HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Leading Large Jewish Day Schools: Seeking Answers Together

by Mitchel Malkus Issue: Size Matters
TOPICS : Leadership

Malkus, a new head at one of the largest American day schools, has undertaken an initiative to engage leaders of large schools in a discussion to share challenges and successes. Here are some common threads thusfar.

When I began the headship at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School earlier this year, it became increasingly clear to me that large schools face challenges of developing infrastructure, building personal relationships with every student, and managing significant teams of professionals that differ from challenges other schools face.

I was in touch with a number of other heads who shared how they viewed these issues. One head confided that as her school grew, she felt that the unique community she had invested years in building was harder to maintain given the size and diversity of her school. Another head had reached out to me to compare the percentages that my school invested in professional development, tuition assistance and building infrastructure. With few similar schools, he wanted to benchmark his school with other large schools to determine where his school model fit. A third head called to discuss how he could identify senior leaders who had the breadth of experience and knowledge to lead a division in his school, when that division was larger than most other Jewish day schools. While these challenges are not new, they are areas of practice that deserve attention.

In reaching out to RAVSAK, I learned that there were no forums for heads and professionals at larger schools to speak with each other about what our needs might be as a subset of the day school world, as well as what kinds of leadership we might provide the field. Many in the day school world look at very large schools and see all of the resources, programming, and success and assume that large school may not have significant challenges. At the same time, boards of trustees at large schools may expect the educational leaders to have most of the answers to address issues as they arise.

At the recent RAVSAK/PARDES conference, a group of heads of large schools held the first of what I hope will be a series of ongoing conversations to help identify the unique challenges of our schools and begin to share the knowledge we generate with each other and with the field. Planning for and holding that first conversation brought to light a number of the issues large schools face.

What Constitutes a Large School?

Leading up to the conference, I asked the RAVSAK staff to provide a list of schools with 750 or more students that I could invite to join the conversation. The answer I received was that such a list would represent only a handful of schools, and instead the RAVSAK staff suggested schools of 500 students or more. That list includes 26 schools with a range of student enrollment up to approximately 1,300. There are only three schools with enrollments of 1,000 plus students in North America. While there may be many differences between the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School with close to 1,100 students and my previous school, Pressman Academy in Los Angeles with just under 500 students, both are probably considered large in the field of Jewish day schools. Defining what constitutes a large school was the first tangible outcome of the discussion.

How Does One Lead a Large School?

At the conference session, heads of the schools shared questions and challenges of managing faculties and staffs of over 100 people, ensuring that there is a consistent vision and approach to teaching and learning, and identifying principals and other educational leaders capable of running divisions in large, complex organizations.

After the conference, a colleague at another large school engaged me in a conversation of leading change in an environment with over 250 employees. This head shared that at his previous school which was much smaller, he made it a point to meet with and share his perspective on every new hire. At his current school, he could not possibly be involved in hiring beyond the key leadership positions, nor would he choose to do so. Although he saw this change in role to be essential at his school, he wondered how he can consistently insure that new hires fit the larger vision of the school when so many people were responsible for hiring.

A second head wrote me after the conference about a large-scale initiative she had launched that seemed not to be taking hold. She felt that she had laid the groundwork, allocated sufficient funds, and created buy-in, yet her principals reported that there was a sense among faculty that the schoolwide administration was acting on its own and had not consulted the faculty on the proposed change. This challenge typifies the kinds of management issues that confront leaders of large schools.

What Does Success Look Like?

A final area that emerged in our conversation at the RAVSAK/PARDES conference was how to benchmark our budgets, enrollments, retention rates and fundraising. For many of our large schools, our enrollments and programs grew steadily year after year. With the economic challenges of the past few years, large schools feel the need to learn from each other how different schools manage risk, contain costs and sustain our institutions in more difficult contexts. One area of risk is that large schools have built significant infrastructure that was supported by the large enrollments. The challenge is to maintain the infrastructure that may support a depth of programming and curriculum that our communities have come to expect as our current enrollments provide smaller revenue.

Just as every child in a small school may represent a major loss, shrinking enrollments in large schools can cause a revisiting of priorities. One example emerged from a conversation I had with another head leading up to the RAVSAK/PARDES conference. This head asked if we might discuss responses to parents who felt that smaller enrollments created a situation with few sections of every class in his high school. While his school had not cut back on the breadth of offerings, having fewer sections of the different classes reduced the ability of students to take electives because they often conflicted with required courses. In the past, students had more options for arranging their schedules; fewer sections cut down on these options. There was much discussion at the conference about the need for large schools to collect data and share knowledge with each other, so that we can all address these kinds of challenges with knowledge of different options, the wisdom of field leaders, and the benefit of our collective experience.

These were the first fruits of what we hope is just the beginning of a conversation that will identify the key issues that large schools face and begin to offer benchmarks and best practices for our largest Jewish day schools. While we have only begun to define and clarify the common challenges we face, there is also a very real sense that our schools have knowledge to share with each other that will be essential in addressing these issues.♦

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus is the head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. mmalkus@cesjds.org

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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