Differentiating Our Schools from the Competition
Differentiation in the classroom, artfully executed, undoubtedly holds the power to enhance student growth and development. In part, it’s a matter of identifying individual student strengths and potentials and capitalizing on them. Similarly, on a broader scale, identifying and capitalizing on the strengths and potential of our schools is a means of differentiating them from the competition, and thereby enhancing their growth and development. Such growth and development both moves us closer to providing the richest, most meaningful learning experiences possible for our students and enables us to reach robust enrollment levels.
To consider how to differentiate our schools, let’s begin by identifying the competition: for many, other Jewish day schools; for all, a variety of non-Jewish school options (private independent, other faith-based, public, charter). It is not taboo to see other Jewish day schools as competition (albeit friendly). The conceptualization is of a rising tide that lifts all boats, catalyzed by each Jewish day school’s efforts to build, strengthen and clearly articulate and promote its unique characteristics and strengths. In such an environment, families would be drawn, overall, to the Jewish day school options within their geographic reach, and they would select the option that is most consistent with their particular beliefs, circumstances and goals. Naturally, if each Jewish day school’s efforts to build, strengthen and promote itself are thoughtful and comprehensive, then those efforts will differentiate it from the non-Jewish school options too. The goal is for all Jewish day schools to reach new heights and maintain market positions of competitive strength.
Thoughtful and comprehensive efforts to build and strengthen our schools are the focus here, including an important note about marketing. According to marketer Chuck English, “We are part of an experience economy in which there is increasingly no distinction between marketing and the brand. For schools, that means that great experiences are the best driver of marketing, and therefore the most effective school marketing involves creating remarkable experiences.” Which begs the question: What should we do to create remarkable experiences that build and strengthen our schools?
Ensuring academic excellence is a must. The education we offer must be the best option for families and students; not equal to, but the best. This means recruiting, hiring and retaining talented teachers. It means having written curricula and regularly evaluating and refining those curricula. It means having written standards, assessing whether those standards are being met consistently throughout the school, and regularly evaluating and refining those standards. It also means having written rules and policies.
To be sure, we are not promoting rigid adherence to rules and policies. Their existence is, in our estimation, tremendously helpful for an excellent academic program. With rules and policies in place, there is then latitude to interpret them and even make exceptions to them as we see fit. Indeed, the act of interpreting rules and policies in light of differing circumstances, and sometimes making exceptions to them, can be an important way to differentiate our schools from the competition. An example is course placement for a student who may not meet our full criteria for an advanced class, but who is close to the full criteria. Sometimes that student, when given the opportunity to take the advanced class, will shine beyond our wildest expectations. Another example is a student who participates in athletics outside of school, with a practice schedule that encroaches on the school day. Technically, allowing such a student to remain enrolled in the school could be a violation of an attendance policy. But if the family is committed to Jewish education and is willing to pay for outside support for the student to keep up with her/his work, then it might be worth making special arrangements in order to retain the student and the family.
Solid customer service is another step for our schools to take. Families feel valued and positive about our schools when faculty and administrators listen to their thoughts and concerns with an open mind, when their ideas about new initiatives are solicited in advance of implementation, and when faculty and administrators respond to phone calls and emails in a timely fashion and follow up consistently. Implementing true, ongoing, schoolwide customer service requires time, organization and diligence. It requires human beings working in the school to push themselves to make an extra phone call that is not in response to a problem or question. It involves a recognition that our schools exist in partnership with our parents and communities, and making that recognition manifest with stakeholders each and every day.
Having considered factors that help to put our Jewish schools on a level playing field with the other outstanding schools in our communities, we turn to what is unique about us. The unique features of our schools hold transcendent meaning, tapping our ancient traditions and texts, using the Hebrew language, exploring our individual and collective identities, connecting students to their unique communal history, building bridges with the State of Israel, etc. As Rabbi Bob Abramson wrote (“Kedusha as an Integrative Focus”), the sacredness and sanctity of our schools’ missions and prudent management of our schools’ growth are not mutually exclusive.
To the greatest extent possible, we should leverage what we have that cannot be duplicated. The Jewish nature of our schools is itself a differentiator of significant value to be communicated. We instill Jewish values in our students. We make mentsches. We oversee rich, meaningful recognition of and participation in the chaggim (Jewish holidays), and include parents and other community members when appropriate. We mark lifecycle events for our families. We celebrate in times of joy. We serve as an anchor in times of difficulty and tragedy. Continue to give Jewish identity and culture thought and attention because we hold privileged positions of influence, because they are part of our obligation, because they are among the best ways to elevate our schools.
While the unique features we have noted thus far are apparent to the majority of our current families and prospective families, we hold additional differentiators that need to be brought to light. Foremost among them is the quality of leadership fostered in Jewish schools. Professor Robert Sternberg (“Testing for Better and Worse”) argues that today’s leaders need two qualities in particular: creativity and wisdom. Creativity is usually dependent on context, involves divergent thinking, can lead to multiple good answers, regularly deals with a lack of structure, and is often dependent on multiple perspectives. The exercise of wisdom is unique because it involves dialectical and dialogical thinking and a consideration of ethics, competing interests, values and the role of the common good.
The creativity and wisdom described by Sternberg pulsates within the interdisciplinary learning that is endemic to the dual curricula of Jewish day schools. Although the balance of Judaic studies to general studies and how each is taught may differ across our schools, our students are all, indeed, immersed in interdisciplinary learning. When Jewish text, Jewish history, the arts, English, Hebrew language, other languages, history, math and science are part of students’ regular educational programs, connections are made across those disciplines. Sometimes these connections need to be initiated by teachers, but given the fertile interdisciplinary ground we occupy, students often find the connections on their own. They may begin to see, for example, that verses of Tanakh inform American literature, and that thinking about the two together brings new and deeper meaning to each. Or they may realize that the study of genetics opens a world of ethical considerations that can be teased out through Jewish law. Research has demonstrated that when students make interdisciplinary connections, they exercise many of the same intellectual and social-emotional muscles that Sternberg attributes to leading with creativity and wisdom. Specifically, interdisciplinary learning stimulates the ability to move beyond preconceived notions through consideration of multiple perspectives, to think critically (which incorporates divergent, dialectical and dialogical thinking), to tolerate ambiguity/lack of structure, and to acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns. Our dual curricula are a unique strength in cultivating the skills and habits of mind required in today’s world.
Study of the Talmud similarly embodies the criteria for Sternberg’s categories of creativity and wisdom. The Talmud is a tradition representing a variety of voices, perspectives and interpretations, all addressing issues and problems of timeless import: issues of ethics and morality, issues that engender competing interests, and problems for which there is more than one correct answer. The talmudic ethic elicits discussion, debate and collaboration. It builds skills in developing and supporting reasoned arguments, as well as listening skills. Its focus on relentless questioning hearkens to today’s inquiry-based learning. It gives our students a leg up on their competition, and we ought to sing its praises loudly and frequently.
We face challenges. Enrollment, the cost of operations and high tuition levels are significant barriers to overcome. But we have very good reason to persist. We have a legacy to protect. We have a history to honor. We live in a world that needs our contributions. We have the raw materials to achieve at extraordinary levels. If we use what we were given and differentiate ourselves, the fulfillment of our unique missions will follow.
We are grateful to Chuck English of English Marketing Works for his insights and comments related to this article.