Facing challenges, day school enlists community support, national experts

Mushka Novack, Ilana Meissner and Eli Meissner get their photo taken during Epstein Hebrew Academy’s ‘Bring a Guest Day,’  featuring interactive stations about Shabbat.  The school  has recently begun a comprehensive strategic planning process. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy has begun a strategic planning process that aims to strengthen the school in the face of declining enrollment and financial challenges, which are buffeting Orthodox educational institutions nationwide.

“It’s important that we really sit down and look at where the school needs to grow, what we’re doing well and areas where we can improve so that we can create the best educational institution for the children of St. Louis,” said Rabbi Avi Greene, Epstein’s head of school.

Epstein will consult with a team led by Dr. Scott Goldberg of Yeshiva University Institute for University-School Partnership.  Goldberg’s team will be going through an inventory of the institution’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, known as a SWOT analysis, in order to develop a more sustainable model for the 70-year-old school.

Goldberg visited St. Louis earlier this month for meetings related to the planning process.

Greene said the school is also working closely with local rabbinic leaders to help make the effort a success.

“We decided earlier this year that the school needed to go through a strategic planning process,” Greene said. “We were in touch with the seven pulpit Orthodox rabbis in town and each of them committed to assisting us in putting this together. Each one has made a financial commitment as well as a personal investment in helping us with this process. That in and of itself is really a fantastic component.”

Greene said that while the school does not release specific financial numbers, it was weathering many of the same challenges faced by similar institutions around the country in the wake of the economic downturn, which has constrained education budgets and dampened fundraising nationally.

“We’ve sort of hit a crossroads where we are in the process of moving from simple belt tightening to really make strategic decisions,” he said. “We want those decisions to be data-driven as opposed to anecdotal or just putting money where we think might help. We really want to see what has been successful in other places while (weighing) what is most critical to the education of the children and to their families.”

He said enrollment shrunk to 130 this year from 155 last year and the need for scholarships has grown annually since 2008.

“In our goal to try and educate every child that wants to be here, we’ve had to make some tough decisions about what we can do, what we want to do and where we need to reinvest our funds,” he said.

Greene said that the changing demographics and financial priorities at the national level have haven’t been all negative. He noted that new educational models are cropping up among Jewish day schools, particularly on the coasts.

“One of the good things that has happened is that people are more open to innovation, change and trying things that are new and exciting. That’s a positive thing,” he said. “At the same time, I certainly don’t think that there’s a risk to Jewish day schools as a whole. I think they are a necessary component of any community and without them, it is not really possible for the community to flourish.”

Greene said that strategic plans generally take about six to eight months to formulate and typically cover a three-to-five year window.

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion is one of the participating rabbis in the community effort. He said that it was vital for rabbis to speak with one voice in trying to explain the importance of an educational institution like Epstein.

“It should be that way when the rabbis get together collectively and say, not only is this important but this is something that’s essential and defines us,” he said. “A community without proper Jewish education for our children is not the type of community that’s sustainable.”

Goldberg said that schools face many professional development challenges to ensure educational quality.

“Of course, financial sustainability is a serious challenge,” he said. “Family incomes are not rising in line with the costs of delivering quality education in many schools.  Fundraising is not keeping pace, particularly where schools have not embraced cutting edge techniques for institutional advancement.  In addition, Orthodox families, which tend to be larger families, face even greater affordability challenges.”

He said that day schools can boost enrollment by ensuring a good education through solid curriculum planning, professional development for faculty and administrators and up-to-date learning processes for children.

“This may involve the use of technology but also connects with innovative use of space and time and deliberate planning and teaching by the teacher,” he said. “Some schools are adopting some online and blended learning to deliver superior individualized student learning experiences more efficiently.”

He said some communities are also developing communal funds to fill in the tuition gap for middle-income families. In addition, schools are experimenting with innovative staffing models and new learning approaches. 

“The key is to focus on the learner and reimagine the environments and modalities that will promote the beliefs and values of our tradition so our children can lead successful lives as citizens of the Jewish community and our modern world,” he said. “This cannot wait to be the future of Jewish education.  It must be the now of Jewish education.”

Greene said he is optimistic about the eventual results of the strategic planning effort and thinks Epstein will be made stronger by the initiative.

“By going through this process the school will really be able to focus itself on the most critical components, making the educational quality of St. Louis the best it can possibly be and giving the best possible education to each child,” he said. “As we do that, the outlook for the school is very bright.”