Jewish day schools generally function as individual domains. A number of barriers prevent schools from working together to combine and synergize their strengths, including a lack of vision, trust, proper staffing and school capacity. When a group of five schools were able to develop the vision and proper staffing to work together, the added ingredient of a capacity-building organization actualized this reality.
According to researchers, elements that make school partnerships successful include a commitment to improvement and a willingness to adapt new practices for the benefit of current and future learners and educators. Participants must share mutual respect, understanding and trust; have the ability to compromise; and understand that collaboration is in their self-interest. Other important factors include a history of collaboration, goal-sharing, flexibility, adaptability and an appropriate pace of development. This same literature points out that partnerships require hard work and an emergent process that takes time to develop; if they are successful, they can achieve more than individuals working alone.
“Leading together” has come to mean something completely new for most heads of school in the time of Covid. We have had to rely on local health departments, state mandates and medical task forces rather than our school boards or board chairs. Even more importantly, we have had to rely on one another, as heads of school, to generate ideas and protocols, and to garner the emotional support we have needed to get through this unique time of crisis. For many, it has been the first time that peers in leadership roles have had to rely on each other so heavily. But in order to manage and guide their school communities in the most productive, efficient and effective manner, such reliance was essential.
CLOSE ALLIANCE FROM AFAR
Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, Connecticut, has fruitfully engaged in a partnership of leaders for the past six years. Our alliance is with a group of professionals who head day schools in small Jewish communities in Rochester, Greensboro, Omaha and Birmingham. Despite geographical distance, our partnership has created some of the most interesting, innovative and important learning experiences that Jewish students are having in day schools today.
The alliance serves to further the learning of our students, and to provide professional development for our teachers and a support network for one another across schools. This partnership has produced all of this and so much more. The by-products of our collaboration include a three-year innovative middle school curriculum, virtual learning experiences, group travel and students connecting to peers in other small communities.
Our journey as an alliance began over a long weekend in which we were brought together by a former mentor we had all shared. We spent a good part of the first day lamenting our common difficulties given our similar sizes, demographics and scarcity of resources. On day two, having establishing a sense of openness, free communication and non-judgmental frameworks, we shifted our focus from what we were unable to do to the possibilities we might encounter if we banded together. From this arose two mutual interests: the need to engage in the teaching of social justice and the desire to connect our middle school students with other Jewish teens. In order to accomplish these goals, we developed trust among our school leadership and staff.
Our school cultures had similar sensibilities, which informed the purpose of our collaboration. We each held fast to the notion of innovation through experimentation. We were committed to building community for our students and for our faculty through collaborative opportunities. We shared a vision and were committed to a unique purpose. As Jews, we understood our obligation to acknowledge injustice in our world and, more importantly, to act when we recognize it. We saw these Jewish concepts as a powerful avenue by which to engage and excite our middle school students, to help them become change makers and the leaders of the future.
SUFFICIENT WILL, INSUFFICIENT RESOURCES
J. E. Austin, author of The Collaboration Challenge: How Nonprofits and Businesses Succeed Through Strategic Alliances, described the elements necessary for success as clarity of purpose; congruence of mission, strategy and values; creation of value; connection with purpose and people; communication between partners; continual learning; and commitment to the partnership.
Although we had these elements, we still struggled to achieve our goals. We lacked resources including sufficient funding, staff, materials and time. The question remained: How would we move forward with our goals and plans without access to these fundamental resources?
It took almost three years to put together our sixth grade curricular unit. Our collective commitment to the process was just not sufficient. We were only able to meet once a year in person to work together. That meant paying for teachers to come along so collaboration could begin. It meant paying faculty to work on curriculum development over the summer, and it meant allowing for time during the school day for collaborative work among teachers. All of these endeavors proved complicated to achieve.
Being in three different time zones and having teachers with varying degrees of skill and knowledge with regard to Jewish and secular topics took a toll on the efficiency of coproducing our first curricular unit. Then came the challenges of how to teach virtually (this was pre- pandemic, so we had no experience to rely on). We managed to apply for and receive a small grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, which enabled us to buy some hardware, but most importantly, it came with a coach to walk us through the virtual learning process. The second two years of the curriculum were built more efficiently, really as a desire to keep the momentum going to enable our students to have a consistent learning experience and using the lessons we had learned in struggling to put together our first-year curriculum.
The alliance schools had imagination, drive and ambition; yet, like many small schools, there was a scarcity of Judaics teachers. Additionally, the skeletal staffing, often found in small schools, inhibited the alliance from engaging in the necessary reflective time to further develop, strengthen, assess and document our efforts. Even with good staff and vision, the heads of school found themselves taking on the additional responsibilities required to facilitate these programs, and not one had the bandwidth to do so in the most effective and efficient manner.
A PHILANTHROPIC PARTNER
Enter Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), which jumpstarted this undertaking by providing us with additional leadership and partnership. A grant from JEIC has enabled our schools to fund our needs for digitally enhanced collaborative learning and to reimburse teachers for their time and expertise in writing and reviewing curricula. Our work with Rabbi Shmuel Feld, JEIC’s founding director, has allowed each of our schools to identify the tasks and actions required to move its project forward. This included establishing a formal structure for collaboration, setting targets, constructing a deliverable and replicable action plan, assessing and refining our curriculum, building capacity in our teachers and leadership, and maintaining regular partner involvement. In short, JEIC helped by providing more thinking time, organization and curricular leadership, which provided our schools with greater capacity.
JEIC has given the leadership and faculty of these schools the opportunity to come together regularly, to articulate the educational philosophy, the content, and most importantly, the Jewish lens through which we build our institutions in which teaching and learning take place. Rabbi Feld has guided us in reflecting on what we have already accomplished and where we could move forward with renewed strength and capacity. The curriculum flows from the applied understanding of the verse in Micah (6:8): Do justice, love kindness enough to advocate for it, and begin the personal understanding of God, the nation of Israel and the Land.
In the true spirit of Jewish day schools, our association with JEIC has given us the opportunity to use, more strategically and intentionally, a Jewish neshamah (soul or spirit) to guide our endeavor. One of our lessons learned has been that with the right leadership, even successful partnerships can grow stronger, wiser and more committed, in ways they might not have been able to do on their own. The keys to making this partnership successful lie in producing trusting relationships, generating a shared vision, finding or developing the right staff, and partnering with organizations that add capacity and wisdom to our schools.