Rockwern Academy: Jewish day school growing enrollment after overcoming financial struggles

CINCINNATI – When Shary and Marc Levitt were considering whether to move from New York so he could take a job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, they didn’t just look at houses during their recruiting visit.

They also looked at Rockwern Academy in Kenwood, formerly known as Yavneh Day School.

“We would not have come to Cincinnati if there was not a Jewish day school,” said Levitt, whose three children all attended Rockwern after the family moved here nine years ago. “For my husband and myself, it was incredibly important.”

The Levitts aren’t alone by a long shot. Every year teachers and administrators at Rockwern meet parents who are weighing a move to the region for a good job opportunity, whether it’s at Cincinnati Children’s, the Procter & Gamble Co. or one of the region’s other major employers.

For Jewish parents, the school can be the deciding factor.

 

Rockwern, which serves students from pre-school through eighth grade, is not the region’s only Jewish day school. The city also is home to Cincinnati Hebrew Day School, an Orthodox school. Rockwern is open to Jewish families from across the religious spectrum.

It’s critical to have both to maintain a vibrant, healthy Jewish community, said Brian Jaffee, executive director of The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati.

“We really believe we can’t have a first-class Jewish community without the pluralistic Jewish day school,” said Jaffee, whose daughter is a first-grader at Rockwern.

Dr. David Finell, Rockwern’s head of school, put it more starkly: “The Jewish community in Cincinnati would be dead in a generation without this school.”

'On The Brink'

Not long ago, it looked like the region would have to find out if he’s right.

Rockwern was struggling.

The school had as many as 450 students in its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but enrollment dropped dramatically when the economy faltered, said Tamar Smith, Rockwern’s director of marketing.

Families were faced with Rockwern’s $10,000 annual tuition versus excellent local public schools. Not only that, Rockwern’s top leadership was changing every year or two, leading local families to question its stability.

The school’s small class sizes became too small in some grades.  Along the way, a few grades had to be dissolved, the students dispersed elsewhere.

Rockwern shrunk to 140 students.

“Two years ago, things were really on the brink,” Smith said.

The Jewish Foundation stepped in to offer financial support to the school, which also receives substantial annual contributions from the Jewish Federation to maintain its $3 million annual budget.

Rockwern’s board conducted a national search for a new head of school and hired Finell, who was principal at a charter school in Colorado at the time. He’s been at Rockwern about two years.

The foundation funding helped Rockwern hire Smith as director of marketing.

The money also has allowed the school to offer tuition grants of up to $5,900, which has been especially helpful for families with several children at Rockwern, Smith said.

“Our family applied for a grant last year,” said Holly Wolfson, whose son and daughter both attend the school. “They gave us every penny that we asked for without asking to see W2s or financial statements. It was just this wonderful gift I felt they bestowed on our family.”

The school has made other family-friendly changes, too, such as offering after-school care until 6 p.m. so working parents don’t have to figure out a way to pick up their children when classes are dismissed at 3:30 each afternoon.

Rockwern has an enrollment of nearly 160 this year, Finell said. He expects that to grow to between 180 and 190 next school year and to more than 200 within a couple years, he said.

Instilling A Sense Of Jewish Identity

That’s important for Greater Cincinnati’s Jewish community, Jaffee said.

The community consists of an estimated 27,000 people in 12,500 households, according to a 2008 study by the Berman Jewish Databank.

 

Having a healthy Rockwern helps corporations recruit and retain talented professionals, said Lara Danziger-Isakov, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at a Cincinnati area hospital.

“Families have even moved here because Jewish day schools in their areas have closed,” she said.

But Rockwern also helps instill in students a sense of identity that they can’t get by going to public schools during the week and Sunday school on the weekends, said Ariella Cohen, a Rockwern alumna who now has children at the school.

“It taught me how I wanted to pursue being a good Jew and a good person in my life,” she said.

Finell told the story of a girl who graduated from Rockwern a few years ago and then attended Sycamore High School. She met a classmate from India at Sycamore and got into a detailed discussion about the similarities between the priestly systems in Buddhism and Judaism.

“She was able to connect to somebody with a different culture because she knew who she was, and he knew who he was,” Finell said.

“When we’re grounded in who we are, it enables

us to reach out to other people in a more meaningful way.”

Jaffee and his wife came to a similar realization when they toured Rockwern before their older daughter started school there.

“In the course of an afternoon, we walked into a class where the children were learning about Jewish prayers and the connection to Jewish values and making the world a better place,” said Jaffee, who attended public schools growing up.

Jaffee and his wife went to the next classroom and saw first graders in a science lab learning scientific principles that he didn’t remember learning until fourth grade.

“Then we went outside and saw a second-grade girl who didn’t know where she was going, and a sixth-grade boy took her by her hand and got her to the right place,” he said. “We realized this is where we wanted our children to be.”

Rockwern keeps working to strengthen its financial foundation so it can continue offering that education to Jewish children in Greater Cincinnati.

The Jewish Foundation wants to see enrollment hit 250 in the coming years, Jaffee said.

The school also is working to establish a multi-million dollar endowment so it doesn’t have to rely so much on help from the foundation and the Jewish Federation, Finell said.

“The development objectives are not just cash each year for our liquidity to stay afloat,” said Levitt, who became Rockwern’s director of development in November. “We want this to be a sustainable model for many years to come.”

For more information about Rockwern, go to http://www.rockwernacademy.org .

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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