Ottawa’s main Jewish high school to close

Community officials say an annual subsidy of $250,000 is needed to avoid a deficit.

A unanimous decision by the Ottawa Jewish Community School’s (OJCS) board of directors will see the city’s only Jewish high school program phased out by 2017.

“An extensive examination by OJCS leadership, which included a study by the school’s sustainability committee, has determined that the high school is not financially viable,” Aaron Smith, the OJCS board president, said in a Feb. 10 letter to parents about the decision to close the high school. 

“Put simply, not enough families are choosing to send their children to grades 9 through 12. This has been a challenge in the high school over [its] 20-year existence.”

In 2006, Ottawa’s Jewish elementary school, Hillel Academy, amalgamated with Yitzhak Rabin High School and the new school was renamed the OJCS. 

Despite having both schools under one roof, the high school continued to struggle to sustain itself.

Smith said it would require a minimum annual community subsidy of $250,000, on top of regular operating costs, to avoid a deficit.

GUEST VOICE: Save my school!

“We require a minimum of 50 students to be sustainable given our current cost structure. This year, we have 24 students, and next year, at best, we expect 20 students total enrolled,” Smith said.

Tuition for the high school program for the coming year is about $14,000. 

Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, said the challenge with the deficit is that it’s ongoing. 

“This is not a short-term infusion of cash that is required to save the school. It is an ongoing minimum deficit of $250,000 each and every year. So that means that for every incoming Grade 9 class, to see them through to graduation is $1 million. And there is no obvious source for these funds, despite peoples’ good intentions,” she said.

“It was a decision of the school board to close it, but it is a broader community decision to not provide additional deficit funding for the school.”

Smith said the OJCS will begin to phase out the high school program next fall.

“We are committed to providing the existing Grade 10 and 11 classes with the ability to finish their high school studies and graduate from OJCS,” he said.

The elementary school currently has a student body of about 200.

David Roytenberg, a father of one OJCS graduate and one current OJCS student, hopes he can galvanize Ottawa’s Jewish community to raise the funds necessary to sustain the high school.

He started a Facebook group called “Supporters of the Ottawa Jewish Community High School,” and has managed to raise more than $5,000 in just two days.

“We are trying to raise money to reverse the decision. But they’ve presented it as a fait accompli,” Roytenberg said.

“Obviously we would have some work to do to increase the enrolment… There wasn’t really a Grade 9 class this year, which was part of the problem. They had one kid come in this past fall, so that leaves a big hole in the school… But personally I just find it unthinkable that we would close the high school. It is like the cornerstone of the community,” Roytenberg said.

He added that there are seven OJCS eighth graders who are signed up for Grade 9 next year, and their parents are now faced with a choice about where to send them.

Freedman said the decision to close the school is not one that anyone wanted to make. “The basic challenge is that not enough parents are making the decision to send their child to Jewish day school in general and the high school in particular,” she said, adding that there are about 900 high-school aged Jews in Ottawa, and less than two dozen were planning to enrol in the OJCS next year.

“We have a responsibility to meet the needs not only of the 20 students who are projected to enrol in the school next year, but to the 880 other teens in our community.”

Reflecting on why there has been such a significant drop in enrolment from Grade 8 to Grade 9, Freedman said,  “I think finances comes into play, but I think it is a priorities question in part, and I think it is a question of socialization. Parents are understandably concerned about sending their child to such a small school.”

Freedman added that although “extraordinarily painful,” it was a decision that had to be made.“We avoided it for as long as possible. But ultimately for the greater good of the community, it is a difficult decision that had to be made.”

Roytenberg said that he’s joined a task force that was set up at an emotional Feb. 12 community meeting at Ottawa’s JCC about the school’s closing.

He added that he’ll keep trying to raise money for an OJCS “rescue fund.”“I’m hopeful that we can raise some significant money and maybe that will help to change their minds,” he said. “Ottawa has about 14,000 Jews. We ought to be able to sustain a high school. We ought to be able to raise the money to keep it going.”