If You Build It, Get Them to Come: Marketing a New School

Tikvah Wiener

Whenever I think about starting on a new—potentially exciting but also possibly terrifying—journey, I think of Avraham Avinu, our patriarch Abraham. He is called by God and leaves his birthplace, with the Torah emphasizing that he parts from the many aspects of life that most people prize: familiar family and friends, a community where he is known, a homeland that might be dear and precious. Or I consider Ruth, “among the alien corn,” as Keats puts it, someone who has chosen to be a migrant, a foreigner, because she feels called to something beyond herself, something she perhaps doesn’t quite understand but somehow knows is right. What I most admire about Abraham and Ruth is their certitude and the dispatch with which they carried out their plans. Most of us struggle with uncertainty, doubt, fear and insecurity when embarking on a new path, particularly when it seems scarily innovative and risky.

Building a new school definitely falls into the category of risky and alarming, and the path to starting The Idea School, the interdisciplinary, project-based learning Jewish high school I’m opening in September, has been no different. When you consider that the school’s model hasn’t yet been done in the Jewish world, you might ask: What made you embark on this seemingly crazy path? And just to be clear: Since the school hasn’t even opened yet, we’re really still in the process of leaving our native land, but I want to share some highlights from the journey, in the hopes of making the change process transparent and perhaps less frightening to those who might be considering innovations in their schools.

Step One: Heed the call

About seven years ago, I saw a video about the High Tech high schools in San Diego. They’re public charter schools that use interdisciplinary, project-based learning and were founded by Larry Rosenstock, a carpenter-lawyer turned educator who doesn’t believe in tracking, since he “doesn’t want to mispredict what kids can or cannot do.” When I saw the video, it truly felt like God was calling me—I know it sounds sappy, but it’s true—and even though I tried to resist the call for a long time, eventually time made it evident that this was what I was meant to be doing.

Step Two: But do your homework

It took me six years from the time I first saw the video to the moment when I announced I was opening The Idea School, which will be at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, New Jersey. In that time, I not only had to develop expertise in project-based learning (PBL), I also had to learn how to open and manage a nonprofit. In that time, I implemented PBL in the institutions I was in visited the High Tech schools numerous times took like-minded educators there made Larry Rosenstock a mentor (I really gave him no choice, and lucky for me, he loves to advise colleagues who share his educational goals) enrolled in High Tech High’s Educational Leadership Academy program for a year visited schools and institutions that practiced project-based learning and its close sibling, design thinking, and delved into the literature and research about the pedagogy.

I also began finding and training Jewish educators in PBL and formed the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, now The Idea School Institute. In the four years my partner Dr. Eliezer Jones and I have been at this work, the Network has trained over 1,000 educators. Running our PBL conference, the Summer Sandbox, on the East and West Coasts enabled us to get a sense of which educators and schools were interested in educational innovation and how we could partner with them to amplify their and our work.

Receiving a grant from the Joshua Venture Group (now Upstart), an organization that seeds Jewish social entrepreneurs, enabled me to gain the experience in nonprofit management that I needed and connected me to a network of Jewish innovators who were interested in impacting the Jewish community in 21st-century ways. The grant gave me the confidence, knowhow and community I needed to embark on the journey of starting a new school.

Step Three: Establish the need

If God isn’t literally whispering navigation directions, as God did with Abraham, how do you know if your innovation is right for you and your institution?

I live in Bergen County, New Jersey, and one of the signals that it was time to open the school was the talk I began hearing about the lack of seats in the neighborhood high schools. The local federation gave me the demographics for our catchment area, and it turns out the “anecdata” was borne out by actual statistics: The community was growing, and eighth graders were going to need more choices.

Step Four: Build your case

Making the argument for The Idea School has been one of the most crucial parts of starting the school. Luckily, around the time I started working at Magen David Yeshivah High School in 2014, the Jewish Standard asked me to be in their cycle of op-ed writers, and it was there that I moved from speaking to educators on my blog about educational innovation to educating a much larger audience about it.

That led to many conversations over Shabbat meals and in the aisles of supermarkets about the host of reasons kids might be disengaged from learning: because their learning styles and abilities don’t match with traditional education; because they don’t find relevance, meaning or joy in particular subjects or disciplines; because a generation raised on technology and the autonomy it generates needs to be taught differently; and the world we live in also requires a new way of learning.

I was happy to have any and all of these conversations, and when the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, a film that’s about why education needs to change and that highlights the High Tech Schools, reached the market, I showed it often in various neighborhoods, including my own. In fact, parlor meetings for The Idea School have sometimes consisted of a viewing of the film with a Q and A after. Having become connected to Gary Jacobs, the funder who started the High Tech Schools, I was even lucky enough to have him host one of the post-film discussions and appear at a parlor meeting.

The more research I did and the more teachers I trained, the more I felt comfortable giving answers not only about why a new high school in Bergen County was needed, but about why it should be an interdisciplinary, project-based one.

