When Scheck Community Day School in South Florida opened its new state-of-the-art stadium last fall, people took notice. The 1,070-student school’s stadium is just one of many multimillion-dollar projects underway at day schools across the country aimed at revamping sports complexes.
Some hazarded the construction could signal a trend among Jewish private schools to pour money and resources into sports programs in order to grow enrollment. But in Baltimore at least, the trend is not catching.
“You don’t go to Beth Tfiloh because you want to be the next Michael Jordan,” said Jeff Clarke, athletic director at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. Placing a hefty emphasis on sports “doesn’t fit with our mission.”
A 2014 Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States released in October by Marvin Schick showed that although enrollment in day schools in the U.S. is growing overall, the number of students choosing to attend day school in Maryland has actually slipped. From 2008 to 2013, the number of students enrolled statewide dropped from 8,003 to 7,556.
Nationwide statistics show enrollment in private schools overall, which increased steadily for decades, flatlined in 2006 and has dropped since then. For many schools feeling the crunch of decreased enrollment, sports could be the answer. Notorious schools such as Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey and Mission Viejo in California have created a quasi-professional aura around their sports programs, with big donors and loyal fan bases.
At the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland, an institution that has produced numerous Division I college athletes, spokeswoman Sarah Woods said many prospective parents are interested in what sports programs the school has to offer.
“It’s just one of many aspects that parents consider today,” she said. But, she asserted, the school does not sell itself to potential students and their families using their sports programs.
“We let our programs speak for themselves,” she said.
Clarke said the usefulness for sports at BT lies in the wide array of activities made available for students. While other private schools in Maryland may offer scholarships or grants to students with superior athletic abilities — BT lost two students last year to another school’s incentives — Beth Tfiloh approaches sports as a means of ensuring that students can’t use lack of programs as a reason not to enroll. And the school has seen some students go on to play collegiate sports as well, though that is not necessarily the end goal.
“For a large percentage of the kids, if we didn’t offer different sports and everything, they may not come here,” said Clarke. “We don’t want to give them an excuse to go someplace else. If they want to play sports, they can play them here.”
At Krieger Schechter Day School, athletic director Mike Foxwell also sees the value in sports when enrollment is the goal, but, like BT, his school also has no immediate plans to expand programs or facilities.
“I think all schools try to sell the sports programs as an admissions aspect,” he said, Krieger Schechter included. “It’s a big selling tool.”
He added that participation in sports at the school has also grown dramatically in the 17 years that he has been at Krieger Schechter. When he began, about three in every 10 students were on a sports team. Today, the participation rate is 85 percent. The school has even started a conference with about a dozen other local private schools that even includes end-of-season tournaments.
Still, he does not encourage parents who choose to emphasize sports to compare KSDS to some of the powerhouse private schools in the region.
“You can’t compare us to Gilman or McDonogh,” Foxwell said. “We’re not there, and we’ll probably never be there. That’s not our goal here.”