Apply and Demand

There are few experiences more humiliating than having one’s child rejected by the school of one’s choice. Yet in recent years, at the end of almost each summer, dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of children are still without a school to attend for the upcoming school year, setting off a mad scramble by askanim and school administrators to ensure that every child is registered in a school appropriate for the student before the school year begins.

Seeking to understand why this is an issue which crops up year after year and what can possibly be done to perhaps prevent, or at least minimize the number of children being left without a school to attend, Hamodia spoke with several parents who have gone through the process, the executive director of the Lakewood Cheder, Rabbi Yosef Posen, and Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg of the Lakewood Vaad, to whom overwhelmed parents often turn for assistance in navigating the ever-growing list of schools.

A Parent’s Perspective

“The mistake we made was that we only tried getting our child into a large, well-established school,” Mrs. Freund*, a parent who had a rough time getting her child accepted, told Hamodia.

“My son is a very bright boy, and we were urged to send him to a larger school which had more resources to help in the proper development of a child with above-average intelligence. While we made valiant efforts to have him accepted by a certain school, Hashem had other plans.”

Baruch Hashem, she said, the school they ended up in is perfect for their son and his unique needs. “Of course, at the time we were very upset because we had put tremendous effort into getting our son accepted into our school of choice. We had pulled every string and employed every connection to the school that we had, which happened to be a lot. It was all for naught.

“The primary explanation they gave us was that every year there are dozens of parents, including alumni, whose children are unable to be accepted due to problems with space. While that is a very understandable problem, I do know of five children who were squeezed in by the school even after they were ‘full.’”

Rabbi Moshe Klein* also had a hard time placing his child; he attributed it to not being wealthy enough.

“I understand that from a business perspective, a school would accept a child whose parents are prominent donors or have the potential to make large donations,” he said. “But because of this, many children who would be best served by attending a certain school are left out because their parents aren’t wealthy. This is my biggest issue with the acceptance process.”

A third parent, Mrs. Fuchs*, said that they did everything correctly, but the school simply filled up early, leaving them without another option.

“The school we applied to had placed an ad in a certain publication which said their deadline was on a specific date,” she said. “We dropped off our son’s application two weeks before the deadline and were immediately told that we were too late. I said, ‘I’m holding the ad …’ but they simply said they were already full and couldn’t accept new applicants.”

But all parents agreed that lack of slots in schools was not the problem.

“The big schools truly do not have room,” Mrs. Freund said. “But there are a lot of smaller mosdos that are absolutely great schools. My son’s school is so amazing, anyone would be lucky to have their child attend.

“Often, the issues with placement are due to parents being too rigid in which schools they deem acceptable for their child. I think parents need to approach the application process with an open mind and the understanding that you don’t necessarily need to get into a big school to get a superstar mechanech who will develop your child’s potential to previously unimaginable heights.”

An Administrative View

When asked if there is a problem with the number of slots in local schools, Rabbi Yosef Posen, executive director of the Lakewood Cheder, was emphatic that this is not the case in boys’ schools.

“There is no problem with space,” he said. “There are plenty of schools, and every child has a place to go. Baruch Hashem, there are a lot of new schools. But because these schools are newer, parents often feel that they will not be properly equipped to deal with issues that may come up, and definitely not as well as an older school that has seen and dealt with everything already.

“This is understandable, because experience really does make a difference. But on the other hand, and I can speak only for the Cheder, I know that our hanhalah is very often consulted by Menahelim of other, newer schools, and they are always happy to dispense their advice freely.

“When you hear about a few hundred children left without schools, it is not because there is nowhere to place those kids. It’s usually because the parents don’t want to consider a smaller, newer school for their child,” he added.

“At the end of the day, every kid is in school by the first day; it just takes the parents time to realize, ‘Hey, I can’t go to Lakewood Cheder because they’re really full. It’s not that they don’t want me, they’re really full.’ It’s not so much about an attitude, it’s simply coming to terms with the reality of the situation.”

When asked about the criteria for accepting children, Rabbi Posen was very clear. “This year we had applications for 230 siblings. After them, we had room for 50 more children. We try to accommodate our own alumni,” he said. “If the child’s father himself went through his elementary years at the Cheder, that is a Cheder family.

