Drawing Strength from Prior Crises
Winston Churchill once said, ““Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We who work in the Jewish day school world are familiar with crises, both large and small. All of them offer opportunities to learn. Our particular crisis a decade ago has made us stronger, more resilient and better equipped to learn, reflect and innovate in our day school in this unprecedented time of Covid-19.
The Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in St. Louis was formed in 2012, the only known successful merger of a Reform and a Conservative day school. The new community school was created on the heels of a recession, over a two-year period, though a process that was excruciating, but also rich with learning.
Initial exploratory discussions about sharing office software and music teachers grew into conversations about bigger dreams: merging. One school had a new building, while the other leased space in a neglected temple education wing. One school’s head wasn’t continuing, whereas the other had a committed and respected leader at the helm.
Negotiations surged forward, then slammed into resistance. Both schools walked away at one point. Boards and staff struggled with deciding how we would eat, how we would pray, how we would teach Judaics to a pluralistic community. We couldn’t envision how everything we would lose could bring about something greater than the sum of its parts.
As the board president and head of school for one of the schools, we were catapulted into a world in which we had little experience. It was a 24-month roller coaster ride of rapid change, vocal and impassioned opinions from board members, faculty, rabbis, community stakeholders and parents. Fear, stress and trepidation about what we might be losing clouded our ability to identify the opportunities before us. It was hard to envision the future when we were facing our natural reaction to transformational change.
Nonetheless, we were exhilarated by the enormous potential of this new vision. The promise of a combined K-8 community school, with newly crafted mission and values, many more children and an unwavering commitment to excellence pushed us to persevere. Ultimately, with a strong board-head relationship, boards that ultimately looked at the big picture, and community leaders and donors who invested in the dream, the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School was born.
Several key ingredients made this possible. We sought out advice from others: federation leaders, merger experts, financial gurus, day school veterans in other cities, PEJE, NAIS and the best independent school leaders. Both boards weighed the pros and cons, and made brave decisions based on what was best for the children and the community.
We engaged in frequent communication with key constituents, especially parents. We listened. We shared carefully crafted information at key points. We surveyed, held coffees and town halls. We asked for feedback. We made mistakes along the way but absorbed, adjusted and advanced. There were arguments; tempers flared and coalitions formed; people mourned and resisted. Ultimately everyone awakened to the realization that the combined school was a much better place for our children.
Which leads us to the pandemic. Who could have possibly prepared for a pandemic and the way it would affect our students, teachers, board and community? Little did we realize how deeply our experience managing transformational change during the merger would impact the strength with which we navigated the uncharted waters of 2020.
We had experienced fear of the unknown and uncertainty about how long the crisis would last. We had learned to shut out the noise and put excellence for students first. We had sought out and applied the best advice from experts in the field, from board members and community leaders. We had leaned on the board-head partnership and supported each other once critical decisions were made.
So it turned out we were more prepared than we realized. We learned more than we thought and were able to call upon that experience, reflect on how we could apply a past lesson to the pandemic, and innovate.
HERE ARE THE LESSONS OF OUR TWIN EXPERIENCES:
Having gone through a crisis made us more prepared to manage transformational change. We made decisions on the fly, with good but often incomplete data. Yes, we made mistakes, but acknowledged them and kept moving forward toward our goal.
Steady and strong is vital (even when you’re not feeling it inside). The community trusted our commitment to making things right for the children of Mirowitz.
Seek out the gift of wisdom and experience from experts. We couldn’t do this alone. Our tagline should be, “Surround yourself with people smarter than you.” We gathered expert medical advisors and sought wisdom from board members on legal and organizational decision making. Our money has never been better spent on membership in Prizmah, NAIS, ISACS, DSLTI and others.
Listen, listen, listen. We’re going through a time of high anxiety, enormous uncertainty. People are nervous: parents, students, faculty, board. Acknowledge that anxiety, be kind and flexible whenever possible. Remind people of our ultimate shared goals: academic excellence, health and well- being of our students and teachers. Reassure that we will all get through this.
Change is hard; be sure to mourn what once was. But also celebrate what you’ve achieved that you couldn’t have imagined: new and rapid proficiency of technology; a quick pivot to remote schooling, a “Gala in the Cloud,” heightened partnership between board and head of school; launching a remote camp led by our young adult alums.
All this allowed Mirowitz to resume five day a week in-person school this fall. We are adhering closely to all CDC, state and county guidelines. We keep health and safety foremost in everything we do. And we continue to listen, learn, adjust and improve. It’s our fervent belief that going through a different but in many ways similar experience like the merger gave us the resiliency and confidence to come out stronger and better.