HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Small School Bigger Job

by Elaine Cohen Issue: Size Matters

Cohen describes the long list of expectations that small-school heads often confront, and the inner resources they need for their role. Her advice is geared especially for boards to help their heads succeed in this daunting work.

RAVSAK’s recently established Small School Reshet is providing invaluable collegial support among the heads of school in a cluster of Jewish day schools that are often located in small communities. In addition to a number of community day schools that have enrollments under 90 students, the Schechter Day School Network includes a few similarly small schools, most of which are in communities with small Jewish populations or neighborhoods undergoing demographic shifts. From them I have learned a great deal about the demands and challenges that the head of school faces in these circumstances. My contribution to the ongoing conversations online and in real time about small schools focuses on the institutional leader.

In her eJewish Philanthropy posting earlier this spring, Dr. N. Shira Brown cited “many daunting hurdles” of small schools. (See her column at the beginning of this issue.) She highlighted the reliance on lay leaders for professional services, roles that are filled in larger schools by trained professional staff. It isn’t just that board members in small schools tend to be young and inexperienced, as she wrote, and expected to “take ownership of a number of formidable tasks.”

As the professional leader at the center, the head of school of a small day school has a larger, more multipronged job than many of his or her professional colleagues in larger institutions. She must wear many hats simultaneously, usually as a solo professional without the benefit of a team with whom to share the many functions of school leadership. What are the key attributes for a successful leader of a small Jewish day school?

Among this leader’s most challenging demands to meet are the following:

  • training a cadre of volunteers and coordinating their work
  • serving as both the instructional and institutional leader
  • developing a culture of a unified community where the school may well be the magnet for Jewish life in a pluralistic, small community
  • maintaining some work/life balance when everything seems to fall on the shoulders of the head of school.

In some independent schools and public school districts, the role of “coordinator of the volunteer program” is itself a full-time professional position. This person is part of the leadership team; in one school district, the job description runs as follows:

Under the direction of the Principal, organizes and coordinates parent/community volunteer program; assists in categorical programs and performs related work as required; supervised by the Principal; has direct contact with parents and community members, students, and staff.

In numerous small Jewish day schools volunteers do not simply run the lunch program, field trips and parent fundraisers. They assume responsibility for essential functions such as recruitment, marketing, admissions, alumni relations, development and institutional advancement. It takes a well trained board president and a highly skilled head of school to plan initiatives to be spearheaded by volunteers and then give them direction and manage them effectively. The cadre of devoted, well intentioned parent volunteers on whom the school depends are giving their time and energy out of love for the school and still have to be accountable for accomplishing their responsibilities. There’s an artful balancing act required of the head of a small school that relies on unpaid people to ensure that core functions that keep the school functioning and viable are achieved within the needed time frames. Working with volunteers is more challenging than leading a team of professionals who expect to be held accountable and whose performance is evaluated annually.

The head of school has to set standards of professional behavior, deal with inevitable interpersonal issues that arise, and hold people accountable, even though they are not officially employees. At the same time, she has to use her nimble, interpersonal skills to be attentive to and appreciative of those who are volunteering their time and efforts.

Deborah Grayson Riegel, author of the blog My Jewish Coach, recently conducted a webinar to build the delegation skills of school leaders and make the case that exercising them effectively is a necessary skill set for day school leaders. Lacking a leadership team to whom to delegate various functions, the head of a small school may succumb to the daunting and unrealistic expectation to do everything himself.

In a small school, the head bears primary responsibility for recruitment, admissions, retention and marketing. From a budget perspective, every child and every family count toward the bottom line, and diminished enrollments can spiral into a crisis of confidence as well as finance. In the best of circumstances, every head of school’s job entails inside and outside functions, regular early morning and evening commitments, and an expansive web of relationships with students, teachers, support staff, parents, board leaders, community leaders, donors, alumni, network colleagues and clergy.

Adding layers to the complex roles of institutional and instructional leader and the primary carrier of the school’s vision, in a small day school the professional leader in a community with few other places of Jewish affiliation becomes the catalyst and pivotal figure for community-building. The expectation grows for the school leader to create a big tent of inclusiveness and welcoming for families as well as their children who come to view the school as their Jewish home. The work is gratifying but also depleting. Wearing so many hats and being “on” in all these ways means that private family time disappears, as holidays and the milestones of the lifecycle are observed publicly in the context of the school community. Self-care recedes to rare moments during the academic year; these demands can take a toll that cannot be sustained over time.

Despite the enormity of the multidimensional role, the head of a small Jewish day school is frequently compensated at a lower level than her professional peers in charge of larger institutions that engage a number of administrators in addition to their head of school. As someone who has worked for years doing placement referrals and assisting day schools in their search for a new leader, I have seen that when positions are posted, small schools rarely offer a competitive salary and benefits package to attract a first-rate professional leader. They claim that the the lower tuition base precludes paying a higher salary.

However, even when the cost of living may be lower in small communities, travel to conferences and professional development programs will be higher—and these benefits are all the more necessary in order for the head of school to remain connected with colleagues, engage in big-picture thinking, and avoid the isolation and insularity of a small community. (Even though technology and social media may a big difference in terms of creating professional communities, the in-person nourishment experienced at regional and national assemblies remains essential.) Setting compensation at a competitive professional level should be a priority for the board of trustees of small day schools. It is a signal for potential candidates that the school recognizes the full scope of the position.

Planning for success in a small day school entails education of the board, training volunteers, enabling the head of school to achieve some work/life balance, and creating the conditions for the leader to achieve an ambitious agenda with support from the community. It also means that the personal qualities of resourcefulness, interpersonal adeptness and emotional intelligence are key characteristics, especially when there are no other administrators who can balance or compensate for areas where the head does not yet excel. It is a tall order and one that will continue to be needed in the growing number of small day schools.♦

Elaine Shizgal Cohen, EdD, recently retired from her longstanding position as director of the Schechter Day School Network, and was the head of school of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now the Golda Och Academy, in West Orange, New Jersey. erscohen@gmail.com

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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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