Managing Transition – The Role of the School Board
In the spring of 1998 I was appointed as Headmaster of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT and later TanenbaumCHAT). I had been Head of Bialik High School in Montreal, and knew very little about Toronto. During the interview process, the school was described as a school of 750 students. No-one mentioned growth. On arrival at the school in the summer of 1998, I saw very quickly that the school could be poised on the edge of explosive growth, for several reasons: 1. The Toronto Jewish elementary schools, (our feeder schools), were doing a much better job of retaining their students; 2. We were doing a much better job at recruiting and retaining them (increasing the proportion of students continuing on to Jewish High school from 30%-40% to 80%); 3. Our school redefined its character as a community school, and was perceived as much more ‘user-friendly’ to a wider spectrum of the community; 4. We radically improved our recruitment literature, our admissions process and our marketing; and 5. The reputation of the school climbed rapidly in the late 1990’s - early 2000’s, so that it became not just acceptable but fashionable to send your child to TanenbaumCHAT. We built on recruitment success by working hard to improve and expand the experiential dimension of school life (sports, Shabbaton program, Israel trip, clubs and co-curricular). We also worked on retention, improving from 85% annually to 93%-95%.
It became very apparent that if we were to cope successfully with this growth, our school needed to change. Quickly. Since then, most of my professional time has been spent managing change in every area of school operations.
Over the ensuing nine (now coming into ten) years, the school doubled in size and completely transformed itself. In the first year (1998 – 9), we organized and implemented the largest refurbishment and expansion programme in the history of the school, implemented at breakneck speed in the summer of 1999. In the following summer, faced with severe overcrowding, we seized the opportunity to rent a vacant high school some 20km north of the existing site, and created a second branch to serve our burgeoning North Toronto constituency. At the same time we began working with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto on long-term plans, which culminated just a few weeks ago with the opening of a sparkling $30m+ purpose-built new building. A further improvement to our original campus is our next step. Along the way we implemented a thorough professional restructuring of the school, involving a number of senior Administrative appointments, and had to recruit 100 or so teachers!
Throughout this process of fundamental transition change, the Board of Directors, too, underwent significant changes. The leadership changed rapidly early in the process; new leadership who were perhaps more ready to undertake far-reaching decisions replaced leaders who had served the school honorably and well for a number of years. It was not without some tension. The new leadership swiftly showed itself ready to form new partnerships, principally with our local UJA Federation, and understood that to command the support of UJA Federation and of the philanthropic support that UJA Federation was able to introduce to the school, the school had to be integrated more fully into the ‘community’ context. There was also the realization that the governance structure of the school was no longer appropriate for the size and dynamic of the ‘new’ CHAT, and a series of outstanding lay leaders steered the Board through a constitutional review and a review (in reality, an endorsement) of the school’s ‘Statement of Philosophy and Purpose’. In doing so they formalized and legitimized appropriate new governance, reassuring the parent body (and the community) that they were not afraid of examining their own process and structure, either.
The most important result of the constitutional review was – in my view – the provisions it made for renewal of leadership. No Board member may serve for more than a fixed number of terms, and no President may serve for more than two 2-year terms of office. In that way it ensured that there will always be movement in the governance structure of the school. Movement attracts talent.
Yet the changes in the Board went far beyond that. A very strong sense of process emerged. There are ‘firewalls’ in our system (for example, the lay/professional firewall between policy and operations) that serve our school well. The deliberations of the Board and its committees are conducted in an atmosphere of good order and respect for principles (and principals!) and individuals. But in addition, the culture of governance changed. Once the Board, as an entity showed itself ready to tackle major decisions in one area – initially construction – they began to be more aggressive (in a positive sense) about other areas of school life.
In undergoing major change, the attitude and skills of Board leadership are critical.
They have to be wholeheartedly behind both process and implementation – not least because the process of change is profoundly unsettling to other constituencies in the school as well, and Board members have to be seen to be leaders and supporters.
The Board leadership – the president and executive – have to be careful to fully engage the rest of the Board in decisions and policy. Communication, explanation and information are essential.
The role of the school professional leadership – the head of the school and administration – are also crucial. They, too, must be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and must be conscientious in providing the Board with input and advice arising from their practical understanding of school operations.
The Board (and the administration) must be prepared to change and be changed by major school decisions.
Finally, one very personal lesson that I learned over the last ten years is the value of negotiating skill. Every decision and every change involves negotiation in one way or another. Every negotiation involves weighing alternatives and giving way in smaller or larger degree. To effect change and to move forward – and every institution, especially a Jewish school dealing with a rapidly-changing community, has to adapt, change, or die - you have be flexible and continually negotiate. Good, skillful negotiation makes the difference between reaching your goals by conflict and confrontation, or by consensus and ‘good feeling’. It is one of the rarer, but more important, skills in our professional and community lives. ♦