St. Paul's Talmud Torah school is making a last-ditch effort to stay afloat amid slumping enrollment.
At Talmud Torah of St. Paul, teacher Benjamin Latz read from “Oggie Cooder,” a book by Sarah Weeks, in the combined first- and second-grade reading period. The protagonist is a boy named Oggie who has the talent of carving cheese with his teeth.
Talmud Torah of St. Paul has only two weeks to save its day school. Facing an April 30 deadline, parents and administrators have launched an effort to keep the school afloat to educate students in Jewish studies and other subjects.
A drop in the number of students is the quick description of the trouble, but behind that lies a web of factors that Principal Sara Lynn Newberger calls "a perfect storm of problems. We're working against forces that are outside what's in here."
What's outside are forces that are pinching public and private schools all over the metro area. Shifting demographics are a major factor; the number of school-age children is dropping. This week St. Paul Public Schools officials announced plans to close eight schools.
"We're not immune to those forces," said Marissa Onheiber, director of marketing and admissions at Talmud Torah.
The real killer is the recession. The annual tuition of $11,900 is low by private school standards, but it's still a stretch for many families, even with scholarships.
"I don't like to use the word 'discretionary' because I think what we provide is very valuable," said Lisa Cohen, the board president. "Still, when a family is in a bind. ..."
Less need for 7th, 8th grades
The K-8 model is no longer working. When the school was launched 27 years ago, kids went to Talmud Torah for K-8 and then to four-year public high schools. That's not the case anymore, Linda Friedman said as she led a tour of the school.
"These days every school district is different," she said. Some have traditional junior and senior highs, but others have middle schools. "Some places it starts in seventh grade, some places it starts in sixth grade and in a few places it starts in fifth grade. There's no typical entry point anymore."
As a result, Talmud Torah has decided to eliminate its seventh and eighth grades.
The school's board of directors has decided that 70 students are needed if the school is to remain financially viable. So far 62 are enrolled for next year. Newberger is cautiously optimistic but pragmatic enough to admit that it's "a pretty significant challenge."
Some programs will survive
Afternoon and evening programs for teenagers will not be affected. The preschool program also is likely to continue.
That's little consolation to the folks fighting to save the day school.
"If that school doesn't make it, it's going to be a huge, huge loss," said Jeff Oberman, who knows that, regardless of what happens, his seventh-grade daughter will be somewhere else next year. "And not just a loss for the families, or even just the Jewish community. It would be a loss to the broader community, which is benefiting from having the school help families raise children with phenomenal values and a sense of community involvement."
The Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul provides a $500,000 stipend, about a fourth of the school's annual budget. "There's only so much we can provide," said Executive Director Eli Skora. "Everybody is looking for more."
Parents have started a word-of-mouth campaign. "I'm talking to everybody I know about what a wonderful school this is," said Becca Swiler, mother of a third-grader.
A bigger issue?
Some younger members of the Jewish community wonder if the school's troubles stem from the longtime separation between Minneapolis and St. Paul, which produced two Talmud Torah schools and other duplicate services for the area's 40,000 Jews, two-thirds of whom live on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River.
"People of my generation [in their 20s] think of this as the Twin Cities, one entity, not separate entities of Minneapolis and St. Paul," said Leora Maccabee, the founder and editor of www.tcjewfolk.com. "We have two Jewish Community Centers -- a rarity for a Jewish population of our size -- and two federations, even more unheard of. It's a divide in the Jewish community that may threaten our ability to work together and provide the resources our community needs in a bad economy like this one."
While the federations and JCCs occasionally cooperate on projects, a merger of schools -- or anything else -- "is not going to happen," Skora vowed. "When the United Way merged, they moved out of St. Paul. We've been here for 80 years, and we're staying."
Now the question is whether the school is staying. Cohen is not interested in a temporary fix.
"There's not one person on the board wants to close it," she said. "If there is any way to keep it open, we will do what it takes. But the plan has to be viable. We have to come up with a sustainable model."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392