By JANICE ARNOLD, Canadian Jewish News
It’s a list no high school wants to see its name on: the top 10 showing the steepest decline in their students’ academic performance in Quebec. Beth Rivkah Academy, a Montreal girls’ school under Lubavitch auspices, finds itself in that unenviable position, not once, but twice in as many months.
Its administrators say the portrait is unfair and is hurting its image among parents and donors, and is demoralizing staff and students. In September, the Fraser Institute’s 2008 Report Card on Quebec’s Secondary Schools named Beth Rivkah as the second-fastest declining school in the province over the past five years.
At the end of October, the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), in its inaugural Portrait of Quebec High Schools 2008, cited Beth Rivkah as the Quebec high school on the third-most serious downward trend over a similar period.
Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz, Beth Rivkah’s principal for 35 years, said the institutes are overlooking the fact the school accepts virtually everyone, regardless of their academic ability or background, as long as they are girls and are Jewish.
The two pro-free enterprise think tanks had previously collaborated on producing the Report Card. This is the first year the MEI has published its own analysis of the province’s high schools.
Its intention was to use criteria and a methodology that would provide a more just picture of each school’s standing, and specifically the impact a school itself has on students’ performance when such factors as student selection and socio-economic data are taken into account.
For Beth Rivkah, however, the two institutes’ conclusions are very similar.
The school’s relative ranking, although the lowest among the Jewish day schools surveyed, is not that bad on a provincial level.
Fraser ranked it 197th among 474 schools in its study, while the MEI put it at 154th among the 477 schools. It’s the only private school to make either institute’s “worst decline” list.
The MEI report says that, in 2002-2003, Beth Rivkah ranked 25th in Quebec, based on students’ results in five key provincial matriculation exams, earning an average of 90 per cent.
In 2006-2007, the latest year under study, that average declined to 65 per cent.
The exams were in the language of instruction, mathematics, in a second language, physical sciences and history. The MEI stratified the results, assigning the most weight to exams in the language of instruction (in Beth Rivkah’s case, French) and math, the next to the second language, and the least to science and history.
Beth Tikvah students’ failure rate in French in 2006-2007 was high, at 35 per cent, in sharp contrast to the low 2.5 per cent rate achieved in 2002-2003. The failure rates in math more than doubled, and in science almost quadrupled, over the same period. The promotion rate dropped from 96 per cent to 75 per cent.
The MEI also looked at other factors such as the extent to which a school selects students, as well as family income, the students’ mothers’ education, neighbourhood socio-economic conditions, and the percentage of students entering Secondary IV at an older age than normal. Schools were given credit or blame when students did better or worse than might be predicted given these factors.
The MEI’s vice-president, Marcel Boyer, who co-authored the report, acknowledged the institute has not had direct contact with Beth Rivkah, although he said a letter to it to confirm certain data such as student selection and number of special-needs students was not returned.
“This school has a problem, but we haven’t determined what it is,” Boyer said in an interview.
Among Beth Rivkah’s 165 high school students are children with learning disabilities (currently about 25 high school students are receiving remedial tutoring, as well as occupational and speech therapy) and immigrants, who represent about 10 per cent of the school, said Rabbi Mendel Marasow, Beth Rivkah’s executive director.
About 80 per cent of students are receiving a total or partial tuition subsidy, at a cost of $1.2 million this year.
Rabbi Marasow said that Beth Rivkah is taking children that other Jewish schools won’t. “Five years ago we had 35 to 40 special-needs students. Now it’s 65 to 70 [at both the elementary and high school levels]. And we are succeeding beyond anyone’s imagination.”
As an officially French school, Beth Rivkah is allowed to enrol immigrants, who often arrive with no English and/or French, and sometimes are already in their teens, Rabbi Minkowitz said. Moreover, up to 70 per cent of all students’ first language is not French, he said, yet they are doing all their secular studies in that language.
“Nobody from either of these institutes has ever visited the school to see first hand what we are all about,” he said. “We are the Jewish public school,” he added. “We run a very good school. We are doing what a school should do, yet we have to apologize for doing the right thing, for accepting children no other day school would.”
It’s hard to measure, but the two administrators suspect they’re losing good students because of the two institutes’ reports. “They say their intention in publicizing this information is to encourage schools to do better, but the fact is, it is having an opposite effect for us,” Rabbi Minkowitz said.
“There’s no question, parents are asking questions, donors are asking questions,” Rabbi Marasow added. He explains Beth Rivkah’s decline relative to its own past performance by the fluctuations in the type of students at the school in any given year.
Rabbi Minkowitz said schools shouldn’t be rated by crunching numbers alone.
“How do you measure success? For some students getting a mark of 50 is a major achievement, while the student that gets 80 should maybe have got 90 if they had worked harder,” he said.
And being a small school, it takes only one or two students doing poorly to bring down the average, he added.
“We are being penalized for giving all kids a chance,” he said. Rabbi Marasow added that the concern for students does not end when they leave the classroom. “We take a holistic approach to students’ welfare. If they need food or shoes or a mattress, we see to it. If they are not from religious homes, we expose them to the beauty of Judaism, and there are many extracurricular activities before and after school. What more can we do?”
The Jewish school with the highest ranking in the MEI report is Herzliah High School, Snowdon campus (English section), at 15th. The Fraser Institute also ranked this school highest among Jewish schools, although
it ranked 28th overall.