I’m the product of private schools.
Growing up, my family sent me to a Jewish day school from kindergarten through eighth grade; our days were essentially split in half, with classes in both English and Hebrew. By the time I went to high school, in addition to standard science, literature, grammar, math, art, music, and physical education, I was also fluent in a second language, I had working knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and commentary, I’d taken classes on Jewish values and ethics, and I’d benefited from the very small class sizes that tend to be the hallmark of a private school education.
One of the main reasons we moved to Omaha, despite the fact that I work fifty miles away in Lincoln, is that Omaha’s Jewish community is younger and more vibrant; it also boasts a Jewish daycare, where I currently send my kids, and a Jewish day school, where I plan to send my kids. Not only do I think my kids will benefit in all the same ways I did by attending a Jewish day school but, in a place like Nebraska where the Jewish community is a microscopic minority, fostering and maintaining a strong Jewish identity is something that takes real work and a day school reinforces the work we do at home and at the synagogue.
From everything I’ve heard and seen, our day school in Omaha is exceptional in both the Judaic and secular education it provides to students … but it’s also tiny. The very, very small class sizes allow for individualized learning that comes from the kind of student/teacher interaction about which an educator only dreams. But why is the enrollment so small? My graduating eighth grade class had forty students and my school has expanded in the 20+ years since I graduated (even as tuition has risen and economic conditions in the Detroit area have worsened). Most graduating classes at the day school here in Omaha have fewer than fifteen students.
Interestingly, the Jewish daycare is enrolled to capacity … with both Jewish and non-Jewish families who pay a premium for their kids to get Jewish content from six weeks through pre-k. They could save money by sending their kids to a myriad of other nearby daycares that are perfectly fine but they pay more for the Jewish one. And yet once those kids hit kindergarten, the interest in Jewish education wanes … even as tuition drops. That’s right: Tuition at the private Jewish day school costs less than the annual rate for the Jewish daycare. And when you compare the tuition costs with other Jewish day schools around the country, it’s staggering.
Omaha’s Friedel Jewish Academy runs $6,650 a year. By comparison, Hillel Day School in Michigan, my old stomping grounds, costs $17,975 annually. The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland will run parents $22,060, the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington, DC is $21,950, the Ramaz School in New York is $31,125-$35,500, and Rodeph Sholom School in New York weighs in at a whopping $39,000-$42,250. Financial assistance is available at all of these schools, of course.
So why isn’t Friedel full to capacity?