Schools and Their Founders
Founding a school requires vision, leadership and resources. There are certain things that founders bring that may not be unique but are critical to the success of an institution, both in its founding and in its continued success. The vision sets out the aspiration that motivates those who are involved in founding a mission-driven organization to dedicate the tireless energy required to get it off the ground. It is this vision combined with passion and persistence that fuels such an undertaking. As founding leaders of schools in Boston and Northern California ourselves, we have interviewed founding heads and board chairs of several day schools to explore both the initial qualities of successful founders and the roles that those founders play in the school even after they depart.
In the Beginning
As an organization takes shape, the founding leaders are the ones who shape the mission and set in place the culture. Each of those with whom we spoke reiterated that “culture eats strategy.” A strong culture is developed through intentionality and repetition. Throughout our many conversations, the recurring lessons that emerge are the importance of being intentional every step of the way, of saying what you mean and doing what you say, and of setting the culture in place from the beginning. These critical elements serve as a cornerstone on which the future is built.
When a school is being founded, there is no history, there are no graduates or results to point to. How do you recruit students and their families when you are starting out? It is the story of what is possible that captures the essence, values and the culture you intend to create. Bruce Powell, the founding head of de Toledo High School in West Hills, California, recounts the power of telling the story. He talks about how painting the picture of what is possible is more compelling and important than going over the details of the program and the curriculum: “Tell the story and be the story.” It is here where founding leadership plays such a key role.
In the case of a school, the partnership that forms between a founding board and its founding educational leader sets a tone and enables that story to be told to attract those first chalutzim, pioneer families, students, staff and board members. Lay and professional leaders do best when they work as a team, each playing a particular and complementary role. The founding educational leader sets the culture in the school while the founding lay leader/s sets in place the governance and philanthropic culture.
The benefits of a team also can be found within the professional and lay structures. For example, Michael Bohnen shared that when Gann Academy was founded, there were two key board leadership positions partnering with the founding head, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann: the founding chair (Bohnen) and also a founding president. He focused on external relations, including philanthropy, while the president focused on the fiduciary and governance aspects of the board.
Founders launch schools, but how do they adapt for success beyond the startup phase? Interviewees argue for the importance of maintaining a founding mission that prizes both eternal and adaptive values. Founders should model this balance as they lead with passion, artfully delegate and ultimately make way for new leadership. In addition, as was pointed out by Joel Pelcyger, founding head of Pluralistic School One in Santa Monica for more than five decades, leaders need to balance humility with the courage to lead: “Don’t make yourself the center, but you need to be a presence, too.”
The school’s mission, that driving force that inspired the founders to open a school, provides direction as a healthy school embraces change. Mariashi Groner, the founding head of Charlotte Jewish Day School for over 30 years, stresses the importance of being open and flexible to curricular change while maintaining a strong commitment to the mission of the school. She moved to Charlotte to make Judaism accessible to any Jew. She discovered that creatively engaging children was the way to make this happen best, and it remains her passion guiding all that she does.
It is important to understand that organizations, like people, go through developmental stages and have different needs at different times. Some schools begin with a small group of dedicated lay leaders who then recruit a professional to actualize the institution. Some are started by educators with a vision for the teaching and learning environment they want to create who then recruit the lay leadership. The division of labor may begin with one set of boundaries, but as the school grows, the lines of responsibility can shift often and rapidly.
Arnee remembers acting as interim head of school, interim admissions director and interim development director (in addition to cleaning the bathrooms). Other board members acted as business managers and marketing directors along the way. Making sure that there are clear expectations and a clear delineation of responsibilities is key to a successful partnership.
Establishing and maintaining a culture of ongoing reflection, clear communication and clear delineation of roles pay dividends when founding professionals and lay leaders serve an institution over many years. As founding head for over two decades, Dean and his lay partners credit the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) for insisting on this in their formative years. This lesson proved more valuable than any grant or any particular individual. A cultural commitment to process and reflective practice has guided the best work at the school.
On the other hand, without a process and an openness to change, there are certain elements that can impede the growth and success of an institution beyond the founding phase, to which both founders and others who are in leadership roles must pay attention. As one founding board member pointed out, it is important to remember that even the founding chair gets only one vote. If you stay on the board for an extended period of time, there is always the chance that others will be inclined to defer to you and your status, but it is up to you to model the humility of being just one voice. In addition, a founder can either hinder progress, be resistant to change and new ideas and leadership, or can foster an adaptive, generative culture and growth mindset.
As a school matures, there is always a question as to the role of the founders. At Arnee’s school, JCDS Boston, the board made the decision that she would have a permanent position on the board as founding chair. She aspires to adhere to the principle of one person, one vote, while finding ways to earn her place on the board. Others who have remained on the board of the schools they helped to found affirm that a key role they play is as archivist and historians, able to link the past with the present and the future, guardians of the mission and the culture. In addition, we understand the importance of not only continuing to support the school financially but also helping enthusiastically in the development efforts. Our role as school champions sends a strong message about our continued confidence and belief in the school and demonstrates allegiance and commitment over time.
Intentionality about leadership transitions is vital to maintaining a dynamic relationship between the mission and change. Mark Shpall, who was a founding staff member at two-decades-old de Toledo High School, successfully transitioned into the headship five years ago, following Powell. While many schools go through difficult shocks during such change, Shpall credits his smooth transition to the intentionality of their process for change, and how vital it was for the board’s leadership in this area.
As Shpall shared, “The board has, since the school’s founding, been process- and mission-oriented, allowed professional staff to lead operations, and, aligned with this spirit, committed to innovation and change as part of its mission. They committed to having two heads of school for an overlap year and cultivated their relationship with me, understanding they were getting someone very different in style to the founding head. They wanted that, and I needed time to adjust to a very new role. And the school supported me further through my enrollment in JTS’s Day School Leadership Training Institute Program (DSLTI), which prepares new heads for success.” Like de Toledo, the leadership at PS 1 has similarly recognized and invested in intentionally planning the leadership transition by staffing up as Joel Pelcyger prepares to end his tenure.
By maintaining a relationship with those who have played leadership roles in establishing a school and guiding its growth, a school can contribute to its continued success and strength. As one founding board chair observed, transitioning those past leaders into advisory roles provides the current school leadership, lay and professional, with access to wisdom, expertise and financial support from those who have demonstrated their commitment to the institution and are invested in its success. Of course, while the founders potentially have much to offer, nevertheless boundaries must be clear and new leaders empowered to lead. Their greatest legacy lies in leaving the school in good shape and good hands.