New Day School Collaborations in Three Communities
Boston: Going Far Together
The Boston Jewish day school landscape is a rich one; there are multiple Orthodox schools of different sizes, a Reform day school, a Conservative Schechter school and four community pluralistic schools. Our schools serve children from preschool to high school in communities ranging from Marblehead on the North Shore, to Sharon on the South Shore, Framingham in the west, and cities and towns in between. Our schools are generously supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Jewish federation in Boston.
Until March, much of the efforts and work of the heads of school was done individually. While we have gathered together over the past few years, the challenges and needs of individual schools often overruled the time and energy needed to collaborate on shared challenges such as transportation, group health insurance and marketing the value of Jewish day school.
On Thursday, March 12, two days after Purim, the Jewish day school heads convened for a conference call to discuss the public health crisis facing our communities. An hour later, in consultation with physicians from multiple preeminent Boston hospitals, we collectively made the bold decision to close our schools until after Pesach to safeguard our communities from Covid-19. Friday morning, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts convened administrators from public and private schools and cautioned against closing schools—a decision that was reversed four days later.
While this call was taking place, day school teachers were preparing their students and families for emergency remote learning, which would start the following week. It was an incredibly bittersweet Kabbalat Shabbat gathering that Friday afternoon. We had no idea that we wouldn’t see our students in person for the rest of the school year. For the next three months, while the calendars in classrooms were frozen in time, the heads were as busy as ever writing letters to parents, sharing templates for these communications, reassuring faculty and exchanging ideas, fears, struggles and successes together.
At the suggestion of CJP, a weekly call was set up for heads to discuss issues, brainstorm together and support one another in the rapidly changing landscape. As a group, we were fortunate to have the continued support from the physicians who became our medical advisory board. Their wisdom guided us through many decision points as they generously offered their time and expertise, each of them a day school parent from across the religious spectrum of our schools. As the spring marched on, we found ourselves sharing remote learning plans and ideas for community building. And in June, when the calendar dictated that the school year was over, our heads group committed to meeting all summer as a way to support each other with back-to-school planning.
There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Never has this rung more true to me and my head of school colleagues. Throughout our work this summer, we pushed ourselves to think more broadly than ever before. We committed to making decisions as the Boston Jewish Day School Community. Gone was any notion of one school being ahead or competing with one another. Instead, we saw the strength in our unity.
Collectively, we proudly committed to opening our schools for in-person learning in the fall. We offered a webinar for every Jewish day school faculty/staff member to hear from the medical advisory board about returning to school; over 300 participants attended.
Weeks later, we gathered our parents for the same webinar. They conveyed their belief that our shared decision to return to in-person learning in the fall, with many layers of safety protocols in place, was in the best interest of our children.
Our schools banded together for group purchasing of personal protective equipment (PPE). We shared reopening plans with one another, and we swapped data about cameras and microphones that best support at-home learners. Not surprisingly, we created our own Google group and WhatsApp chat to streamline conversations as our emails threads were lengthy and numerous. As time passed, we became not just colleagues but friends and each other’s support system.
Perhaps one of our greatest achievements was the decision to write a Boston Jewish Day School Community Pledge. Taking a verse from the Talmud, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (Shevuot 39a), we wrote a communal pledge asking families to agree to safety practices out of school, which would enable us to keep our students in school. This pledge addresses topics such as mask wearing, social distancing, daily health screening and travel quarantining.
With the school year having started, our heads group has celebrated each others’ increased enrollment and opening, and supported each other as problems have arisen. There are months ahead with many unknown challenges, but knowing that we have each other to rely on makes it easier to face the myriad and complex questions, problems and dilemmas that await us. The Boston Jewish community is stronger because of the heads’ collaboration, and our students’ education and experience is enriched by the wisdom and spirit of our partnership.
Chicago: ‘Together for Good’
ZIVYA FEIFEL MOSBACHER
Over 5,000 students in the Chicagoland area are enrolled in more than 15 Jewish day schools. While these schools represent diversity in size, religious affiliation, educational philosophy and more, they all came together to navigate challenges posed by Covid-19.
At JUF/Jewish Federation, where I work, it has been our practice to support heads of school, principals, social workers and early childhood directors through communities of practice. Along with our partners at ATT and REACH, we bring these educational leaders together to discuss shared needs, challenges and collective goals. This year, in the face of Covid-19, our day school leaders
began convening more frequently in unified efforts to support students, families and staff. We held weekly meetings to discuss physical and mental health, safety, remote instruction, logistics, increased scholarship need and more. Late night emails flowed
freely between schools, with sample language for school communications, bus protocols and newfound resources like health apps. We are seeing an openness to engage at all levels of these institutions; school administrators, teachers and lay leaders are working tirelessly to meet community needs.
In addition to operational issues, we’ve come together for group learning. Through the Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC), a partnership between four local funders in Chicago, JUF and Boardified, school staff have participated in virtual programming around employment law, financial planning, technology support, and health and safety considerations. This partnership has enabled schools to access the support of experts in a direct, coordinated manner, free of charge. We have then used our regular convenings as a place for group processing, as participants consider what implementation looks like at each of their schools.
