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'Toronto is a day school city'

Day school tuition break gives struggling Canadian families precious ‘wiggle room’

At up to $40k a year, Jewish education is not an option for most households. A new approach in Toronto means lending a helping hand to those who usually extend one

Students in the science lab of Toronto's TanenbaumCHAT. (Courtesy)
Students in the science lab of Toronto's TanenbaumCHAT. (Courtesy)

TORONTO — Between packing school lunches, orthodontist appointments, tennis practices and juggling two different school pickups for her 15- and 8-year-olds, Lauren Train appreciates knowing that the cost of private Jewish high school won’t weigh quite as heavy come September.

In March, Train learned that her son’s tuition at The Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (TanenbaumCHAT) will cost them about $10,000 less next year (all currency is in Canadian dollars), thanks to philanthropic giving through the United Jewish Appeal Federation of the Greater Toronto Area.

“[The tuition decrease] allows my family to have a little more wiggle room to live and not to feel so strapped financially,” said Train.

Many Toronto families share that sentiment, as costs have risen dramatically in the last decade or more. For the 2016-2017 academic calendar, one year of tuition for each high school student at TanenbaumCHAT costs $28,000. For most, that is a radical jump from what families paid for a child’s elementary school fees, set around $16,000.

The $12,000 per year hike is enough to make families think twice about whether an extended Jewish education is possible, and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Julia & Henry Koschitzky Center for Jewish Education noticed a decline in recent enrollment.

Daniel Held, Executive Director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Julia & Henry Koschitzky Center for Jewish Education. (Courtesy)
Daniel Held, Executive Director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Julia & Henry Koschitzky Center for Jewish Education. (Courtesy)

“We used to hold onto 80 percent of the kids between 8th and 9th grade, and in recent years we were down to 50% retention. Which meant that 50% of the kids were leaving the day school system after 8th grade, which was something we’re not accustomed to in Toronto,” said Daniel Held, the center’s executive director.

Costs of Jewish day schools are a concern across the globe and someone anonymously started a public Google spreadsheet where people could upload the costs at their schools. Jewish high schools listed in the US range from $6,000 to over $40,000 US dollars a year. At $28,000 now, and $16,000 next year, TanenbaumCHAT is a relatively “inexpensive” Jewish high school.

Toronto’s Center for Jewish Education launched a study about a year and half ago, finding that 75% of Jewish families deem cost as a major barrier for sending their kids to Jewish day schools in the area. Held says finding ways to make day schools affordable became even more of a priority.

This March, $15 million in funding came together between a $10 million Jesin-Neuberger Foundation Gift, and $5 million from an anonymous donor. With one million set aside for Jewish education in Greater Toronto’s York Region, the rest will keep TanenbaumCHAT tuition between $18,000 and $19,000 per student over the next five years.

The last Canadian census in 2011 indicated that in the 200,000-strong Jewish community nearly 34% of children attended private Jewish elementary schools. (Courtesy Tanenbaum CHAT)
The last Canadian census in 2011 indicated that in the 200,000-strong Jewish community nearly 34% of children attended private Jewish elementary schools. (Courtesy Tanenbaum CHAT)

With a long history in Toronto, CHAT boasts more than 7,000 alumni from its nearly 60 years as one of the largest Jewish day schools in North America. It now has about 1,400 students on two campuses, but along with the tuition decrease to increase enrollment, the school decided to close one of its campuses at the end of the Spring 2017 semester.

Parents of students at the campus set to close launched “Save TCK” (TanenbaumCHAT Kimel), proposing a plan to save the northern campus, at the Kimel Family Education Center on the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus.

Teachers through the Federation of Teachers in Hebrew Schools Toronto share news of teacher and student protests since they heard the news their school would close on March 6. The parents’ plan was rejected by the CHAT board after town hall meetings were organized and petitions were signed.

Held believes multiple factors enter into why enrollment at TanenbaumCHAT, the 13 other schools UJA supports, and other Jewish day schools throughout Toronto, is down from previous years.

What’s changed in Toronto’s day school scene?

“Toronto is a day school city,” Held explains.

He knows his city holds one of the highest percentages of Jewish day school enrollment among its Jewish population, noting the emphasis on day school education as a community priority was set 40 years ago. The last Canadian census in 2011, which records religious affiliation, indicated that in the 200,000-strong Jewish community nearly 34% of children attended private Jewish elementary schools, as did 25% of high school aged Jewish students.

Jewish day school students in the Toronto area learn in English and Hebrew, plus fulfill Canadian French requirements. (Dana Wachter/Times of Israel)
Jewish day school students in the Toronto area learn in English and Hebrew, plus fulfill Canadian French requirements. (Dana Wachter/Times of Israel)

Though increasingly Toronto and York Region District Public Schools offer Hebrew classes, either during or after school hours, Held says the experience is very different. He’s pleased the public school systems offer multicultural heritage programs, which highlight “an important hallmark of Canadian society.”

