Milwaukee Jewish Day School has seen its third straight year of increase in enrollment numbers, a notable achievement after many years of declining numbers.
Much has been discussed nationally regarding a feared decline of non-Orthodox Jewish life in America. Yet Milwaukee Jewish Day School – a self-described “pluralistic” school that serves many non-Orthodox families – is seeing enrollment increase.
Enrollment at MJDS jumped from 130 to 150 to 175, just over the last two academic years. It raises a question: Why?
Unexpectedly, the pandemic is one reason. Also, the school added a grade. But the numbers and the dates of increase suggest that those factors alone can’t account for the entire bump.
There’s no one reason for the increase, said Aaron Lippman, head of school. Here’s a round-up of some of the possible reasons why:
Lippman gives some credit to the school’s Affordable Customized Tuition Program, which was launched in the summer of 2018. School staff and lay committees worked to replace an old, detailed tuition schedule with broad ranges of income and tuition numbers. The idea was that instead of looking at a pricing schedule online and reaching a conclusion based on that alone, prospective families could benefit from having private conversations with MJDS on finances.
“Our goal is to say any Jewish family that wants to enroll at MJDS, we can make it affordable,” Lippman said. “The community has really backed it up and supported it financially.”
MJDS is in its second year of offering three-year-old kindergarten, and this added grade has bumped up overall enrollment. But that can’t account for the whole story. Last school year, when three-year-old kindergarten was launched, MJDS enrolled 16 students in that class and 36 additional students in other grades.
The plan is for the young children to contribute to growth over time. “I think the PreK helps because it’s a pipeline,” Lippman said. “It’s bringing new families into the school,” said Jewish Education Community Planner Tzipi Altman-Shafer, of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Core values and more
Lippman credits the school’s core values, established in August 2017, and other guiding principles at MJDS, as having an important influence on school culture.
The core values are wonder, tikkun olam and empathy.
Third-grade teacher Jillian Voras has been with Milwaukee Jewish Day School for more than a decade. Each morning, she discusses the core values with her class. It may be along the lines of, “We’re going to wonder today. That means feeling confident to ask questions. Your classmates are going to show empathy,” she said.
The kids have defined empathy for their classroom: “We promise to help care for and listen to our friends and teachers.”
Voras said the values have become second nature. “I even hear them say, ‘he was really showing empathy today at recess’.”
Fleeing virtual school
A good portion of the bump this academic year is related to families not wanting their children to attend virtual school.
“They had an influx this year of students whose parents wanted them be learning in person,” Altman-Shafer said. “They pulled their kids out of public schools that were learning virtually and switched their kids to MJDS that was meeting in person.”
Lippman said he would have expected a bump of five to 10 kids to start this academic year with close to 160 students. Instead, MJDS started the year with 175.
Staff and leadership
This academic year MJDS enrolled new students in every grade and last year it was every grade but one. MJDS can seem like a stronger alternative than public school, because there’s a “love for the child,” according to Director of Recruitment Michal Deskalo
“Our small class sizes, our individualized educational approach, that we are meeting the students’ needs socially, emotionally and educationally” is part of the story, Deskalo said. “Our teachers really know the students. They know the families. They care about the families and the students.”
Could staff and leadership be a factor? Lippman – who said he joins Deskalo on just about every prospective family’s tour – became head of school in the summer of 2017. “There’s great people who came before me who really laid the foundation,” Lippman said.
Voras, the third-grade teacher, is not Jewish, but she’s enrolled her kids at the school. She said her kids love it and said to her after the first day: “When I’m here I feel like a rock star.”
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Enrollment at Milwaukee Jewish Day School