HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Listening to Day School Dreams

by Sharon Freundel Issue: Educational Innovation JEIC

We Jews are a people committed to listening, as evidenced by our public declaration at Mount Sinai of Na’aseh Venishma, We will do and we will listen, our shared commitment to God. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks further illuminates: “[The word shema] is fundamentally untranslatable into English since it means so many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise, to respond, to obey… Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilisation.”

In our efforts to realize the benefits of listening in innovative ways, the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) seized an opportunity to hear from many diverse voices in the Jewish day school field by partnering with Prizmah to host “Listening Booths” at its biannual conference this past March. We wondered what JDS stakeholders would say are their dreams, visions and wishes for Jewish education, and we wondered how those responses might help day schools achieve the optimal results of students internalizing Jewish values that can help them develop enduring Jewish identities and connections to Jewish belief and practice. We invited conference attendees to participate in 20-minute taped interviews in which they shared their opinions and ideas confidentially. Confident in the impact these interviews could have on the field, we engaged a group of trained interviewers and an evaluation team. This provided consistency in the Listening Booth interview process and in the coding and analysis to ensure valid and reliable results.

Fifty-two participants shared their insights, and we listened intently. Some of the results validated what many in the field already believe to be true. Other findings were somewhat surprising, and some of the ideas shared were truly out-of-the-box. Below is a snapshot of data from the interviews, followed by highlights from the data gathered.

The Listening Booths participants represented diverse voices with some compelling similarities.

Of the 52 conference attendees who participated:

About two-thirds of the interviewees were staff members (including educators) in Jewish day schools.

Approximately one-third represented Jewish educational nonprofits, higher-education institutions and content providers, enabling us to engage stakeholders—including influencers and funders—aside from JDS professionals.

Of those affiliated with a JDS, two-thirds were from community or Solomon Schechter day schools, including one inclusion school, and one-third were from Orthodox or Modern Orthodox schools. This ratio closely mirrors attendance at the Prizmah conference.

About 40 percent held head of school or director-level roles, 34 percent were school principals or played key roles (e.g., admissions directors), and 26 percent were department chairs, teachers, consultants and board members. The diversity in roles allowed us to listen to a broad range of perspectives among JDS professionals.

Participants brought an average of 20 years of experience in Jewish education to the table and an average of six years’ tenure in their current role. The longevity of interviewees in JDS education and at their current institution was a surprising statistic given the trends we often hear about in the field. Perhaps this is evidence that people particularly invested in day schools’ long-term success also envision themselves in this career for the long term.

Additionally, 72 percent had been day school students themselves, and 86 percent were either current or former day school parents. Perhaps this indicates that those who are connected to day schools recognize their value and therefore want to see the field strengthen and grow.

Eight major themes emerged.

We were heartened to hear consistent points among participants as this underscored themes many feel have been circulating anecdotally in the field. Aside from these eight themes, several of the Listening Booths participants commented in some way about “making education relevant,” and numerous people shared the importance of relating Jewish content to the lives of current and future generations of children.

Building on Prizmah’s 2019 Conference theme, Dare to Dream, Listening Booth participants imagined Jewish day schools that:

Emphasize Child-Centered Approaches
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools focused on middot and mensches; social-emotional development; students thriving; good values over competitive academics; safe, comfortable and happy spaces; empathy and tikkun olam (transforming the world); gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness); consistent, long-term community service programs; students’ positive sense of self and of Judaism; holistic learning including cognitive, physical, spiritual and social-emotional; collaboration among faculty; student-centered pedagogy; and accessibility for all students.

Instill Passion and Joy for Jewish Learning
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools emphasized bringing fun and energy back to education; creating extraordinary and inspired Jewish education; making their school the epicenter of joyful learning; generating excitement; and growing lifelong learners.

Increase Diversity in Learners, Families, Teachers and Content
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools aspired to become a place with more students and families; a community spanning race, religious observance, socioeconomic background, language and culture; a community-oriented place; an educational institution with a wide range of learners and a variety of pedagogies; and a school where teachers are intentionally trained to accommodate diverse needs of students and families.

