Collaborating to Serve Day Schools Better
I will be happy if I never hear some un words again: uncertain, unprecedented, unknown and unavoidable. I feel the same way about re words such as regression, recession and reduction, not to mention the co words coronavirus and Covid. Two re and co words do give us hope and optimism, however: remodeling and collaboration.
CREATING AN UNPRECEDENTED COLLABORATIVE
In 2019, several philanthropic partners initiated a new type of remodeling project in the Jewish day school field, one that could significantly change the impact coming from the professional development sector. Arnee Winshall, founder and then CEO of Hebrew at the Center, approached The AVI CHAI Foundation and JEIC with an idea that had never been implemented before: creating a professional learning community (PLC) composed of different educational providers who develop embedded expertise in day schools, ranging from pedagogy and curriculum to leadership development and culture change. This collaboration would bring leaders of various organizations together so they could learn about each other and from each other with an eye to sharing practices and exploring possible synergies.
The goal was for the group to identify and develop effective approaches for creating systemic, systematic and sustainable change in Jewish day schools. Our hunch was that remodeling the professional development provider sector would yield better and more enduring results for day schools seeking to transform their own cultures by embedding specific strategies based on provider expertise. Ultimately, we aimed to strengthen the lasting impact of these professional development providers on the day school field and to reduce day schools’ long-term reliance on them to sustain the new paradigms they were building into their schools.
Both The AVI CHAI Foundation and JEIC thought this was an intriguing idea and co-funded a pilot project, which we labeled DEEP (Developing Embedded Expertise Program). We envisioned DEEP as a conduit, built on collaboration, to accomplish a number of short- and long- term goals that would catalyze radical improvement in Jewish day schools.
Rachel Mohl Abrahams, then at AVI CHAI and now at the Mayberg Foundation, Arnee Winshall and I worked closely with Marc Kramer, long-time day school field leader, whom we engaged to facilitate the in-person and online meetings.
The kickoff meeting held in New York City in December 2019 foreshadowed a robust future for this initiative. The representatives of the provider organizations, while in initial trust-building mode, worked constructively together during a two-day gathering to envision what such a PLC might entail and how it might benefit the field of Jewish day school education. We developed two smaller working groups: one to explore synergies between the organizations and to discuss sustainability, and the other to map the provider field, gathering data not only on who these providers were and their pedagogies, but their educational philosophies and approaches to creating embedded experts within schools.
PIVOTING TO COVID
As the pandemic began, we put our collaborative minds to work. Of course, March arrived and with it, the dreaded co words. Our work as a PLC was temporarily put on hold. And yet, when we reconvened online just after Pesach, the positive co word, the spirit of collaboration that animated this journey, took hold of this PLC. Initial goals for this project included confronting difficult issues through group discussion in order to construct collaborative solutions, and developing trust among people and organizations. Remarkably, we saw these goals come to fruition right before our eyes in quite an organic way. The discussions became candid much sooner than expected with participants openly revealing their vulnerabilities and sharing the acute issues their organizations were confronting with the onset of the pandemic.
Concerns ranged from how to develop relationships from a distance with new school participants to how to navigate unexpected financial challenges. The members of the PLC began independently arranging meetings and convening sessions together. The potential of the group, which we thought would have to evolve slowly, quickly accelerated because the providers realized the valuable benefits that could result from collaboration and sharing, especially during uncertain times. I coined a Hebrew expression to capture the spirit of the project: Be’et hitbodedut, ein tacharut. In a time of isolation, there is no competition.
In April and in May, we had two whole- group remote gatherings in which the PLC members displayed their openness, honesty and sensitivity. Among the topics that surfaced and have been explored thus far: how to model continued calm and perspective—for our staff and for those in schools working with us; how to manage difficult interpersonal issues such as the need to make staffing changes; how to best pivot from in- person workshops, service, support and coaching to remote models; and how we might navigate unexpected situations that will inevitably arise from the constantly fluctuating conditions in the day schools.
SETTING NEW GOALS
In August, we continued this remodeling project with a further focus on collaboration. The group members reconvened to share with each other what they have learned from their work with the field and from the past few months of collaborative conversations. With continued transparency and candor, the group surfaced the following themes that will guide the PLC’s shared professional practice for this school year:
Creating online lessons requires a great deal more time and effort than in-person lessons for both teachers and providers. A hybrid structure where some students are in person and others are online is even more time-intensive and complex. Because of that, and because of ongoing ambiguity in terms of learning’s “location,” teachers have little headspace to look further out than the near term.
Previously, social-emotional health was in service to academic learning; that paradigm has flipped. Now, we see clearly that children can only focus on the academic pieces of school when they feel safe and a sense of belonging. The current conditions have elevated this point for administrators, teachers and parents—a point many DEEP organizations have emphasized for years.
To that end, many DEEP organizations are restructuring roles, processes and methodologies while maintaining their core principles. Their focus is now on developing relationships with educational leaders and teachers, as well as guiding school staff to do
the same with all of their students. It is essential to intentionally build in time for adult and school-aged learners to get to know each other, to connect on a personal basis, to develop authentic relationships with each other and to develop a sense of community.
While we need to find alternatives to in-person classroom observation for developing teachers, we also need to be vigilant about protecting children while they are online. This will require much pre-planning and reflection. An abundance of caution is needed when recording lessons in which children are visible or audible, and especially regarding the sharing of such recordings. If educational providers need examples or representations of active teaching, pre-recorded lessons are available at no cost from some of the PLC members.
As we move forward with DEEP, we are cognizant that while looking at the acute needs of Jewish day school education, we must support the remodeling that is taking place before our very eyes. We believe this newfound group effort among educational providers will serve to strengthen our day schools, yielding a more powerful, impactful and enduring learning experience for our students.
We see DEEP emerging as an important initiative that contributes to fulfilling our JEIC mission to help schools “optimize student internalization of Jewish wisdom, identity and decision making.”
As I look back on what happened with this DEEP PLC, I realize that there is an un word that will improve the field of Jewish day school education. That word is united. May we all continue to be united in our mission to ensure we are providing the most effective and engaging educational paradigms to our schools and their students.
We welcome organizations whose professional development model is to embed expertise within the individual day schools. If you believe that your organization might fit the paradigm of the DEEP PLC, please let us know.