[This is the fourth article in our series on day school leadership from the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. In this series, alumni of our leadership institutes share their visions of effective day school leadership, reflecting on their aspirations for the field and describing paths toward those goals.]
By Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper
When and where do you observe courage in a changing environment? I always thought it was at the moment of decision – the point when the leadership agrees to take the risk. That’s what I thought a little over a year ago when we decided to re-imagine our lower school.
Before you walk into the Rimonim class at the Solomon Schechter of Greater Hartford, you will see two bulletin boards: one might have different ecosystems and another might have a student writing in Hebrew about the fall. If you take a moment to linger you might see that each child created an animal or a plant that belongs in different ecosystems, and you will see a range of thinking, interests, and ability to work with paper. On the Hebrew bulletin board, you will see writing that ranges from one or two words to a paragraph with several sentences, each accompanied by a drawing.
These boards are examples of diverse student development that is honored and encouraged in our new second and third grade multi-age classroom. Take a walk inside at 9:00 am and you will see about 24 students in the room. You will also notice two lead teachers (one for Hebrew and Judaic Studies and one for secular subjects), an assistant teacher, and two ABA therapists to support students on the Autism spectrum. The wall has been opened to create a large learning space; there are no student desks, nor teacher desks. You will see a reading corner with rugs and pillows, a math manipulative corner, a quiet space, a wall with noise-canceling headphones, bookshelves with the students’ siddurim, and others with Israeli kids’ books, a drama corner with Hebrew signs, book bins, writing journals, iPads, and an easel with a mini-lesson ready. One teacher might be sitting with four students in their guided reading group, other students might be reading quietly and independently around the room, a few children might be creating a thought piece for their digital portfolio, and yet another group might be having a mini-lesson in Hebrew. The assistant teacher might be sitting with a few students to answer their questions.
Over the last year our board of trustees and professional team have worked tirelessly to transform the educational vision of our lower school. Committed to creating the best environment for children to grow, learn, and develop socially, emotionally, and cognitively, we went from a relatively traditional educational model to a progressive, multi-age model. Throughout the process, we remained committed to our ideals: building a sense of community and enhancing social opportunities for our students; passionately meeting each child where he or she is and giving each what he or she needs; increasing Hebrew language usage and exposure; and teaching in teams across all subject areas. Furthermore, we made a commitment to remain steadfast and dedicated to doing the hard work along the way.
We are a small school in the not-very-small Jewish community of West Hartford, Connecticut. Because we are in an aging community and in a state facing tremendous challenges, the difficulties independent, and specifically Jewish, schools are facing are amplified at the moment. We face enrollment challenges and perception challenges though we are incredibly fortunate that our Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Jewish Community Foundation, and community believe in us so greatly that they are with us when we put forth this kind of change initiative. Our entire community exemplified courage in taking on big change and in taking dramatic steps before it was too late.
I see this as an example of bold, courageous, and deeply responsible leadership on behalf of the board of trustees. Each trustee is passionate about our school and is ready and willing to take a risk on its behalf. They were courageous in deciding to do something different. This is a board that wants our Schechter to be nothing short of an excellent, warm, welcoming, and inclusive place for each one of our students. They were ready to be a school that had a strong educational philosophy that differentiated itself from the surrounding schools. They were ready to show courage, knowing that it would be hard for a small school with few resources to make it happen.
Courage also lies at the feet of our faculty and staff who had to learn new pedagogy, language, and approaches as they came together to create new teams built on this whole new model. They read academic articles and books, spoke with teachers working in similar models, visited Luria Academy in Brooklyn, and they faced challenging questions from the community (which because they were still learning they couldn’t always answer with confidence). In the face of the challenges that change creates, they were inspired by each other’s commitment to every student.
Our families also faced this change with courage. Rightfully so, they had questions, concerns, worries, excitements, and hopes for their children and for the school. It wasn’t easy. Following a school-wide presentation, they engaged in thoughtful conversations about their individual children, the class community and the changing face of education. Additionally, those conversations helped us clarify and shift and grow.
Three months into the new model I find myself reflecting on this courage in a whole new way. I previously thought that courage is what happened last year, when as a community we made the plan, announced, trained, re-enrolled, and enrolled for the first time. Now I realize that the greater courage is in finding the patience for the change through what feels both wildly successful and at times quite bumpy. Staying true to our vision and methodology for our students through difficult learning curves and great moments of revelation—is where the true courage actually lies.
Andrea RC Kasper passionately pushes the bounds of education and Judaism with the aspiration to make meaningful change for students and the community. She is in her 4th year as a head of school and had her fourth child this September. Andrea is an alum of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) Cohort 8.