A conversation with Hannah Senesh Community Day School’s head of school Nicole Nash and board chair Judy Schoenberg
There’s no question this year was hard on Jewish day schools. In challenging times, leadership is put to the test, and the quality of the board-head partnership has the potential to either promote resilience or compromise the school’s health.
The two of us are notorious for hosting board conversations in the form of periodic “fireside chats” as a way to convey updates and engage our community. This model has been successful in bringing the most pressing issues to the fore, while sharing our dynamic partnership in an intimate way. A sample fireside chat is below.
Senesh was able to stay open since September, primarily with in-person school for the lower school and a hybrid model for the middle school. What contributed to this success? Can you share reflections from how you and Judy have handled Covid? How were key stakeholders impacted?
Nicole: Throughout this time, we’ve had to balance the needs and desires of constituents while prioritizing the health and wellbeing of our community. This wasn’t always easy—even in our tight-knit community. From the very beginning, it was clear that multiple voices needed to be heard. We collected feedback through staff and parent surveys (one most recently about how to handle quarantine after Passover) to make important decisions that would affect students, parents, and the health and safety of the teachers.
More than just collecting feedback, we demonstrated that it is being acted upon to create transparency in the decision- making process. Trust and confidence in the school are critical. Communication to the community at each major decision point, and sharing how we got there, became the bedrock for our community being responsible for each other.
Occasionally we got pushback from parents, who were also managing their families’ needs and work demands. Clearly this is a challenging year for staff, and their feedback was instrumental regarding decisions around school testing, adding professional development days, and managing in-person and remote learners simultaneously.
A strong partnership between the head and the chair is the backbone of a functioning school. Can you tell us about what attributes make your partnership strong? And what are the individual qualities and skills you each bring that complement each other’s leadership? Give us a flavor about how the partnership works in action.
Nicole: During the first year of her tenure as chair three years ago, Judy and I spent time aligning our vision of how to work effectively together and getting to know each other’s leadership style, which were highly complementary. I’m an executor at heart, and the pandemic let these skills shine. Judy was actively involved in mentoring and supporting me as I built my professional leadership team and delegated more so that I could take on greater external responsibilities.
As a chair deeply committed to building a positive culture for the board, Judy invested time not only in me, but in growing board committee leadership so that we had high-performing teams and a thoughtful and productive board environment. This all paid off when we went into crisis mode: we had the foundation of being a listening and learning culture spearheaded by professional and lay leadership that cascaded down throughout our community and built trust.
If I had to isolate the qualities that made me successful during this time, I would say openness, resilience and a “make it happen” attitude. For Judy, I think she brought empathy, comfort with ambiguity, collaboration and calm. I would bounce ideas off of Judy before bringing them to our larger Covid task group; she was my daily sounding board. It was invaluable to have someone who was so involved to help me think things through before bringing ideas to our medical team.
Talk about how you used your mission to guide you during this process—related to your work with the board and the school program.
Judy: During Covid, the board responded to the challenges of the moment by keeping our vision, mission and values at the forefront of decision-making. They were our north star. It was fortuitous that the board had spent last year working on brand identity and messaging work, which included revisiting our mission and values as well as creating a new tagline for the school: Rooted in wisdom, ready for the future. And our response to Covid proved that this tagline was more true than ever!
Can you give some examples of how you and Nicole led with the mission and values “in action” during this time?
Judy: Guiding decision-making in mission and Jewish values was true whether the board was making financial or health and safety decisions for the school. Although the past year brought challenges that we would never have imagined, by living our values of hatmadah (perseverance) and areivut (responsibility), we met those challenges head on together. As we have walked this masa (journey), we have seen our board rise to be the best team we can be.
The board supported hiring new staff and invested in technology to ensure that the newly designed distance learning was successful for teachers and students. It prioritized financial aid for families who were hardest hit by the pandemic, and ensured that every student and staff member had PPE. The board ensured there was alignment between decisions and core values every step of the way. These parameters were guideposts that the school needed to ground us in a shared vision during this difficult time.
Nicole: In terms of the program, we led with our mission to plan social action projects during the pandemic, such
as our community fridge program and schoolwide cooking projects for local shelters, which both aim to provide food to those who are food insecure during this difficult time. We had weekly Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat events with upwards of 300 participants including current parents, grandparents, alumni, alumni families and staff. We had a meaningful virtual kesher day, with grandparents and assemblies to gather together for support and celebration. We’ve learned so much about engaging various stakeholders and aspects of the program (especially in regard to technology) that will be “Covid keepers,” new practices preserved long after Covid ends.
Did you have a Covid task group? What role did the head and chair play in that?
Judy: Along with professional staff and health professionals from the parent and alumni community, there were several trustees on the Covid Task Group, which formed in March 2020. Nicole and I were in lockstep about how the group functioned and its roles and responsibilities. The group is still working together to ensure the health and safety for students as the pandemic conditions evolve and change. We are so grateful for all their sound medical guidance, time and ongoing commitment to our school.
How do you manage the day-to- day demands of a crisis and think strategically about the school’s future at the same time?
Nicole: While we are very much in the present navigating new norms, in order to fulfill our responsibility to steward the mission, as a team, Judy and I have not lost sight of the future. In fact, Judy challenged me to lift out of the day-to-day management of Covid at the end of the summer to turn our attention to updating our strategic priorities, and I’m so glad we did that.
We are taking what we learned from the intensive self-study we conducted last year for our 10-year NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools) accreditation process to identify priorities and create a refreshed strategic roadmap that will guide us, with trustees and staff leading key task groups and committees.
Judy: Here we see the strong partnership and dedication during Covid to advance the health of the school come into play again, as we plan for a vibrant future, even during these uncertain times. As a part of this process, we also reflect on the impact of Covid in our community and beyond. Practices of reflection and being nimble that we have cultivated for years have helped us grow from our experiences now.
Can you share anything else about what’s up and coming that you’re looking forward to?
Nicole: This year, the professional staff and board have been engaging in diversity, equity and inclusion training to further realize the school’s original mission to build an open and inclusive day school. In 2018 the board passed a diversity statement, and we continue our work in building a school community, programs and policies that value difference, foster inclusion and belonging and support our students to be agents of change towards a more just world both within and outside the Jewish community. As diversity was a core area that came out of our accreditation self-study, this work is critical to moving our strategic roadmap forward.
We believe that our successful partnership is an effective model of how joint decision-making, creativity and communication during challenging times can have the unexpected results of greater engagement and trust—impacting school culture long beyond an immediate crisis.