AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Case Study Los Angeles: An Interview with Gil Graff

Posted by: Guest

May 15, 2014

Who are some of the educational leaders advancing the day school field? I had the opportunity to meet with some of them during the recent Moving the Needle and iJED day school conferences, where hundreds of day school administrators, lay leaders, and other educational professionals gathered to learn and network. In this series, I share some of our conversations in the format of interviews and videos describing both their work and current overall trends which are shaping the landscape of today’s day school field. The following interview with Gil Graff, Executive Director of  Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) of Los Angeles, was conducted at the Moving the Needle conference.
What is the history of day schools and the BJE in Los Angeles?
At the end of World War II, in 1945, there were 160,000 Jews and one fledgling day school in L.A.  A time of huge growth followed, resulting in a population of 480,000 Jews by 1965.  BJE was there to support that big surge – it already existed in 1945 and thus predated all the schools. So the history has been one of a BJE working with all of the schools as they emerged. BJE acts as a convener because we believe that one school can learn from the next when you bring them together. This has continued into the 21st century, to the benefit of all. Today there are 39 BJE-accredited Jewish day schools in L.A., together educating nearly 10,000 students in grades K-12.
The beauty of LA is that there is the community-wide collaboration you might find in smaller communities, notwithstanding the larger scale of business. For instance, in February we held a professional development meeting for Heads of School from the many day schools across the spectrum – Hareidi to Reform and everything in between. All of these schools also came together for a convening sponsored by AVI CHAI on the use of technology and blended learning. When outsiders coming from other communities see this kind of openness to collaboration, they say it is unique.
What are some ways BJE works to foster collaboration between schools?
One example is our work in capacity building: improving schools’ affordability and strengthening their operations. We have been exploring how schools can collaborate in order to reduce costs and benefit all. For instance, BJE created a legal consortium, organizing a group of more than 20 schools that all work with one law firm to receive individual legal services and counseling for a fixed fee that is scaled to their size. There are also quarterly seminars on pressing legal issues identified in advance by schools, such as contracts, supervisions, and the right of schools to search students’ lockers.
We look at technology and backend office systems, too. It is conceivable that if a group of 10-12 schools purchased technology and professional consultation as a unit, they would spend less and get more. Through a grant from AVI CHAI, BJE is working school by school to see what the needs are and to create a volume discount.
In addition, we work to secure government funding on behalf of schools. Federal funds are made available to states and then distributed to local districts.  A portion of these funds is to be used for the educational benefit of students at private schools in such areas as professional development, tech assistance, and support for students who need additional instructional attention. But schools were not accessing these funds, because the cost for one school to hire an administrator to access these resources is often as much as the benefits themselves. BJE got 20-25 schools together who give BJE the power of attorney, and BJE invests the time to access around $1 million in services on behalf of their students. It is much more efficient this way.
How do you work with schools to tackle the challenges of day school finance?
We believe that building school endowments is essential to schools’ long-term sustainability and growth. One important component of our day school work is a match incentive to support raising endowment funds. We began this effort five years ago. Today, 17 of the 39 schools are involved in endowment development: two cohorts totaling 12 elementary schools through the PEJE Generations program, sponsored by AVI CHAI, and five high schools in a cluster supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation (Jim Joseph High School Affordability Initiative).  Over $18 million has, to date, been raised collectively.  This represents a base from which endowment development is rapidly escalating in our community. It has changed the conversation from having to explain why schools need an endowment to schools asking, “Why don’t we have an endowment?”
Another program we participate in is YU Benchmarking. A decade ago, we began to look very seriously at the areas of day school finance and governance. Benchmarking allows us to move this work to a higher level, not just looking at baseline compliance with law and good practice, but also identifying ways that schools can reduce expenses and enhance revenue. We are able to work with schools to help them get where they want to go.
We also work to increase school enrollment through JKidLA.com, a BJE website that aggregates all the local Jewish learning opportunities available for families and children, such as schools, camps, youth groups, and experiences such as Sunday afternoon activities and museums. We act as a concierge for Jewish education, helping families find programs meeting their needs and explaining the differences between one school and another. 50% of those who contact us are parents with preschool-aged children. Once a parent is in the loop, they may call back once the child finishes preschool to learn about day school opportunities.
There’s no magic bullet, but the sum total of different approaches can move the needle. Another part of it is creating a culture in which people who believe in the day school proposition make a testamentary commitment, whether to one day school in particular or, more broadly, to day schools in their community.
What would you like to see for Jewish education in the future?
It’s not a given that everyone will take the initiative to participate in Jewish educational opportunities. We need to ensure that what’s going on in each educational setting is so compelling and life-enhancing that it speaks to people’s hearts and minds, so that parents will say: I want my children to participate in this as part of their leading a vital and vibrant life.

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