HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


A Primer for School Growth

by Daniel Alter Issue: Size Matters

The joy of watching a day school grow comes with a great many challenges that are often unanticipated and difficult to prepare for. Alter offers a roadmap based on his school’s own navigation of this process.

A few years ago I organized a meeting for our eighth grade parents to discuss an upcoming school trip. The first two parents who arrived began talking with each other, and it became immediately apparent that they had never met. I was shocked! After all, we were a small school that was proud of the fact that our school community feels like a family. How could parents of children in the same school, let alone the same class, not know each other? In discussing this episode with other faculty it became clear to us that the nature of our school community was changing.

When I began my tenure as head of school at Denver Academy of Torah our school population was hovering between eighty and ninety students. Next year we expect to reach a student population of close to two hundred. As our student population has grown and we have transitioned from a small school to a mid-sized school, we have been forced to think about the impact of this growth on our school ecosystem and respond accordingly. We have tried to be proactive when possible, but every so often we find new unexpected areas of impact. Virtually every aspect of school life has been affected in some way. Here are areas where we have had to make changes as our school has grown.

Marketing

For many years our school marketed itself as providing individualized attention through a small teacher to student ratio. As our typical class sizes grew from an average size of eight to sixteen students, and now will often reach twenty students or more, we have had to rebrand ourselves. Ironically, we now talk about the academic and social benefits of large classes. While both messages are true, it is virtually impossible to move from one identity to the other overnight. It is critical that school leadership think in a proactive way about how to slowly shift the message in a way that resonates and is genuine. Shifting the message in such a drastic fashion requires forethought and time.

Professional development

One of our sources of strength has been the achievement of teacher stability and a low turnover rate. Now, however, our teachers who were afforded the luxury of teaching small classes for many years must teach classes that are more than double the size of what they were once used to. Professional development for our teachers in recent years has focused on pedagogical skills that support them in differentiating and individualizing curriculum, a more significant challenge as class size grows.

Admissions

This last academic year was the first time in our school’s history that we had to contend with fully enrolled classes, and the first year we had a waiting list. As a result, we have had to reexamine admission policies. In the past, certain policies were driven by a desire to fill empty seats for purposes of improved socialization. In a very small class, difficult or insurmountable social challenges can exist. As a result, growing the size of the class becomes a priority, often leading to overzealousness to accept new students even when they are not a good fit for the school.

Additionally, schools are often at the mercy of families who request far more tuition assistance than what is fair and reasonable or make other demands on the school. While we continue to see ourselves as a school with a mission to serve our constituency, today we find ourselves in a stronger position to make decisions that are in the best interest of our school and our students. Our admission policies have allowed for stricter evaluation of what a family offers as far as financial, goodwill and volunteer resources.

Development

Our school has a lean but strong development office. Although our annual fundraising success continues to grow annually, we need to be cautious before patting ourselves on the back. As our school has grown we now have more core stakeholders in the form of parents, grandparents and other friends of the school. As such it is natural and necessary that our development efforts should grow at the same pace. Of course, more students in Jewish day school often means more money to be raised due to the high percentage of tuition assistance we provide. It is important that growing schools remain vigilant against a false sense of success due to population growth.

Capital plans

We have run out of space. We are desperately short of classrooms, administrative offices and storage space, and we need a larger lunchroom. Capital campaigns require fundraising that can be 10-30 times the size of annual fundraising and require intensive planning, organization and effort. Growth can outpace a school’s capacity and resources, in which case it is important to manage the growth and plan appropriately.

Policies and guidelines

On the first day of this school year we discovered a major problem with our student pick-up procedures at the end of the day. For several years, we had managed the long line of cars awaiting children and carpool members with an administrator who walked the car-line and transmitted the names of waiting families via walkie-talkie to a teacher inside the building. The corresponding children were then sent outside to meet their ride. This year, however, the car line was so long that it wound through the entire parking lot and blocked street traffic! A new protocol was quickly developed and implemented. This incident inspired us to examine all our policies to ensure that growth would not impede other school routines.

Staffing

As our school has grown we have had to hire more teacher’s aides. Our front office is busier and requires more personnel as well.

School culture

Small schools tend to be close-knit volunteer-oriented institutions. Parents are often incredibly invested and more willing to forgo weaknesses in the academic or extracurricular program. The warmth and family feel of the school is perceived by parents as a compensation for other challenges. As schools grow, increased resources translate into enhanced levels of professionalism. The downside of this change often means less direct involvement on the part of parents. This is an issue that larger schools need to consider in ensuring that parents remain invested in the school.

Security

In a small school the faculty and staff will quickly recognize if a child is missing from class, are familiar with the nature of each student’s specific allergies, and can anticipate who is most likely to get into a fight at recess. As a school grows, this level of awareness isn’t realistic. Procedures and protocols become critical to ensure vigilance when an intimate familiarity with every student’s personality and medical issues is not possible, and the student body grows beyond minimal numbers.

Additionally, in a small school a stranger is far more conspicuous than in a larger school. Someone who is not part of the school community was once easily recognizable, affording an internal level of security with regard to strangers which we no longer have. Recognizing this shift has again necessitated a higher standard of vigilance and new policies with managing our entrances and visitors.

We hope that this list will inspire other schools going through similar changes to think proactively about the many changes that will occur as the character of a school changes due to growth.♦

Rabbi Daniel Alter is the head of school at Denver Academy of Torah and Rosh Kehillah of the DAT Community. rabbialter@datcampus.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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