The Perelman Jewish Day School, in an effort to increase enrollment and lessen the financial burden on parents, announced a $6,000 tuition reduction for all kindergarten students entering in fall 2009.
The pilot program will offer a total of $27,000 in tuition assistance per pupil for this incoming class, according to school officials. That means parents of entering students will receive a $6,000 reduction off the $13,000 annual tuition through the second grade and a $3,000 reduction from third grade to fifth grade.
According to Jay Leberman, head of school, parents with children already enrolled are not eligible -- but could benefit if they happen to have a younger child ready to enter kindergarten, or gan, as it is called in Hebrew. But he said the initiative should help to free other tuition-assistance dollars to be used elsewhere.
"The goal here at Perelman Jewish Day School -- and it should be the goal at any Jewish day school -- is to increase outreach to Jewish families who have, and who have not, considered Jewish day-school education for their children," said Leberman. "Regardless of what the economic situation is, we need to be proactive, aggressive and redouble our efforts, and not retreat."
The initiative is the brainchild of 40-year-old David Magerman, a venture capitalist who is a Perelman board member and has two children attending the school. Through the auspices of his newly formed Kohelet Foundation -- named for the biblical prophet who described the world in realistic, and often stark, terms -- Magerman said he has committed up to $1.5 million for the first batch of Perelman students and may give up to $15 million in all to day schools throughout the region.
Magerman and his wife, Debra, recently gave $4 million to help Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia purchase the former site of Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Leonard Barrack, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said, "We know that this innovative voucher program will generate excitement in the community and allow more kids to be a part of our community's day-school educational system."
Magerman cited a 2003 survey of Jewish parents in the Boston area conducted by the firm Lieberman Research Worldwide. According to the study, about 18 percent of Jewish parents have a strong interest in day schools, but do not want to sacrifice academics or extra-curricular activities to send kids there.
A Business Proposition
He expressed hope that the tuition incentive at Perelman will entice this subgroup. Magerman, who earned a Ph.D. in computer science before working for a New York-based hedge fund, explained that he's approaching the endeavor like a business proposition.
"I'm running a private equity fund for day schools. I'm saying, 'Prove to me you are worthy of an investment by showing me your business model,' " said Magerman, adding that the foundation will conduct regular audits of the school. If he likes what he sees, he'll extend the program to the next two crops of students.
Roughly 550 students attend Perelman's two elementary schools and one middle school, down from a high of about 700 earlier in the decade.
A little more than two years ago, the Perelman board voted to close down its Bucks County branch after six years of operation, although school officials said most of those students then switched to other campuses.
Leberman said he hopes the tuition initiative can boost enrollment by 25 percent. Magerman said that increasing the number of students actually will lower the cost of education per child, and that greater efficiency, along with other donations, will absorb some of the brunt of the cost to the foundation.
"This is a risky venture, and it could be very expensive if it fails, especially for the Kohelet Foundation," said Magerman. "By lowering the tuition, in a sense, we are addressing the cost issue, but it's really a value issue. [Many parents] don't know yet the value of a Jewish education, dollar for dollar."
According to Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a proponent of day schools, Perelman's experiment with tuition assistance is not unprecedented. Similar programs have been tried in Cleveland, Seattle and Massachusetts, but they haven't been studied closely enough to measure the extent of their success.
Increasing Jewish Literacy
"Day schools have a track record of producing students that have a far higher rate of Jewish literacy," said Wertheimer. "At the same time, though, the costs involved are getting more and more prohibitive."
Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a Boston-based nonprofit, added that cost is just one part of the equation.
"Making day-school education affordable is not the silver bullet, by itself, that will cause people to flock to day schools," said Elkin.
A host of research and surveys have pointed toward other factors, said Elkin, including parental concern about the quality of secular education at Jewish schools, a perception that students will not be exposed to diversity, and a general ambivalence toward Jewish identity.
"We have to make the case that this whole business of Judaism is worth it," said Elkin.
That being said, Elkin singled out a 5-year-old tuition reduction initiative, by the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and area day schools, that yielded encouraging results. At the Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike, Ohio, administrators were able to use federation and donor funds to reduce all students' tuition by half. That's led to a 24 percent enrollment over five years, according to Rabbi Jim Rogozen, headmaster of the school.
For Karen and Lester Averill of Havertown, the $6,000 discount was a big factor in deciding to submit an application to Perelman for their 4-year-old son Morey.
"We had always wanted to send him there, but didn't think it was in our budget," said Karen Averill, who has lived in Israel and speaks to her son in Hebrew. "I'd like him to be immersed in a Jewish community."
The same was true for Leah Lande and Marc Singer, who said they were undecided about whether to send their daughter Jessie, the oldest of three girls, to Perelman until they found out about the new program.
"It made us that much more inclined to want to be there," said Leah Lande. "It seems like it will be affordable, at least for our first two kids."