Aimee Close

Aimee is Prizmah's director of Stronger Together, a new Boston-based initiative created in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Beker Foundation. Learn more about her here.

Stronger Together: A Boston Based Experiment in Day School Collaboration

The Greater Boston Jewish community is fortunate to be home to 14 Jewish day schools. They include Orthodox yeshivot, Modern Orthodox schools, a Reform day school, and several pluralistic schools, ranging in size from about 40 students to over 400 students. Each school operates independently, and all receive financial and non-financial support from Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Boston’s local Federation.

Last year, CJP, Prizmah, and The Beker Foundation partnered to launch a pilot initiative based on the premise that collaboration among these 14 Jewish day schools would strengthen the entire system by increasing quality and/or decreasing costs across the network. Prizmah was brought in as the operational partner for the project, and CJP, Beker, and other local funders are providing the initial investment for the three-year pilot. A full-time director was hired, working for Prizmah and based in Boston, and Stronger Together was born.

Laying the Groundwork

When the project launched in December, the first order of business was to build relationships and trust. We started by hearing what makes each school unique, identifying their most urgent needs, and learning about the types of collaboration that might interest them. What emerged from those initial conversations was a long list of potential initiatives that fell into four main categories: Shared Resources, Teacher Support & Professional Development, Student and Family Programming, and job-alike Groups.

While we initially began by casting a very wide net as we considered various types of initiatives, the focus of our efforts became narrower as we learned more about what would be most helpful to the schools and where we could potentially have the greatest impact. 

We were very clear from the beginning that all of our initiatives would be “opt in.” We believed that if we came up with the right projects that met real needs, schools would choose to participate. 

t was also clear early on that there were varying degrees of interest in collaboration, and that most of the interest was focused around shared resources and teacher support/professional development. That was where we decided to focus our energy.

First Initiatives 

One of the first things we did was to schedule regular monthly meetings for all the heads of school. While the heads had begun convening during the previous year, those meetings had been less frequent. As part of Stronger Together, the heads now meet every month on Zoom, with two meetings per year in person. Meeting monthly has allowed us to establish a regular cadence of communication, helping to build stronger relationships and greater trust among the heads.

We also realized that in order for our efforts to be successful, we needed to build relationships not just with the heads, but with other school leaders as well, and we needed to help them build relationships with each other. We began creating other “job alike” groups, starting with the admissions professionals and the Jewish learning directors, both of whom now meet approximately quarterly to discuss common issues, share ideas, and support one another. In the coming months, we hope to add a group for STEM coordinators and one for science teachers. 

In some of those early meetings with school leaders, we heard that many schools do not have the resources to research grant opportunities, or the time to write those grants once they are identified. We decided to use Stronger Together resources to hire a shared grant writer to do some research and identify foundations that may be a good match for our schools. Once the best matches are identified, we will subsidize the grant writer’s hourly rate for those who want her help in applying for those grants.

Community-wide Professional Development Day

The idea for a community-wide professional development day came out of a brainstorming meeting with the heads of school back in March. We were discussing several potential initiatives when someone noted that there had been conversations going on for years about shared professional development, but nothing had ever come of it. There was a general consensus that the idea was worth pursuing, and a few people agreed to attend an initial meeting to discuss it. We all agreed that the topic would need to be compelling, and something they could immediately use in their classrooms. We eventually landed on the practical uses of artificial intelligence in the K-8 classroom. We chose a date at the end of August, which was the first day of staff week for most of the schools, and we hired the Future Design School of Toronto to give the keynote address and facilitate breakout sessions.

The day was a huge success, with close to 350 teachers and administrators in attendance. As far as we know, this was the largest gathering of Jewish day school educators in the history of the Boston Jewish community. The topic was timely and relevant; the presenters were top-notch and highly engaging; and teachers were excited to be spending an afternoon with their peers from ten different schools, gathered together for a shared purpose as the school year was about to begin. Although many participants were required to attend, most reported that they really enjoyed the day, and the vast majority said they learned something new that they are bringing back to their classrooms.

New Initiatives 

As we continue to learn more about the needs of the schools and where there is appetite for collaboration, we are launching some new initiatives in the coming months.

Faculty Sharing Initiative 

Several of our Orthodox schools had part-time teaching positions that they were having difficulty filling. We encouraged the schools to see if they could work out arrangements to share teachers (rather than compete for them), which would also potentially make the positions more desirable for the teachers. Three pairs of schools are taking us up on our offer to subsidize the sharing of faculty. This has enabled these schools to hire teachers that they probably would not have been able to hire otherwise, and has had the added benefit of creating stronger, more cooperative relationships between the schools.

Coaching for Math Teachers 

To help increase excellence in math instruction, we are offering coaching for math teachers in our network. A public high school teacher and former day school parent, with many years of experience, will offer her services to teachers looking to improve their pedagogy around math instruction. A second coach, who is a math professor at a local college and has taught in Jewish day schools, is also available to coach math teachers on how to create content outside of their textbooks, and plan fun, motivating activities, which help students acquire basic skills and fundamentals. The hourly rate for these coaches will be subsidized by Stronger Together.

Shiluv Disability Educators Fellowship Program:

Stronger Together is excited to be partnering with Gateways, a Boston-based organization committed to the full inclusion of all students in Jewish education, to create a year-long program for day school teachers committed to building more inclusive communities in their schools. Teachers will participate in a series of ten trainings over the course of the year, as they develop foundational grounding in the philosophy of inclusion and strategies to implement programming in their schools that develops an inclusive mindset and appreciation of individual differences among students.

Some Early Lessons

For communities considering similar experiments ion collaboration, here are a few lessons we’ve learned so far: 

  • There needs to be a person on the ground in the community to serve as the home address for this work. As one head of school noted, “none of these things would be happening without a central coordinator.” 
  • Relationship building is the key to successful collaboration, and it takes more time than we think to build necessary trust. 
  • There was a limited response when we first asked the schools about their interest in our initial projects. As we began to have some success, the level of interest increased. The more successful initiatives we implement, the higher the participation rate we can expect as we continue to build trust and credibility with school leaders.
  • The most successful initiatives are the ones that emerge organically. The more conversations we have with school leaders, the more ideas bubble up. We have learned not to try to impose anything, not to get too attached to any particular idea, and not to be afraid to let go of things that are not getting sufficient support. 
  • Be patient! For many different reasons, even great ideas may not be successful. This work requires a certain tolerance of failure, and the curiosity to understand why something failed, so that the next attempt will have a better chance of success. 
  • Funding sparks interest. Offering subsidies to encourage collaboration gets people’s attention, especially in smaller schools where a little bit of funding goes a long way. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Some initiatives we are considering for the future include a focus on teacher recruitment to help all of our schools recruit and retain the best teachers, a multi-school 8th grade Israel trip, and a shared benefits consultant to assist schools in putting together the best benefits packages for their staff. 

As we move into year 2 of this 3-year pilot, we will continue to build stronger relationships and continuously find creative new ways to help one another and to share resources for the benefit of the network. We are excited and energized by what we’re learning here in Boston, and hope that our focus on collaboration will ultimately lead to a more thriving and sustainable day school community, and will be a helpful model for other communities across North America.