Individualize Teaching and Include All Learners
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools considered student interests when making curricular decisions; differentiated instruction; ways to maximize students’ individual strengths; the many paths people follow to find meaning in Judaism; and how to help students develop personal meaning from Jewish tradition and sources.

Increase the Jewish Educator Pipeline
Imagine the Jewish future if JDSs committed to identifying ideal candidates for leadership positions; finding and supporting aspiring Jewish educators; raising standards for Jewish day school professionals; and developing strong professional and lay leadership.

Professionalize the Field for Jewish Educators
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools made a dedicated effort to encourage specializations in Judaic subtopics such as tefillah and Israel education; provide guidance to teachers on how to “kick it up a notch”; redirect resources to provide better professional development; recognize professional development as the norm; grow strong Jewish educational leaders; and professionalize the image of the entire school staff.

Implement Best Practices to Increase the Quality of Education
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools would utilize best educational approaches such as inquiry-based learning; implement cutting-edge, student-developed lesson plans; incorporate intensive units focused on a single initiative; expand self-reflection and content knowledge among students; position day school as a popular option for general education; want other schools to emulate them; embrace accreditation processes reflecting schools of excellence; collaborate across movements; invest in both professional and lay leadership training; adopt innovation as common practice; arrange for educators to visit exemplary schools; and hold broader conversations around best practices.

Manage Affordability and Sustainability
Imagine the Jewish future if day schools dedicated efforts to broaden funders’ mindsets; positively disrupt enrollment and financial models; solidify the financial stability and sustainability of schools; and help families see “Jewish” as an added value rather than as a detractor.

Participants offered some ideas that have not been commonly circulated in the field to date.

Jewish day school stakeholders abound with creative, original and ingenious ideas. Our Listening Booth interviewees presented bold conceptions. They envision a field where Jewish day schools branch out by:

Using existing resources and buildings to expand the reach of day schools. This could be achieved by expanding pre-K to 12 education to include adult learning institutes that could bring more people into the building and cultivate new relationships to increase buy-in, revenue and support for the day schools themselves in the community. Another avenue for broadening day schools’ communal role would be to create additional “school-within-a-school” models across North America, whether for the inclusion of students with special needs or for the availability of specialty learning tracks such as the arts or STEM.

Educating about diversity while reducing costs through partnerships between day schools and Catholic private schools for travel and study for educators who have not yet had the opportunity to visit Israel.

Disrupting the financial barriers to enrollment by examining the financial models at Catholic and other Christian schools where they lower tuition for all by supplementing revenue with donations from large philanthropists; having day school leaders learn from other independent school models to better engage with available resources to make this type of Jewish education more affordable and accessible to all who wish to attend.

Reimagining middle schools by completely revamping the middle school experience. Instead of classes and a typical schedule, middle schools would implement a junior version of the dissertation process. Students would learn about real-world problems, challenge themselves, and work through interdisciplinary hands-on experiments to create actual, pragmatic solutions.

Creating local JDS systems, where feasible, to facilitate cost-sharing for logistics such as student transportation.

So many more ideas arose, and you can access the entire report here.

Out of this research emanates good news and an opportunity to be fearless. The good news is that there are a great number of impassioned, creative JDS stakeholders who are committed to improving Jewish education and creating the strongest and most enduring future for the Jewish people. These stakeholders have the ideas, and they are ready to execute them. The opportunity to be fearless means stakeholders in the field need to be ready to jump into action, collaborating, taking risks, innovating and inviting others (including funders) to be a part of the solutions.

Will it be difficult? Yes. Is it impossible? A fervent no. Are we committed to making progress, even one step at a time? Absolutely. As Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation and a strong supporter of transforming Jewish education, says, “It might be a dream, but it is not a fantasy.” Please join JEIC on our journey to radically improve Jewish day schools. Our shared success comes from partnering with JDS stakeholders like you. Let’s continue to imagine, experiment with and bring to fruition the vision of a bright Jewish future.

Are you ready to realize our shared dreams? Visit Prizmah’s Knowledge Center over the next few months to explore a series of articles that elaborate on some of the Listening Booths’ ideas and approaches to improving JDS education. May we all draw strength in our efforts to catalyze radical change in JDS education from the same directive Joshua the prophet received from God: Chazak Ve’ematz, be strong and resolute!

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