Sunday, May 31, 2009

Schools That Work

“Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools” was written by Jack Wertheimer, and published by The Avi Chai Foundation just this past March. Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The team of ten researchers (Isa Aron, Marion Gribetz, Billy Mencow, Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, Randal F. Schnoor, Susan L. Shevitz, Serene Victor, Harold Wechsler, Cyd Beth Weisman, and Jack Wertheimer) set out to identify what characteristics could be found in successful Jewish supplemental schools.

From the Executive Summary:
In an effort to learn about the range and quality of programs, a team of ten researchers—five academics and five experienced educators with backgrounds in school administration—observed ten Jewish supplementary schools reputed to be effective, as defined by the quality of formal study and positive Jewish experiences they provide, the clarity and thoughtfulness of school objectives, the development of a community of practice to translate learning into Jewish living, and the coordination of key personnel in the pursuit of those goals.
Wertheimer goes on to articulate four “enabling factors” which must be present in order to have “Schools That Work.” Here's my summary of what he wrote:
  • School communities must define a vision and articulate how they plan to accomplish their vision. These visions need to include learning goals, which most school vision statements do. But they also need to go beyond that: Schools need to provide students with opportunities to enact Jewish commitments and to engage in Jewish activities.
  • School communities need to create a culture of collaboration among lay leaders, among professional staff, and among both groups. They also need to establish a culture of self-reflection.
  • A congregational or communal base of support is necessary. School communities need to identify potential resources, both internally and externally. After they’ve done that, they need to plan to make maximal use of these resources; ie, it’s not sufficient just to identify the resources – they need to be implemented.
  • Schools That Work involve lay leaders in both the life of the school and by cooperating with them to refine the objectives of the school.

So simple…. and yet not.

Vision/Mission Statements: Generally speaking, when I begin working with schools as a consultant, one of the first things I ask for is a school mission statement.

I’m often surprised by the number of schools that don’t have one – or cases in which there’s one for the synagogue, but not a separate one for the school. Without a mission statement, I wonder how communities know whether they’re doing what they want to do – or how they can ascertain whether their efforts are successful.

Many mission statements focus on the skills that they hope the students will learn with the goal being to function effectively as a Jewish adult. Hicks, Glasgow and McNary report that [new] “teachers often see teaching as telling and learning as memorization.” (What Successful Mentors Do; Corwin Press, 2005, p. 39). “Learning” is considered separate from “doing.” Do our mission statements include “doing” that goes beyond the one-time performance of bar or bat mitzvah? What opportunities are there for students to engage in Jewish cultural activities? Deeds of g’milut hasadim /lovingkindness? Teaching others? Social justice activities?
I’m not surprised that this was first on Wertheimer’s list of “enabling factors” for Schools That Work.

Community Culture: Collaboration and self-reflection: they exist hand-in-hand.

Far too often, I’ve noticed that either schools are separate from the life of the congregation or there’s a territoriality that exists among the professional staff. In the former case, the school exists in isolation. There’s little or no cross-fertilization of ideas or practices. When communities collaborate, each segment of the community validates the work of the other. In the latter case, either there’s a competition among staff (who is better/more powerful/etc) or an inability to recognize that frequently staff functions overlap. “That’s *NOT* my job” can be as detrimental as “That’s *MY* job – keep your nose out.”
Teamwork – collaboration – recognizes the ebb and flow of work responsibilities and crunch times: people are able to pull together to benefit the whole.

If there’s no collaboration, it’s also difficult to engage in self-reflective practice. There’s little opportunity to get honest, caring feedback from colleagues. If the environment is competitive or segmented, self-reflection can be perceived of as a weakness.

Base of Support/Involvement of Lay Leaders: when a school is an involved, active, engaged part of congregational life – and the congregation is actively involved and engaged in all facets of the school – the base of support is more solid and lay leaders are involved in substantive and meaningful ways. Without that base of support (and the willingness to tap into it) and the involvement of all lay leaders, I don’t believe that schools can be successful at integrating students into the Jewish life of their community.

Next time: Characteristics of Schools that Work

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