HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Limitations for Community Schools: Proving Dr. Obvious Wrong

by Jerry Isaak-Shapiro Issue: Strengthening Community
TOPICS : Community

After seven years (and more to the point, seven winters) in Northeast Ohio, I’ve finally stopped kvetching about frozen pipes and ice-skidding (walking, driving). Like every other city and region, Cleveland has its share of peaks and valleys and everything in between, and I’ve learned to adapt and live with—if not entirely embrace—those forces of nature that once made me long for the pretend winters of the West Coast.

The limitations on our community schools are self-imposed, not externally placed upon us. How profoundly do we believe in the efficacy of a true community model—and how skilled will we be in creatively building that model?

There is however a much more substantive criticism I have with my adopted region, one with which I haven’t made peace. There seems to be a rock-solid mistrust of regionalism in Northeast Ohio, which results in a series of contiguous miniature hamlets, each with its own fire and police departments, municipal pool, city hall and of course mayor and “city” council. Those living within a block of another city’s pool are considered “aliens” if they live beyond the border (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) and can only use the premises when accompanied by a resident and with payment in hand. This hyper-cantonization inhibits regional cooperation and is terribly financially irresponsible, particularly in an era in which effective inter-governmental cooperation should be on everyone’s to-do list.

Wasteful and we’ll-go-it-alone politics (a close cousin to NIMBY selfishness) provide a useful metaphor for community schools, albeit from a negative, don’t-do-as-we-do perspective. Even granting certain positive reasons for a mini-municipality to develop neighborhood pride (but do Main Streeters really need their own anthem and flag?), the annoyance of not using their pool is indirectly connected to not being able to rely on their fire department or police; and paying taxes for the upkeep of our parks and running trails subtly morphs into a soft jingoism with regard to them (the non-taxpayers) using those same parks and trails. The fact that all this slicing and dicing of neighborhoods occurs within the same few miles of geography makes it all the more absurd.

Discussions about the limitations on the concept of community have been around as long as people have engaged in the idea of community itself; indeed, boundaries are one defining element of the territory within those borders (i.e., the “limitations”). For a community school not to genuinely probe the realities of its limitations is to evade and avoid any serious conversation about its vision and mission. This should not be misconstrued as an apologetic response to the tiresome straw-man argument—no school is the school for all students—too often flung into the conversations about community schools. Thank you, Dr. Obvious. Of course no school is the school for all students—but that is not and never has been the point of pluralist schools. The question is not whether to draw any lines at all; the question is just where to draw them.

To discuss where to place the boundaries begs an even more fundamental question: what is the value of “community” in a community school? Why and how are we to delimit that community before an appreciation of its merits? This would be similar to advocating for a smaller class size (i.e., a smaller teacher:student ratio) without making the case for its value; many if not most might intuitively reach the same conclusion, but schools need to either argue the validity of the presumed value or make a strong case for its repudiation.

Community in and of itself can be a social value, and can be used to amalgamate various phenomena, including solidarity, commitment, mutuality and trust amongst its members. To this add the particularistic good that community brings to American Jewry in the 21st century: the tangible and psycho-social/emotional connectedness required by a diverse and vastly dispersed, tiny segment of the American population—if that tiny segment wishes to retain its historic connectedness (after all, it is kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh—not “Some of Israel is responsible for some of its fellows”). The fact that community also plays a crucial symbolic role in generating a people’s sense of belonging only underscores its value for America’s Jews.

It’s clear that there are universal and particular values inherent within a community model, which forces us back to the line-drawing question: what are the limits and limitations of the community school? Whoever wants in is a difficult and sometimes even painful challenge; many of our schools would lead with their institutional hearts and open the front doors for each and every student and family with an application and a percentage of the tuition in their hands. This would come the closest to providing the straw for the “no school is the school for all students” argument. The friendly amendment to that admissions criterion, the one that emanates from both heart and head, would be: whoever wants in, and whose needs can be met and who can benefit the larger community into which s/he enters.

The third conditional phrase is the easiest; nearly every student, irrespective of his/her learning style and cognitive capabilities and certainly with no regard to socio-economic status, will bring benefit to the student population. The who-wants-in criterion is not to be blithely dismissed either; the desire to belong to the whole (Groucho’s dictum about membership notwithstanding) is powerful in its own right, and allows for the student (and his/her family) to contribute to the greater school community. The trickier piece is clearly the middle proposition: admitting the student whose needs can be met.

Here I’ll posit that the limitations of our community schools are not so much in our technical or even financial constraints, but are rather aspirational. Do we genuinely believe that reaching out to the broadest segment of our community is the objective to which our schools should aspire? If so, then we need to develop our infrastructures—our financial, educational and philosophical frameworks—accordingly. Annual fund and endowment campaigns; pedagogical and curricular (and hiring) strategies; and the purposeful development of multi-denominational approaches must be sewn seamlessly into the school’s mission and vision. The limitations on our community schools are self-imposed, not externally placed upon us. How profoundly do we believe in the efficacy of a true community model—and how skilled will we be in creatively building that model? Those are the only real barriers that lie in front of us. ♦

Jerry Isaak-Shapiro is Head of School at the Agnon School in Beachwood, Ohio. He can be reached at jisaak-shapiro@agnon.org.

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Strengthening Community

What do we mean when we call our schools a “community”? How does the Jewish diversity that typifies community day schools coalesce into its own community? What happens when the various communities that exist both outside and within the school come into conflict? Discover ways of understanding and strengthening the community of your school and its position within the larger surrounding communities.