A suburban New York City school district is considering closing an elementary school as more families send their children to religious private schools.
Suffern Central School District (SCSD) Superintendent Eric Gundersen explained how low enrollment was forcing the district to rethink its elementary education.
“Many [families] are opting to send their children to religious schools, particularly yeshivas within the area,” Gundersen said at the August school board meeting. “We have a decreasing enrollment. In fact, three of our elementary schools have enrollment of under 300 students.”
Between 2013-14 and 2020-21, SCSD lost 449 (23%) of its elementary students, he said, despite overall population growth in the area.
In contrast, a 2020 study revealed that Jewish schools in New York grew by over 66,000 students (64%) between 1998 and 2018. The Empire State is home to more Jewish people than any other in the nation.
The Jewish community has recently defended such schools from criticism after New York City officials accused them of not adequately educating students in “secular” topics.
“If you want to talk about equivalency, we should talk about the public school system being unable to measure up to the standards of the yeshiva system,” said state Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, D-District 48, who is a graduate of yeshiva schools.
“The critical thinking, textual analysis, reading comprehension, argumentation skills; the historical knowledge, the foreign language acquisition, the legal concepts; indeed, the Jewish culture, tradition, and ethical behavior … embedded in these schools’ religious study are genuinely remarkable,” Moshe Krakowski, an expert in Orthodox Jewish-American education and culture, wrote in 2018.
Now that Suffern is losing students to yeshivas, it’s considering restructuring its five elementary schools into four buildings.
Gundersen proposed having two K-2 schools and two 3-5 schools, allowing for school resources and activities – like libraries and after school programs – to be tailored to specific age groups.
However, SCSD won’t sell the fifth, unused elementary school building in case it’s needed in the future.
Some local parents weren’t happy with the proposed changes, but Gundersen explained that it is only a matter of time before the status quo becomes unsustainable.
“We don’t have to change things right now. However, I would argue that every year that progresses, we are going to get closer and closer to being in a financial bind because this truly is not an efficient model to have three elementary schools with fewer than 300 students,” he said.
The school board is expected to vote on the matter on Oct. 24.