The Right High School for Your Jewish Child

The Right High School for Your Jewish Child

Students and parents share their high school experiences, proving that choosing the right school isn't easy.

Chana Shapiro

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

What is the right high school for my Jewish child? This question is often perplexing and stressful.
What is the right high school for my Jewish child? This question is often perplexing and stressful.

What is the right high school for your child? I interviewed the following students and parents, who asked that their names be withheld for privacy, and they shared their experiences, proving that the decision about where to send your child to school isn’t always an easy one.

Sisters who attended a Jewish elementary school were planning to move on to their large neighborhood public high school. After visiting that school, the family decided that a smaller, more heimishe Jewish high school was a better environment for their daughters. The eldest sister now attends a Jewish high school and wants to stay there through graduation. The younger sister was looking forward to a bigger school with a more diverse population. To keep peace in the family, and influenced by her older sister’s happiness at a Jewish high school, she agreed to “try it for one year.”

A father of three, whose children all graduated from a Jewish elementary school had this to say: “After the success of our two older daughters in our neighborhood high school, we’ll definitely send our third there. We love that their friends from all backgrounds come to our home, and both daughters are enjoying learning Spanish.”

A couple that had the opposite experience were urged by their daughter to move to a Jewish high school from a private, non-Jewish elementary school.  “After her bat mitzvah, and this probably had a lot to do with the great teacher she had, she wanted to study Jewish subjects and meet other kids who felt proud to be Jewish.” Her parents agreed, and the mother recently enrolled in a Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning program for Jewish basics.

I talked to a teen whose parents were stunned when their son, an honors student at a prestigious non-Jewish private school, asked to transfer to a Jewish school in eighth grade. “All I ever heard about being Jewish was either the Holocaust or how much Israelis make Palestinians suffer. I didn’t know anything about Jewish history or writings or anything else. I joined a Zionistic youth group and my parents offered to go to services with me. The Jewish subjects at school are hard, but I like being with Jewish kids who know who they are.”

A mother of two college-age sons said, “Our boys attended Jewish schools from the age of three through high school. One of them is a law student and the other is pre-med. I think the knowledge, naturalness and comfort in their Judaism makes them accepting of and accepted by others. Both of them lead services at their university Hillel and Chabad houses, something most of their classmates can’t do.”

It’s impossible to talk about “the right high school” without understanding the significance of football. The attraction of public school football is pervasive and powerful, attracting athletes and non-athletes alike. Everyone wants to be part of the huge Friday night social scene with the football game as its center.

One young man, who went to a Jewish day school since preschool, argued long and hard with his parents who wanted – and fully expected – him to attend a Jewish high school.

His mother put it this way: “I’m more concerned about the teen years than younger years. That’s when the kids start to date, drive, push boundaries, give up Jewish rituals.”  In the end, her son convinced his parents. He’s a senior at his local high school and a member of the team. His younger sister followed him to the same public high school, where she, too, is outstanding in sports.

I talked to two rising eighth-graders, both headed to DeKalb School of the Arts, an audition-to-enter public high school. The first girl, from a religiously-observant family, attended a Jewish elementary school. The other started at a Jewish elementary school, then transferred to her local public school, which has an orchestra. Both teens told me that they were happy in their elementary schools, but wanted to go to a school where their special interests would be emphasized and they’d be able to seriously study all the arts.

A seventh-grade boy is undecided about his high school years. Part of him wants to stay in the Jewish school where he likes the teachers and has lifetime friends, many of whom will be leaving in eighth grade. His parents want him to attend a Jewish high school, and he agrees. He and a few friends hope to move to a Jewish high school together. His older brother already made the transition to a Jewish high school with a less intense Judaic curriculum, and it’s likely that he and his friends will do the same.

Teens are well aware of the financial aspect of private schooling, and most of them mentioned how much their education costs their parents. One young man, who assured me that his parents have no trouble financing their children’s Jewish schooling, even exclaimed, “Why should they keep paying so much money for school? I’ve already had my bar mitzvah!”

Four families I interviewed, including those who merit tuition reduction, reluctantly move children to public high schools because they can’t afford it.

Whether the issue is money or dissatisfaction, a few parents talked about home-schooling their children. I spoke to a religiously-observant home-schooled young man who is determined to home-school his own children someday. This seems to be a small, but growing trend among religiously-observant and non-observant families.

From my research, I believe that the largest group of Jewish teens is composed of those who start in public school and continue in public school through high school graduation. The ones I spoke with live in communities where the neighborhood schools are rated high academically and offer a variety of extra-curricular activities. And schools with a large number of Jewish students welcome Jewish clubs run by Jewish organizations. The same can be said of non-Jewish private schools that attract Jewish students because of academics, sports or a special focus such as foreign languages.

What is the right high school for my Jewish child? This question is often perplexing and stressful.  Does a rabbi, youth leader, teacher, counselor or grandparent influence the decision? We’re interested in our readers’ responses.

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