But, Held says, “the immersive experience of Jewish day school is incredibly powerful,” especially for high school students who are building social networks and cultivating their Jewish identities. That’s one of the reasons why he works so hard to make Jewish high school a viable opportunity.

TanenbaumCHAT students learn in the school's Beit Midrash, too. (Dana Wachter/Times of Israel)
TanenbaumCHAT students learn in the school’s Beit Midrash, too. (Dana Wachter/Times of Israel)

Fewer students at Jewish high schools results from many factors including fewer Jewish students in general. “Waves” of immigration over the years is how Held describes the Toronto Jewish community. Unlike the US, where Jewish immigrants arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many in Canada came post-World War II.

Their baby boom meant many Jewish children packed Jewish day schools. With a couple of generational economic and fertility lulls and booms, Held says the kids in Toronto’s Jewish community today are the children of the bust after the baby boom, which means they are fewer in number.

TanenbaumCHAT schools in Toronto teach parallel Canadian and Zionist values. (Courtesy)
TanenbaumCHAT schools in Toronto teach parallel Canadian and Zionist values. (Courtesy)

Post WWII, Toronto saw immigration and migration from Jewish communities from Israel, the former Soviet Union and Argentina, plus South Africa and even Montreal. Held says until the 2011 census, which lists Toronto’s Jewish community as 200,000-strong, the community grew by 10 or 20% each decade, but in the last count, it only grew by 4.5%. That smaller growth, combined with a lower fertility rate makes a difference in terms of how many students attend Jewish day schools.

“That’s going to be a challenge moving forward; not just here, but for the Jewish community throughout the world,” Held said about a lower Jewish fertility rate.

Another challenge comes in the form of untraditional Jewish engagement. Toronto, like many other Jewish communities across the globe, is seeing younger families less likely to affiliate with a synagogue or may not have the same desire to connect with institutions in ways of the past.

“This [is a] dual challenge, about the costs going up and at the same time, we don’t know how the people perceive of the value today compared to how they perceived of it 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And compounded in that, the value proposition is often against what is the competition out there,” said Held.

‘This [is a] dual challenge… the costs going up and at the same time, we don’t know how people perceive the value’

Train and her husband pulled their son, David, from Jewish primary school after 4th grade and he went on to attend the public (i.e. free), Cedarvale Community School. Now, his younger sister, Lilly, is at Cedarvale, but they see Jewish high school as “pretty important” and prioritized sending David to TanenbaumCHAT.

In generations before, Held said Toronto Jewish schools did not just offer Jewish education, but security in academic excellence, like when the public schools faced instability during teacher strikes or when they dropped grade 13. He acknowledged, however, that Toronto and York Region public schools are now quite good.

Making day school fees feasible for middle income families

Costs of schools across the board have gone up, since teacher salary and human resource costs rise each year. Held notes, however, that higher bills in public schools are absorbed by the whole population of the province. Mounting costs at day schools have a much smaller population paying tuition to cover them.

The Affordability and Sustainability report by the Julia & Henry Koschitzky Center for Jewish Education shows that the average Toronto Jewish Day School tuition rose more than 60% from 2000 to 2011. Tuition increases far outpace Toronto inflation and household income increases.

Students at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. (Courtesy)
Students at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. (Courtesy)

Held notes that while high-income families can afford the higher tuition, 2,300 low income students receive tuition assistance. He says middle-income families are the ones stuck having to weigh priorities and may not be able to fork out funds for Jewish day school.

“There’s a unique psychology among middle-income families. In the rest of their lives, they’re givers. They give their donations to UJA Federation. They pay their synagogue dues. They’re earning a good salary. But then the tuition bill comes for multiple kids and it’s really high and for the first time, they have to put out their hand and ask for help. And we need to recognize just how difficult that is,” said Held.

‘In the rest of their lives, they’re givers… then they have to put out their hand and ask for help’

His center started various projects directed at middle-income affordability, like iCap, which caps tuition at a proportion of household income. Families can check a scale online to see what their maximum tuition bill would be for all children. Last year, Held says, they started a program to finance part of high school tuition fees.

“So instead of paying for high school over four years, you can pay for high school over 10 years, which just makes the cash flow issues easier,” said Held.

Train explains that even if TanenbaumCHAT hadn’t received the funding, her family would find a way to make sure David continued attending the high school. But she has noticed how day schools have become “unaffordable” for others and knows the donation relief will enhance her son’s Jewish high school experience.

“There is a huge impact on my son’s classmates because of change and social dynamics. Overall, it will be for the positive,” said Train.

At Jewish day schools like TanenbaumCHAT, secular studies are accompanied by religious classes. (Courtesy)
At Jewish day schools like TanenbaumCHAT, secular studies are accompanied by religious classes. (Courtesy)

Held says the UJA Federation supports 14 schools with $12 million from their annual campaign every year. But he called the recent funding TanenbaumCHAT received “an important starting point,” in a continued effort to sustain affordable Jewish day schools.

“We’re still going to need philanthropists to help support our system. That’s very clear,” said Held. “And we hope that this becomes a catalyst for more and more giving to support the educational system.”

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