By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
There is no Jewish institution or organization as vital to Jewish life and Jewish Day Schools. Millions of Jews migrated to the United States and Canada in the 1800s and the early 1900s, most of whom assimilated and disappeared. It wasn’t the large synagogues, cultural organizations, or anything else that made Jewish life in America sustainable, just Day Schools. Once Jewish Day Schools became common and widespread, Jewish life became sustainable. When did Jewish Schools become common practice? When they became competitive. Jewish communities have done a magnificent job making Day Schools of the highest standards that are competitive, professional, and successful. It is a vital imperative for the Jewish community to make sure its Day Schools remain such. We can’t assume that in a rapidly changing world, schools can do the same and be successful. Schools need to adjust to a globalized world and make sure our students can compete on the highest levels. So what can we do? Here are ten ideas to make Jewish Day Schools more competitive:
Entrepreneurship Education: Don’t take my word for it. According to the U.S. Department of Labor “through entrepreneurship education, young people, including those with disabilities, learn organizational skills, including time management, leadership development, and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. Other positive outcomes include improved academic performance, school attendance, and educational attainment, increased problem-solving and decision-making abilities, improved interpersonal relationships, teamwork, money management, and public speaking skills, job readiness, enhanced social psychological development (self-esteem, ego development, self-efficacy), and perceived improved health status.” There are many companies that offer grade-appropriate lesson plans starting as young as grade 3, on how to effectively teach kids entrepreneurship. See examples here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (basically, lots). These programs are affordable and made to be implemented in real schools. We cannot afford to give our students anything less than the best.
Cyber Education: When visiting Israel, I was astonished to see an ad for a state-funded, girls’ summer camp with a focus in cybersecurity. Taking its future very seriously, Israel is teaching kids cybersecurity. You don’t need to be a computer geek to study this subject. From protecting their email to having a bank account, everyone needs to know lots about cyber. Cybersecurity is personal security and puts students a step ahead in life. The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) already has a Cybersecurity Education Training Assistance Program (CETAP) which equips K-12 teachers with cybersecurity curricula and education tools. It is a no brainer and long overdue, Day Schools need to teach more cybersecurity.
Inspiring innovation: “The average child asks 100 questions a day, but by the time a child is 10 or 12, he or she has figured out that it’s much more important to get right answers than to keep asking thoughtful questions.” With these words, Tony Wagner best describes why innovation is so hard to implement in schools. In his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Wagner makes various suggestions on how schools can teach innovation. There is no question that the most valuable commodity of the 21st century is innovation. Day Schools need to teach it. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Professor Jacob Goldenberg who teaches a course on innovation at Columbia University. We discussed the value of innovation and how it can be taught in a clear way. In his book Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, Professor Goldenberg shows the simple steps that can be taken to teach creativity. Day Schools need to ask themselves what they can be doing to teach more creativity.
Government Partnerships: “if there is no flour, there is no Torah” (ethics of the fathers), no great idea can succeed with no funding. Day School education is a vital necessity, not a luxury. To make sure schools stay competitive while keeping tuition prices reasonable, we must make sure Day Schools get the maximum possible funding from local governments. Whether it is funding for STEM programs, security, school lunches, busing, or anything else, we need to make sure schools are getting full funding from city, state and federal agencies. A great example of this has been the smashing success of Teach NYS who has secured many millions to assist day schools and is expanding operations every day. Tip to day schools: yes, your budgets are tight but if you get more government funding and pass on a break to parents in real tuition dollars, you will see many more parents successfully advocate for more funding.
Business Sector Partnerships: “In Cincinnati, Ohio, a special business partnership with Cincinnati Bell has transformed Robert A. Taft High School into the Taft Information Technology High School… At Mountain Home Junior High School in Mountain Home, Idaho, a local business supplies award certificates to students caught doing good things.” The list goes on and on. Schools and businesses have a great deal to benefit from each other. Skills, networking, internships, real experience and much more can all be the result of strong symbiotic relationships between schools and businesses. It can be participating in Google’s science programs, or thousands of other options. Additionally, giving kids a sense of connection between what they are learning, and the real world is a powerful and meaningful addition to the quality of their education.
Promote Student Wellbeing: there is no greater responsibility schools and teachers have than caring for students’ wellbeing. A survey asking principals and assistance principals what their top concerns were, showed that worry for students’ emotional wellbeing is on the rise – for good reason. Sharply rising levels of teen depression and anxiety and a plethora of other challenges facing today’s youth must be addressed. Whether it is through checking off every item on the CDC’s list of recommendations, implementing school wellness programs, embedding positive psychology in various aspects of school, or all of the above, there is always room for improving students’ wellbeing.
Build Soft Skills: Google wanted to know what makes their best employees best. IQ? STEM skills? Work ethic? After launching Project Oxygen, it boiled down to “soft skills.” What are they? “being a good coach; communication and listening skills; openness to new ideas; empathy; critical thinking; problem-solving; and complex thinking and planning skills.” With automation rapidly taking over field after field, schools must make sure to hone skills that are most unique to us as humans which will stay with students throughout the fast-approaching changes this world is seeing. But there is more. See here, here and here. Schools must remain focused on best preparing students for the world they will live in.
Encourage Group Work: gone are the days you can hope for your own corporate office where you can sit quietly and do your work. Evolving workplaces increasingly rely on the combination of skills and expertise. How much does group work matter? A lot. This is true for Judaic or any other subject. Get kids excited about what they are learning, assign them a project, and teach them how to work as a group. Less frontal teaching, more group work.
Despise Stagnation: Benjamin Franklin said: “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” Or, as put more bluntly by American William S. Burroughs: “if you are not growing, you are dying.” As Jews, we must cherish and value the timeless traditions and lessons we carry. “Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. (Deuteronomy 4:2) We must, however, make sure we are preparing students for a fast-changing world. “Train a child according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.” (Proverbs, 22:6) Parents sending their children to Jewish Day Schools should know that they are giving their child the best education possible. Yesterday’s best schools are not tomorrow’s best schools. We need to make sure we are adapting and improving schools and should never accept stagnation as an option.
Personal Finance: It makes me very happy to know there are elementary school students who are making more money than their teachers. Selling on Amazon, Instagram, and a plethora of other ways. It would make me even happier to know that all elementary school students will be making a good living. Knowing the difference between a loan and an investment, how credit works, how to invest, how to save, how to manage a budget, and a million other things students need to know today sooner than their parents needed to know, need to be taught. It is not sacrilegious, offensive, or inappropriate to teach kids about money, it is the skills they need for a successful life. We need to make sure they all have it.
Finally, why am I, a rabbi with no general studies responsibilities or administrative responsibilities writing this article on preparing students for workplace success? Well, firstly because I care for our students and want them to do well. Secondly, because I know that when my grandfather, Rabbi Baruch Poupko, and his colleagues across America established Day Schools and fought for Jewish education, they succeeded only because they built high-quality schools which offered parents only the best. I know that no other Jewish organizational efforts – not synagogues, cultural, social, or political organizations – have been as successful as the Day School movement. Because I know that the future of Jewish education depends on the future of Jewish Schools and the future of the Jewish people depends on the quality of Jewish education. It is the sacred task of rabbis and Jewish community leaders to make sure we have the best schools possible and that our students receive, not just the best Jewish education, but also an excellent general education.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher, and a writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.