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SA

Yeshiva College right sizes amid rumours

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NICOLA MILTZ

A steady leak of Yeshiva pupils has fuelled rumours about the future sustainability of the time-honoured educational and religious institution.

Emigration – particularly aliyah – children requiring specific special-needs education, large-scale management changes, retrenchment, and smaller classes, have apparently taken their toll on this school.

There is a percolating fear that the institution is in financial trouble, but the school’s management team this week insisted that it has pulled out all the stops to ensure its survival, long-term growth, and rightful place in the community.

“Regrettably, we have lost children,” said Avrom Krengel, the chairperson of the school board, “and we have had to adapt. However, there are more than 800 pupils, and we are constantly making adjustments and improvements.”

Things like more parent engagement, funding dedicated towards teacher training, sports-coach training, and special-needs development have taken place at the school. Yeshiva has increased investment into extra-curricular offerings including debating, early morning sports activities, golf, and other activities.

The school’s managing director, Rabbi Leron Bernstein, said that at the beginning of this year, there were 859 pupils down from 927 at the start of 2018. The school currently has 827 pupils split between the pre-primary, primary, and boys and girls high school.

The reasons for children leaving are varied, said Bernstein.

“Many are emigrating, some say the offering is too religious, some say it isn’t religious enough, special needs is a big factor, and many say they move for a variety of social reasons.”

He said Yeshiva College would launch the first remedial stream for Grade 1 classes for 2020 called “Yay” which stands for Yavneh (city of Talmudic sages) at Yeshiva. “This will meet the requirements of a remedial school integrated within the framework of the college,” he said.

One mom who prefers to remain anonymous said she moved her children to King David Linksfield for social reasons. “They wanted to be in a larger environment, have the opportunity to meet more people, and have more subject choices and cultural offerings,” she said.

Another mom said her children moved because their friends had moved. They felt left behind and wanted to be in a bigger class.

Many, however, have chosen to stay.

“This is one big happy family catering to all my children’s needs. They would never dream of leaving,” said one.

Bernstein said that across the broader community, there were fewer entries into Jewish schools.

Krengel told the SA Jewish Report that school fees matched expenses, save for one problem: subsidies. “In 2019, the Yeshiva College Foundation disbursed R19 million in school fee subsidies – we have a third of our kids on subsidies,” he said.

Bernstein said Yeshiva College was the only school in the community that poured resources into all three elements – Torah learning, general studies, and extra-curricular activities. “If full fees were paid by all parents, there would be no funding pressure as the revenue would marginally exceed the cost. However, we then grant subsidies to all deserving pupils without an upper limit on the total subsidy pool. This is different to other schools, which cap it,” he said.

“Unfortunately, with reduced numbers and the rising need for subsidies in a difficult economic climate, the school can no longer carry the welfare burden to the extent that it has until now,” he said.

“We charge school fees that are in line with comparable private schools. If every parent paid full school fees, with current and predicted numbers for the school, the school would have no need for the Yeshiva College Foundation, which raises money to subsidise fees for deserving learners.

“In previous years, with higher numbers, we were able to more easily support these families as the potential revenue exceeded the expenses by a larger margin. With reduced numbers, the school is closer to break even – as we make about R1 million in profit. There is less margin to carry an increased burden of subsidies.”

Krengel firmly believes that there are too many Torah schools in Johannesburg, and is advocating consolidation.

He says there are more than 3 000-odd children in the King David system, and 2 000 children split between about six Torah schools in a shrinking community.

“However, in the absence of this, we are doing everything in our power to make our school as attractive as possible, and we intend to rebuild and regrow. We have restructured to cater for the fact that the school is smaller. There has had to be retrenchment and rationalisation, and this process is now complete.”

“Under the able leadership of both Rob Long, the principal of the boys’ high school, and Rebbetzin Natalie Altman, the principal of the girls high school, we are hoping to attract and keep new students.”

Coinciding with Rabbi Bernstein’s imminent aliyah, the school this week appointed Dinah Unterslak, the principal of the Yes Centre (support centre), as the acting headmistress of the primary school.

“We are right sizing without compromising,” said Altman, “People get nervous about change, and there have been changes. People often see change as a negative, but we believe the changes we’ve made are for the best.”

Echoing her sentiments, Long said, “We are pruning for growth. We have put the right structures in place. People don’t trust until they see delivery, so we are making sure we deliver. The parent body is starting to shift, and we are starting to see the green trees, fewer people leaving, and more applications.”

Krengel said it was a “demanding school” that strived to reach “an outstanding level in both general studies and religious studies”.

“We have the finest matric results within Jewish schools and arguably around the country. Graduates of Yeshiva College get into any university degree they wish, and at the same time, they can go to the best yeshivot and seminaries in Israel and slot in easily. That is what we aim to achieve. That’s is our raison d’être [reason for being],” he said

“It’s a family, it’s a community, it’s a school with a complete ecosystem which gives students an advantage so that when they go out into the world, they are leaders,” said Altman.

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