Families have a new incentive to consider Jewish day school with a sweeping grant initiative that will provide tuition assistance for any of nine private schools in the region.
Each elementary, middle and high school program in the newly created Jewish Day School Collaborative of Greater Philadelphia will award five grants that cover as much as a third of annual tuition.
Aside from boosting enrollments in elementary schools, the middle and high school grants are designed to help retain students who might otherwise transition to public schools, said Holly Cohen, director of the Kohelet Foundation, which is funding the program (Jewishdayschoolgrants.org ).
The elementary school grants are targeted for families who have never enrolled a child in Jewish day school before, and provide up to $5,000 for each of four years.
Middle schoolers can get up to the same amount for each of three years, and high-schoolers up to $8,500 for each of four years. Those, however, will be awarded based on merit. Families will only be able to qualify for one grant.
Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, head of the Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J., said he's confident the grants will give schools the "critical mass" needed to reverse flagging enrollments because he's witnessed that firsthand.
With $1 million in tuition grants from the Kohelet Foundation in 2008, he said, his K-8 school's enrollment has grown by 20 percent from 146 to 172 students.
"Now we can add to the fold and when these families are sold on day school, they'll stay," he said.
On top of making day school more affordable, Cohen said the community-wide initiative is designed to put Philadelphia on the map as a model for Jewish education.
David Magerman, the philanthropist behind the foundation, started aiming for that years ago when he began donating money to various schools, Cohen said. Since then, he's funneled about $15 million into tuition incentives, staff, capital improvements and even a study program for day school parents, she said.
Rather than continue addressing needs piecemeal, she said, he challenged the schools to address their concerns collectively.
"We're asking for change and change is scary," Cohen said. "But we need change, so lets all hold hands and plow through the change together and we'll get to the other side. We can't ignore the problems anymore."
Representatives from each institution, seven from the Philadelphia region -- Abrams Hebrew Academy, Perelman Jewish Day School, Torah Academy, Torah Academy Girls High School, Barrack Hebrew Academy, Politz Hebrew Academy, Kohelet Yeshiva High School -- and two from South Jersey, Politz Day School of Cherry Hill and Kellman Brown Academy, have been meeting every month since August.
In addition to tuition grants, the foundation has been funding resources for the schools, such as a three-part seminar series for teachers and a behavioral specialist who visits multiple elementary schools to give social skills workshops to students and classroom-management techniques to staff.
"Sometimes, I just have tears in my eyes because people just know each other now," Cohen said, recalling a training last fall where school rabbis gathered to learn about a computer program for teaching Talmud and Mishnah. "They're part of a team. It's amazing."
Schwartz agreed that it's been valuable to have a think tank of other day schools to share best practices.
At 34, Schwartz said, he's got plenty to learn from his more experienced colleagues. At the same time, he said, he gives them energy and ideas.
"The overall issues of affordability and the need for academic excellence and the Judaic values are universal."