Step Five: Expect many challenges and obstacles

One of the reasons I love PBL so much is that it prepares students for the real world by giving them the emotional tools and stamina to deal with challenges and problems that are part of daily life. When school is about studying for tests, it becomes a marathon of memorization and a competitive game where s/he with the highest test score wins. We all see the high levels of stress and anxiety our kids are under, starting at younger and younger ages. PBL, as we know, focuses on assessments and growth in learning, and exercises kids’ resilience muscles by showing them that learning is about trying new things and making mistakes, and achievement is not only about reaching goals but about tackling the obstacles in the way of them.

Opening the school has been a great lesson in internalizing these PBL lessons and an opportunity to deeply practice what I preach. One of the biggest obstacles I faced during the school’s first admission season was that the school lacked a location. The journey to finding one was long and often arduous. Persisting through the uncertainty of not knowing where the school would be at a time when parents and students needed that information was very difficult. And it wasn’t just parents and students who deserved that information. “Where will the school be?” was the first question anyone asked about the school. I wanted to talk about the exciting model the school was bringing to Jewish education, but everyone else wanted to discuss where we would be.

Step Six: Have faith because ...

When I was up late riddled with uncertainty, doubt, fear and insecurity, I remembered Ruth and Abraham, and that gave me the strength to continue. I would wake in the morning, read another article that continued to build my knowledge base, work on curriculum and continue to reach out to contacts about location. When one of my board members told me, “You need to call any and every place in Bergen County that’s zoned for a school,” I thought, Well, I emailed the JCC awhile ago. Maybe I’ll try again.

It turns out, that was the right thing to do. By the time we reached out to the JCC a second time, the leadership team there had heard of our school and what we were trying to accomplish. Our educational vision matched their organizational one, and we were able to make a match that excited both of us.

In fact, being at a JCC has opened up possibilities for The Idea School that we only could have dreamed of. The JCC in Tenafly has an acclaimed music school; an art studio; gardens run by GrowTorah, a Jewish farming organization; a gym with numerous classes; a pool, track and tennis courts, and more. There are programs for adult seniors and people with special needs in the building, as well as a Reggio Emilia-based preschool and a Hebrew learning program. The facility also abuts a state park, so connecting with nature, one of the school’s goals, will be easy. Being in an established facility also means that we won’t be taxing the community with another building, and so the location also has become a way for us to stay true to our institutional goal of being financially sustainable and sound.

In short, when my board and I partnered with the JCC, we felt like we had won the lottery, and in retrospect, it seemed like the path to the school’s location had been leading all along to Tenafly. What we learned from the search to find the right place is that persistence and faith are key.

Step Seven: ... you’re not alone

It might seem as if embarking on a new path is work you do alone, but looking back at each step of the process, you can see that that wasn’t the case. When I first saw the video about High Tech High, I was at a school where I had started a PBL program, and one of my students told me, “You should start a high school.” I remember saying, “No. No, I can’t do that.” But even then, the seed of the idea was planted, and at the same time I was saying “no” and thinking “that’s crazy,” I was also thinking, Hmm. What if? And when I think back on that day, I remember being in a room surrounded by students who were recognizing the value and importance of what we were doing educationally. In fact, a parent of one of those students reached out as soon as he heard we were opening the school, asking us how he could help, joining the board, attending our many events and making us institutionally sound.

I started the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, the professional development arm of The Idea School and now called The Idea Institute, with a partner who has become a close friend, and the Network connected me with other educators and Jewish innovators passionate about changing education and communities and “woke” to the reasons why we need to do so.

Our various parlor meetings yielded additional board members and ambassadors from the community who have become staunch supporters. Gathering parental advocates is crucial to the success of any new initiative we try in our schools, and I don’t think we spend enough time explaining to our parents the why behind the changes we’re making and showing them the benefits of those innovations. This is definitely an area our schools and institutions need to focus on more as we grow and develop.

And of course, The Idea School is no longer simply an idea: We have an inaugural grade of students and are honored that they and their parents are joining us.

Coming full circle

Abraham and Ruth possessed a faith that led them to a whole new life and place. I started by saying they were alone, called by God to a new life and purpose. The change journey may feel lonely, but as I discovered, it leads you to realize that in truth we’re never alone. Abraham was accompanied by his wife and helpmeet, Sarah, and a relative, Lot. (Lot later became an obstacle, true, but at least he was willing to give Abraham’s new life a try.) Ruth, of course, famously cleaved to her mother-in-law Naomi, making sure that Naomi didn’t travel her road in solitude and in turn finding a community and founding a dynasty that made the Moabite woman’s choice a matter of national fame and pride.

I wrote this article not to make light of the obstacles we face as we embark on innovation in our schools. The hurdles and problems that arise are real, complex, thorny and often dispiriting and depressing. There are a thousand and one reasons never to get started on new initiatives or to drop them when they get complicated.

But I hope you persist. It’s worth it, and we all have the tools to succeed. And if or when you falter and feel alone, just email me. I’d be glad to help.

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