How a Central Agency Can Catalyze Community Resources Effectively
BJE: Builders of Jewish Education, founded in 1937, is an independent nonprofit serving the greater Los Angeles area and the only organization in LA dedicated solely to supporting and enhancing Jewish educational experiences, from early childhood through high school, across the full Jewish religious and cultural spectrum. BJE provides programs and activities that connect families and children to a broad range of Jewish educational opportunities.
In Proverbs we read “Hanokh l’naar al pi darko,” “Teach a child according to his needs.” BJE extends this educational dictum by accessing and leveraging resources in support of school-based education. We work to strengthen schools, educators, students, board members and families according to their needs, partnering with them to create and provide value. The impact of this work is substantial, systemwide and enduring.
BJE’s Center for Excellence in Early Childhood & Day School Education serves more than 50 early childhood centers and 37 Jewish day schools. These schools, with total enrollment exceeding 15,000 students, mirror the religious and socioeconomic diversity that characterizes LA Jewry. With a limited budget, we serve as an advocate, planner, catalyst and creative leader in advancing Jewish learning. How do we do it?
First, we listen…a lot! We engage in ongoing school visits and needs assessments with our schools. Second, we see our schools both as unique, autonomous organizations and as part of an interconnected educational system. As each school improves, we know that others will take note and want to follow suit. Third, we secure investment from the Federation, individuals and foundations who recognize the value and substantial impact our services and programs have on the schools. Fourth, we create strong, trusting relationships between BJE, funders and schools. Fifth, as a result of continuous feedback and evaluation, we are nimble in terms of what we offer (and fund).
As day schools were adopting SEL (social and emotional learning) programs, we offered joint workshops in the Responsive Classroom approach for schools that chose this program. This approach led immediately to a broader community of practice (CoP).
Based on requests from schools, we conducted seminars in governance and development for board members. This program led to improvement in professional and lay practice within individual schools, as well as in the larger day school community.
In order to encourage financial stability and viability, BJE initiated day school affordability and endowment development efforts on the communal and individual school level. Through funders and school-based efforts, the campaign for affordability in high schools raised $17 million for participating schools, and the elementary school endowment campaign raised $65 million for schools. By working within a collaborative process, rather than alone, each of the schools improved its professional practice and its “yield.”
One of the most important things we do is create and sustain CoPs for a variety of school positions, including heads of school, early childhood directors, development directors and Hebrew specialists. These CoPs function as support networks, as well as ways to quickly disseminate best practices. The agendas for these meetings are set by the members.
Again, our ability to create such opportunities leads to widespread school improvement, collegiality, and an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to learn together and appreciate one another.
Rather than impose an agenda or specific approach to school improvement, our annual retreats for day school and early childhood administrators are built entirely on input and feedback from school leaders. As a result, these events are well attended, greatly appreciated and result in significant follow-up activity at many of the schools.
BJE represents 27 of the 37 BJE day schools accredited with the LA Unified School District to help schools access Federal Title I & II funds. The funds are to be used for instructional services, counseling and professional development. BJE works with each school to ensure that its submission of requests is accurate and creates impact on the school. BJE helped schools access services in 2017-18 valued at close to $2 million. School leaders realize that BJE’s involvement yields greater financial support for each day school and for the day school system.
BJE accredits Jewish day schools. We require schools first to receive accreditation from statewide accrediting bodies; then they participate in an additional, more demanding “Finance & Governance Self-Study Process,” which includes site visits, data collection and consultation. This process is done at no cost to the school and has helped schools become stronger, more viable institutions. Topics addressed have included updated administration of parsonage arrangements, compliance with tax requirements for faculty tuition-remission programs, updates in legal issues connected to enrollment contracts and harassment and immunization policies.
Several years ago, BJE identified a law firm specializing in representation of schools and school districts, and created a legal consortium open to its accredited schools. For a modest annual fee (scaled based on school budget), schools benefit from ongoing seminars, updates and consultation on legal issues relating to schools and enjoy reduced rates for school-specific services. While a few schools continue to maintain a relationship with their own attorney, this approach gives the majority of our schools access to attorneys and legal information that will help them act appropriately in all areas of school operations.
A grant from the Jewish Community Foundation has helped BJE create Project EnAble, a program that makes educational therapists available to day school children (at their schools) at reduced rates. BJE screens specialists and coordinates the project, saving the schools time and money, while providing more families access to academic and emotional support. By coordinating the therapists, BJE can provide timely access to a variety of therapists.
There’s a saying that “you have to be visible to be valuable.” Much of our work with schools requires face-to-face meetings. With so many schools, spread out over 470 square miles, it is difficult to visit the schools as much as we would like. We use Zoom, phone calls and email to bridge the gap and maintain constant connection with administrators.
The relevance and methodology of BJE is all about relationships and perceived value. Continuous communication flow between BJE and our schools, and access to funds and programs, improve schools individually and strengthens the entire school community. Our schools see that we care about them and work hard on their behalf. They trust that we know them and will help them fulfill their mission. Finally, with an “all boats rise” approach, we see that improvement in one school leads to system-wide improvement. Leveraging resources communally is a multiplier that is often more valuable than a check.