HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Telling Your Innovation Story
Innovation has become the 614th commandment for Jewish day schools, a central part of their promotional lexicon and a key component in their educational planning. Schools are adopting innovative initiatives and approaches for two reasons. First, and most importantly, innovation enhances the educational experience, allowing schools to better prepare students for their futures while fulfilling organizational mission and vision.
At the same time, it would be disingenuous to deny that a second reason is to improve enrollment results. Current parents want to know that their children are receiving an education that is on par with what other similar schools are offering. Prospective parents are making choices based on the perceived quality of the academic program, and innovative initiatives make a school more appealing. The potential impact on enrollment is even greater in Jewish day schools, because parents don’t want to feel they are compromising the quality of their children’s overall education in favor of the Jewish aspects of the program.
Beyond its impact on academics and enrollment, innovation can have other important influences. Innovation initiatives can be a boon to fundraising efforts by both positioning schools more positively and providing them with additional giving opportunities. Schools adopting innovative approaches are generally more attractive to prospective teachers and allow schools to hire more selectively. At the same time, the implementation of those approaches can be very demanding and stressful for existing faculty.
For all of these reasons, how schools communicate about innovation is as important as the initiatives themselves. A school’s success in forging new paths will, to a large degree, be determined by how they tell their innovation stories.
With that in mind, here are five imperatives for telling your school’s innovation story along with some notable examples from Jewish day schools.
Your innovation story needs to convey foundational information that will build both awareness and support. You want there to be broad consensus that this initiative is a good idea. To do that, you will need to explain why this area of innovation, as opposed to others, was chosen and describe the decision-making process. It may be effective to reference articles by experts in the field or other sources. The idea is to make the reasoning so compelling that people feel this was an obvious choice. The finesse is to do it in a way that avoids technical “edu-speak” and is easy to understand.
Harkham-GAON Academy is a high school in Los Angeles that is built on a blended learning model as a means of reducing tuition and encouraging more students to continue their Jewish education. The description of their academic model clearly lays out what makes their innovative approach a good idea.
Harkham-GAON’s model is unprecedented, designed with an innovative approach to offering Judaic and general studies in a blended learning model.
- Students work with a highly personalized program.
- Students work at their own pace.
- Students access their general studies curriculum through StrongMind, an online college prep program that provides excellent, WASC-accredited curriculum.
- Our innovative approach allows for affordable tuition.
- Our students are entitled to a “Concurrent Enrollment Agreement” with all community colleges, giving our students dual high school and college credit.
- We offer a variety of co-curricular/extracurricular classes such as sports, Model UN and music.
At the same time, it’s important to be forthcoming about the cost of implementing innovative programs. Funding may be required for construction, equipment and materials, while staff training costs also have to be taken into consideration. Detailing exactly how the program will be funded, whether that’s through grants from foundations, donations from individuals or operating budgets will build credibility and consensus.
Clearly you would like as may stakeholders as possible to embrace the initiative. To do that, there are many elements to the story that must be put in place. First, it should be clear that the innovation has an identifiable purpose and that the school is not pursuing innovative programs just to be identified as “innovative.” In hand with that, there must be real substance to the initiatives so there can be no accusation of paying lip service to innovation.
Westchester Torah Academy is a K-8 school in White Plains, New York, that has adopted a blended learning model. This is how they soundly define the purpose being served by the innovation:
This model enables our students to learn at their own pace and experience instructional approaches customized to their unique learning styles, strengths, weaknesses and academic needs.
For the school community to see the innovation as its own, you will need to explain how this initiative enhances the educational experience at the school. Provide detail on who will benefit from the program and in what ways. How will students be better prepared for their futures?
The innovation should also be portrayed as meeting the interest of parents, both current and prospective. For example, how do the initiatives represent a response to opinions expressed in a parent survey or in other forums? You need to consider how the innovation enhances the value proposition for parents considering your school. Then communicate the ways in which it speaks to the needs and interests expressed by prospective parents. Your innovation story could be an important way to establish a competitive advantage over other schools.
Find the one-of-a-kind
Beyond describing the innovation, it’s really important to describe how the program has been designed to fit in with what is unique about your school. Simply put, the story should align innovation with brand. You need to talk about how initiatives further the school’s mission or its strategic direction. For example, how is the STEM learning lab at your school different than the one at the school down the street? You need to demonstrate that you didn’t just copy what other schools are doing but rather have developed approaches that could only be implemented in your school.
The Toronto Heschel School is a PK-8 arts-based, egalitarian school in Toronto that has adopted a number of innovative educational approaches. Their very original video (https://torontoheschel.org/experience) features an eighth grade student and presents her innovation story in a way that is completely brand-based.
Make it shareable
You want as many people as possible talking about and retelling your innovation story. To make that happen, it’s important to create emotional connections. As opposed to focusing on technical aspects, you can describe the impact the innovation is having on people’s lives. Tell the stories within your innovation story. That could be a student talking about how an initiative has created a spark in her learning. Alternatively, it could a teacher describing how he is excited by the way his students are reacting to this innovation and how it is enhancing the classroom experience. Short videos are a great way to tell the innovation story in a personal and compelling way.
Content with a strong emotional quotient is more likely to be shared by parents, teachers, board members and others, which makes it even more authentic—and shareable. Social media is a great platform for experimentation. Create stories and measure the engagement generated: comments, shares, forwards. If you’re not getting the best possible results, you can always tweak the content and try again. You can also try out stories on small groups of people and use their responses as a guide to further iterations.
Lamplighters Yeshiva is a self-described lab school embracing the Chabad spirit and incorporating the Montessori approach. It serves students from preschool to eighth grade in Brooklyn.
This Facebook post was accompanied by supporting photos and told a simple, revealing, compelling and very shareable story about a student at the school:
This young man came to my office today and said, “Guess what? I am an author!”
He had made parts of the apple book with such care. And then he took it “on the road” to share with his favorite readers.
Above all your innovation story should be inspirational. It should passionately speak to a vision of the ideal in education at your school. It should be a rallying call, uniting students, faculty, board members and donors in the pursuit of a higher purpose. It should be a powerful source of both pride and optimism.
The Idea School is a high school in Bergen County, New Jersey, built on the model of High Tech High in San Diego. It is almost completely focused on project based and experiential learning. The “Why The Idea School” section of their website includes this paragraph which establishes a larger than life raison d’être for the school:
What if we created such a high school for Jewish education? One where learning stemmed from students’ passions? Where each learning experience began by getting students to ask questions, so we knew what they wanted to explore in a discipline, a time period, a book or a Jewish text? And what if students didn’t just memorize information, but took newfound knowledge and skills and used them to make something beautiful or solve a problem in the real world? With such an educational model, students would construct meaning out of their studies, get to know their talents and strengths, and understand how they might live a fulfilling Torah life, while bettering the world.
Some might regard the innovation story as superficial and see it as little more than the sizzle to the steak. It would be wise for schools to heed this wisdom in a 2018 article from Forbes that declared, “At its heart, innovation is a profoundly social phenomenon. More often than not, it is the story that makes the innovation, rather than the other way around.”
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The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.
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