Thursday, June 25, 2009

STW: Professional Implications

So, aside from the personal vindication I’ve felt since reading Supplementary Schools That Work, does this study have any relevance for us professionally?

I believe it does.

But not necessarily in the way that most of us seem to be connecting with initially.

It is absolutely a delight to see that A) there are schools that are successful; B) there are specific characteristics that can be attributed to successful schools; C) that those characteristics are not automatically outside our grasp; and D) that *all* schools, including successful ones, struggle to overcome the same barriers to success.

Those are important factors to consider as we look to objectively assess our programs, to build on the successes we’ve had, and to continually strive to improve.

But they’re not enough to ensure success…. Unless the foundational pieces are in place. Wertheimer calls these the “enabling factors.”

The report cites four conditions that need to exist if a school is to move into the “successful” category. In brief, they are as follows:
  • Vision
  • Collaborative Culture
  • Communal support
  • Lay involvement
As I’ve turned this report over and over during the past month, and examined it from multiple angles, it occurs to me that there are at least two levels on which these enabling factors can be examined: on the congregational level and on the school level. Ideally, the school is a subset of the congregation, so we visualize them as concentric circles, as below:

Let’s start with the outside circle and work our way to inner circle.

Congregational building pieces: Questions to answer
Does the congregation have a vision or mission statement? Does it include a description of the type of culture the organization hopes to create? What types of diversity are included in this description? What work will the community become involved with? Is the word “community” even used? How frequently are the vision statement and the goals of the congregation re-examined?

What evidence can one see to support the cultural goal of collaboration within the congregational community? [NOTE: to me, the word “collaboration” connotes a respectful exchange of ideas, mutual support for the tasks of individuals, and a willingness to establish a safe environment in which disagreement about ideas/practices/etc doesn’t become “disagreeable.”] Does that collaboration cross the lay-professional line? Does it occur within each constituency: lay leaders, professional staff, parents, etc? Is there evidence of reflective practice – individually and collectively – without blaming or finger pointing?

Is there a sense of being part of a “larger whole?” Does the congregation connect with others outside its walls? Is it affiliated with a movement? Does it engage in local and national Jewish communal work (ie, of the Federation, Jewish agencies, educational programs, youth groups)? How is it involved with Israel? Is it part of the local scene on both a Jewish and a secular level? Do the individual committees and affiliates act as if they understand how their involvement intermeshes with the goals and activities of the entire congregation? How are potential resources (internal and external) identified? Is this an ongoing endeavor process?

How are lay leaders groomed? Is there a “leadership track?” Is leadership training available? Are new members actively encouraged to become involve in leadership positions? Are their comments, observations, questions solicited and addressed respectfully? Do they understand the scope of the “job” they are being encouraged to undertake? Are they provided with the necessary supports as they begin to assume their responsibilities? Are lay leaders empowered to take ownership of the challenges involved in running a nonprofit organization? Are they empowered to actively search for solutions along with professional staff? Are there accountability measures in place?

School building pieces: Questions to answer
(many of the questions cited above also apply to schools within the congregational framework. Here are some additional ones to consider.)
Does the school have a vision or mission statement of its own? Does it refer back to the congregational statement? Are they aligned? Does it include desired outcomes? Methodology?

Is there a culture of collaboration among teaching staff? Professional staff and the education committee? Among professional staff and parents? Among classes? Among students within individual grades or rooms? Are individuals vested in the success of the entire school, and not just their particular students, grades, courses, etc? Is there opportunity for regular reflective practice by administrators, teachers, students, committee members, parents? Is the environment a “safe” one in which to ask questions or express a difference of opinion?

Is the school connected to congregational life? In ways that go beyond participation in services or consecration and b’nei mitzvah? Is there a congregational board liaison? Does that liaison have credibility with the larger board or is he/she seen primarily or exclusively as someone whose focus is limited to the school only, without being able to see the bigger, congregational, picture? Is the school connected to other religious schools – locally, nationally, within the movement or outside? Is it connected to other youth activity endeavors (youth group, etc)? Do teachers and administrators engage in regular professional development, both on-site and off? Are resources – specifically time and money – allocated to professional development?

Most lay leaders (although not all) initially get involved with the school because of a specific issue related to their child. However, are they eventually able to widen their focus on what’s beneficial for the entire community? Are they willing to offer specific talents and skills to support the educational program? Are they able to comment on the positives they/their children see or experience as well as address issues that need improvement? Are they in tune with the mission goals and objectives of the school? When a problem arises, are they willing to help search for solutions?

What happens if the congregation and school are not in harmony?
Then, I would suggest, there’s a mismatch.
Not every educator will work well in every congregational setting.
Not every congregation will remain consistent in its answers to these questions.
The guiding principle, I believe, must be a shared vision about what’s best for the kids: What kind of Jewish adults do we want them to grow into – and what do we believe is the best way to get there, given the constraints of time, energy, money, personnel?

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