“Also, we do have hakaras hatov to people who helped build the Cheder throughout its times of need,” he added. “People who have been involved with our buildings, our expansions, and who have volunteered countless hours over the years, absolutely deserve for us to be there for them in their time of need. After all, they too are Cheder families.

“So although slots are not for sale, and we do not auction them off, there can be children from our longtime supporters who get pushed in even if we are full.

“But it is important to remember that each child will end up in a makom Torah to grow to be the talmid chacham he can be.”

The Role of the Vaad

What exactly is the Vaad’s role in the school application process?

According to Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, “We have a ‘sub-Vaad’ under the Vaad that consists of both Vaad members and others who join us in trying to place elementary or high school children, as it’s a pretty intense and involved process.” The Vaad views this function as one of its core responsibilities.

“Every year, around June, there are a couple hundred kids who were not placed in school for whatever reason,” explains Rabbi Weisberg. “By and large, the mosdos are very helpful. But sometimes it’s a question of getting a square peg into a round hole. Every mosad has its own personality and every child has his or her own personality and needs.

“We’re dealing ka”h with a system of 38,000 kids, and at the end of the day, although small percentage-wise, there are a considerable number of children that need placement.”

He says that they usually start out with about 200 children at the beginning of the summer. By the end, that number is down to the 20-25 range and the Vaad continues to work with those individuals. “Sometimes we do find a school, but the parent feels it’s not a good fit or something like that. It’s a very painful process, and we have a tremendous amount of sympathy and empathy for people going through it,” Rabbi Weisberg says.

“It’s an unwieldy system even with the number of mosdos that we have and their capacity limits, so it becomes a process of either getting new schools to open or existing schools to add classes. The worst-case scenario, which unfortunately occurs too often, is that we have to squeeze kids into classes that are already larger than they should be.”

While he says that the Vaad is “proud of the hishtadlus that we do,” they are not always proud of the outcome, as there is always a handful of applicants that are very difficult to place for whatever reason. “We wish it could be smoother, but it is what it is. We try to do our best but it’s very difficult.”

Every mosad, says Rabbi Weisberg, develops its own personality, its own mehalech hachinuch and a parent body to which it is, to some extent, responsible. “We can debate the rights and wrongs of this, but that’s the way it is. So it’s sort of like shidduchim, where we try to match up a child from a particular family with a school that is appropriate for them.”

The Vaad feels that it has fulfilled its responsibility if a school placement is found that is generally appropriate for the child. If the parents do not want to send to that school, the Vaad does not take further achrayus.

“We simply don’t have the ability to successfully match up each child with the precise school that their parents want them to go to,” Rabbi Weisberg says. “There are 120 schools and thousands of children here, so it’s extremely difficult.”

Is there a solution to the problem? Rabbi Weisberg doesn’t think so. “You need an extremely organized, very centralized community in order to deal with the issues in an effective way that would make people really happy.

“In chassidishe kehillos where there is a Rebbe, when he says you need another school, they create another school. Here in Lakewood, you can have Roshei Yeshivos, Rabbanim, and askanim pounding the table and saying we need another school, but who is jumping in to start one?”

It’s basically a supply and demand issue, explains Rabbi Weisberg. “And because of the nature of our kehillah, where the supply is not enough for the demand, we don’t have an easy way of just pushing a button and solving that.”

Lakewood doesn’t have a community school that feels it’s their obligation to take every child like smaller communities do. And starting a school, Rabbi Weisberg adds, is a big undertaking. Fundraising is difficult, and Lakewood has no central kupah that can bankroll these ventures.

One upside of Lakewood’s schooling system, he points out, is that there are really many choices. “In a centralized system, you don’t have many options. In the end, our system works out for the vast majority of children, but that statistic really does not help alleviate the real pain and frustration of those families struggling with this difficult issue.”

Rabbi Weisberg also adds that there are other askanim, independent of the Vaad, who work to help with school placement as well, “and we are very grateful for them — the more the merrier.”

*Names have been changed.