Florida Jewish schools booming thanks to sunshine and school choice scholarships

About 28% of students at Brauser Maimonides Academy, a Fort Lauderdale Modern Orthodox school, attend on state scholarships.

As school leaders nationwide began the 2020-21 academic year still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic that abruptly shuttered their campuses last spring, enrollment declined in many district schools, especially those in states where brick-and-mortar schools remained closed.

Though Florida opened all district schools to full-time, in-person instruction, they too saw enrollment declines, as did some private schools as parents turned to homeschooling and learning pods. Florida Catholic schools, which in previous years had held their own thanks to the availability of state school choice scholarships, experienced declines during 2020-21 as well.

The Sunshine State’s Jewish schools stood out as an exception to the rule.

Except for some that continued to limit instruction to remote learning, Jewish schools reported sharp increases this academic year, and the trendline shows no signs of a downturn as school leaders prepare for the fall.

Figures from the Florida Department of Education show steady growth at Jewish schools over the past three years, with enrollment at 10,623 in 2018-19, 11,549 in 2019-20 and 12,482 in 2020-21. The number of schools also rose from 50 to 64 during that same time.

“Enrollment is certainly up, and many schools have waitlists,” said Daniel Aqua, executive director for Teach Florida, an advocacy group for Jewish schools. He attributed the growth to an influx of Jewish families moving from other states as well as the fact that many Florida couples are having more children.

While some individual schools reported dips, “it’s a booming year next year” across the board, Aqua said, citing two possible explanations: Florida companies that have said they’ll allow their employees to continue to work remotely post-pandemic and the fact that many Jewish families in the northeast are looking for relief from harsh winters, expensive housing costs, high taxes and rising school tuition.

But quality of life isn’t the only enticement. Florida’s robust education choice scholarship program also beckons more folks to the Sunshine State. According to Teach Florida, 40% of students receive state scholarships, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

The organization recently gathered more than 2,000 signatures on a petition supporting HB 7045, legislation that would provide school choice scholarships for more families.

Eli Hagler, executive director at Brauser Maimonides Academy, a Fort Lauderdale Modern Orthodox school that serves students from nursery school to eighth grade, said interest from people across the country in moving to South Florida has gotten out of control in the past couple of months. He said the school, which has about 28% of its 526 students on state scholarships, already has received 200 applications, double what it normally receives at this point in the year. More than 50 of those applications are for kindergarten seats.

“We’re dealing with five to 10 years of growth happening in 12 months,” he said. “While it’s a good problem to have, it’s a real problem that needs to be addressed. We can’t admit every kid.”

He said the school’s leaders are doing all they can to maximize their space.

“We’re putting up walls; we’re taking down walls,” Hagler said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for a family who otherwise may struggle to put their kids in a qualified day school,” he said.

So why not send the kids to a charter school or a district school?

“To a Jewish family, a Jewish education is necessity, not an elective,” Hagler said.

In addition to the core academic classes, Jewish schools teach students Hebrew, Jewish religious law, and culture. A recent Facebook video shows the recent schoolwide observance of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s national remembrance day for all Israeli military personnel who died in the struggle that led to the establishment of the state of Israel and for those later killed while on active duty in Israel’s armed forces.

The Jewish Academy, serving students in preschool through eighth grade in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Hollywood, also is experiencing growth. It has expanded so much that leaders are planning to open a high school. In February, the academy was 95% full of returning students, prompting school officials to hold a lottery to fill the remaining seats.

Head of school Rabbi Chaim Albert said Florida’s income-based scholarship, which cuts the tuition by nearly half, has played a significant role in allowing families, many of whom are first-generation Americans, to provide a Jewish education for their children.

“They are the tree of life that creates hope where otherwise there was darkness,” Albert said. “They create opportunity for those that are in the greatest need and they breathe life into our community and into our children. The scholarships are the single most impactful ray of light that has reached our community in the 25 years I have been in education. We simply could not run our school without the help these scholarships have provided.”

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.