Working together has helped our schools get what they need, faster. In April, schools raised concerns about cash flow, so JUF advanced allocations. In June, day schools and other Jewish organizations voiced the need for affordable, high-quality PPE. In response, JUF built an online shop to leverage our bulk purchasing power. Recently, we’ve heard that teachers need more professional development to support their practice of instruction in distance/flexible learning environments. JUF is working with TAC to bring virtual workshops focused on these topics to local teachers.
At every step of the way, schools have been providing timely, honest requests and feedback; JUF has done what we can to raise funds and send them out the door quickly; and schools have nimbly addressed very real operational concerns. We are all working toward our shared goal of making Jewish education safe and accessible for the children in our community.
Let me be clear: This hasn’t been a perfect process. Community planning never is. Timelines have not always aligned, schools have had to make decisions and then re-make decisions when new, changing guidelines have emerged. But we have remained in constant conversation with each other about new needs and challenges and how we can support each other in developing next steps. This is the key takeaway: Communication, partnership and a willingness to innovate are the foundation upon which we, collectively, have executed a comprehensive response.
Our day school system is an integral part of the larger infrastructure of Jewish communal life in Chicago. As the long-term implications of Covid-19 continue to shape our community, schools can increasingly serve as conduits, connecting families to needed supports such as mental health counseling and employment services. We are currently exploring how to leverage JUF human service agency expertise in this arena. In this instance again, listening to schools about the needs they are seeing, and adapting supports accordingly, is the best plan forward.
There is more work to do. And we will do it, together.
Los Angeles: Creativity Thrives in Limits
In our pre-pandemic world, our Los Angeles Jewish day schools operated under the assumption that unbounded learning environments are critical to both creativity and academic rigor. Though we often did not have the interest or the student population to support it, we associated excellence with breadth of program and expansiveness of facilities. Consider these examples:
All three major high schools employed computer science teachers and specified language teachers, none of whom had full teaching loads.
Nearly every Jewish day school in Los Angeles, even those within walking distance from others, built maker spaces.
Schools with struggling middle school enrollments raised capital funds to build extracurricular spaces.
Many schools with struggling enrollment run advanced studies classes that are only partially full.
At that time, our schools ran without serious consideration to shared resources and collaborative initiatives. Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Covid-19 has taught me, head of the Milken Community School, and many of my colleagues at other Jewish schools, that it is limitation—not openness—that forces the rigorous, collaborative thinking that leads to groundbreaking innovation.
The captain of Milken’s globally ranked robotics team told me that the constraints make the build interesting, and the more there are, the more creativity is fostered. This reminded me of watching two different versions of a lesson. In the first, a second grader had the unbounded engineering task to create a free-standing structure sturdy enough to hold an egg. Moderately challenging, maybe. The second version of the lesson was the same challenge with the following constraints: first graders have to work in groups of four; they can only use a roll of tape, ten straws, five pieces of string, and three paper clips; the structure has to be at least seven cm tall; and, they have only 12 minutes to complete the task.
Covid-19 gave Milken, de Toledo High School and Shalhevet High School what the lead educator at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco calls “creative constraints.” With the unpredictable unfolding of the pandemic, the yo-yoing of enrollment and tighter financial resources, all three schools were interested in how we could work together to maximize programming, minimize expenditures and foster the collaborative relationships we had as heads of school and wanted to translate to our school communities.
Initially, we were in touch about operations: when we were closing, how we were communicating with families, what digital platforms we were using, what were we doing about the need for more financial aid. In the late summer, these conversations morphed into more generative discussions about possibilities for the future. We talked about collaboration in three major domains.
What programs or facilities did each school have that were unique and could be shared? For Milken, this uniqueness lies in many of our signature programs, such as our Art, Architecture and Design Institute, or our signature spaces such as the Guerin Family Institute and Fab Lab.
How might virtual learning open up the possibility of joint enrollment? Could Milken’s Positive Psych class be open to students at de Toledo? Could Shalhavet’s computer science class be open to Milken students? Could we have one Chinese teacher between our three schools and run a joint program?
SHARED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
What training might we deploy for the shift to the virtual platform, and how could we think together about this to build a robust, differentiated program? We talked about mentor teachers at different sites, and how this program might enrich our training and onboarding programs.
As we brainstormed, so much of what we discussed seemed obvious. Why hadn’t we thought of it? What was stopping us? As our extraordinary online learning consultant Claire Goldsmith wrote (paraphrasing Churchill), “An education crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” For us, Covid-19 accelerated conversations and collaboration that has been long overdue. Covid-19 made all three schools have so much more in common and emphasized our overlapping missions. While this collaboration is still in a formative stage, we are hoping to actualize these opportunities this year.
It took a crisis to remind us of one of the central themes of Sukkot: Limitation fosters creativity and brings us back to the essence of who we are and who we could be. Building a sukkah is not an open, boundless challenge. Quite the contrary: In our sukkah, we must be able to see the stars and feel the rain, and our sukkah must receive more shade than sun. We move from our permanent homes— equipped, for many of us, with every modern convenience imaginable—into the sukkah, a transient, primal dwelling. There, we eat our meals, reconnect with friends and family, and study Torah. There we return to the sense of the infinite possibility. Stripped of so much that we were convinced defined us, we now imagine what we truly could be.
In many ways, Covid-19 has helped Jewish day schools in Los Angeles imagine what we could be.