard Ruben
Rabbi Howard Ruben

At JCHS, “over 60%” of students receive some form of financial aid, Ruben said. “We actually have a financial aid program for a school comparable to a school two or three times our size.”

Kehillah dedicates more than a quarter of its operating budget to financial aid, according to the school’s website.

Approximately 40% to 50% of students at Brandeis SF, many of whom go on to attend high school at JCHS, receive needs-based tuition assistance, according to head of school Glass. The aid covers a huge range of tuition costs, from 10% to 90%, while a majority of families get half of their tuition covered.

“For us, it’s sort of the double-edged sword of affordability. On the one hand, how do you make this educational experience as affordable and therefore accessible to as many families as possible?” Glass said. “On the other hand…we’re always trying to thread the needle of raising tuition as little as possible while still paying competitive salaries for our teachers.”

This school year at Brandeis SF, tuition assistance for financial need increased to $3.7 million, Glass said. Two years ago, it was $2.7 million.

“My experience over the last stretch of years is we’re seeing increasing need from the families that are coming to Brandeis,” Glass said, noting that this is not unique to his school.

“From what I hear from my colleagues in other schools, they’re seeing very similar patterns, that there are more folks that need support in trying to make those tuition payments,” Glass added.

Typically a considerable portion of tuition assistance at Jewish schools comes from fundraising efforts, but during the pandemic the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation also increased its funding to schools to cover families in need due to pandemic-specific financial pressures.

A student in Hausner's kindergarten races two snails in a science lesson in 2021.
A student in Hausner’s kindergarten races two snails in a science lesson in 2021.

“It became clear very quickly that there were a number of families that were losing their jobs, losing their income, and they were going to need to apply for tuition assistance when they never had before,” said Federation chief impact officer Beth Cousens. “So the Federation stepped in.”

During the pandemic, the Federation nearly doubled the amount it normally gives to all Bay Area Jewish day schools and high schools, from a collective total of approximately $800,000 to $1.5 million.

At JCHS, with 190 students, “our families with the highest levels of financial need have not yet bounced back from Covid financially,” Ruben said. “That puts a strain on the families…and it also puts a strain on the school.”

It’s a strain many schools are feeling, Cousens said. About 15 months ago the Federation, along with the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation, independently started brainstorming ways to reduce financial pressures on schools and families.

“We think that the increase in tuition assistance is going to be permanent,” Cousens said, noting that in the three years prior to the pandemic, schools were already starting to see a need for spending more on tuition assistance.

Working with the heads of schools at all of the Bay Area Jewish day schools, plus the Shalom School in Sacramento, the Federation and Jim Joseph Foundation formed the Day School Growth Initiative, now in its first year.

Through a series of research projects funded by the Federation, schools are coming up with ideas on how to resolve an array of potential factors that may inhibit their ability to grow and retain students, from transportation challenges in getting kids to school, to the way the school is marketed to prospective students.

“Next year, we’ll look at scaling some of these projects…we’ll look at the research and try to figure out how we turn that into action,” Cousens said.

What Jewish schools have that other independent schools may lack, she said, is each other.

“We have the capacity now for them to plan together,” Cousens said of the new initiative.

The collaborative work and investment from the Federation are steps that give Brandeis’ Glass a feeling of optimism around school affordability.

“I’m hopeful that in the next stretch of years,” Glass said, “that is something we can really solve.”

Freelance reporter Lori Stahl contributed to this report.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.