Alignment, Leadership, and Partnership: Securing Our Day Schools’ Future

[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of Leadership.]

We must commit ourselves to taking very seriously the challenges of day school leadership now and into the future. The challenges encompass not only professional leadership, but board leadership as well.

by Joshua Elkin

Over the course of the last few years, there seems to be a proliferation of discourse about the future of Jewish day schools. Most of this conversation has centered on how to ensure the financial strength of our schools, as well as how to make day schools more accessible and affordable to the full range of potential families. While these priorities are vitally important, I want to focus on three interrelated themes which deserve more prominence within the communal dialogue on day schools.

First, we need to pay more ongoing attention to securing strong alignment of mission within each of our schools. Barry Dym of Boston University has offered us the most common sense definition of alignment: “a series of leadership moves, over time, marked by consistency in style, content, and direction.” Achieving a robust alignment is not a one-shot project, but rather a sustained effort to define a powerful identity and raison d’etre for each and every school. Every day presents opportunities for our schools to sharpen Judaic mission, to re-enforce educational philosophy, and to define and re-define curricular content in both general and Judaic studies.

Second, we must commit ourselves to taking very seriously the challenges of day school leadership now and into the future. The challenges encompass not only professional leadership, but board leadership as well. Despite articles and conference workshops devoted to board leadership, the ongoing conversation about leadership concentrates more attention on the professional side. Overlooking the strategic and essential value of board leadership is a perilous course for any school to follow. Board leaders are critical to the process of preserving a clear Judaic mission and a coherent school identity.

The head of school and the board leadership are the critical human assets that each day school must protect and nurture. How can this protection and nurturing be done on both the volunteer and professional side? The most effective way that I know of is for each school to have two standing committees to focus on their human leadership assets. One committee is usually called the Head Support and Evaluation Committee (HSEC) which concentrates on supporting and giving feedback to the professional leader, and the other is the Committee on Trustees (COT), or the Governance Committee, whose mandate is to attend to all matters related to the present and future performance and composition of the Board. These committees must do their work while observing a strict commitment to confidentiality. Not only do these committees help to protect and nurture the human leadership assets of each school, but they also help to foster an institutional culture within each day school which is committed to ongoing support, evaluation, and feedback. This capacity for enhanced reflectivity includes ongoing attention to mission and organizational identity. Given the substantial influence of these two committees on the performance and leadership strength of each school, I believe that there is strategic value in ensuring that the agendas of the COT and the HSEC are aligned with each other, as well as with the overall mission and direction of the school. A school loses much horsepower if there is a failure to create a strong sense of collaborative leadership and agreed-upon broad direction.

Third, true collaboration develops best within the framework of a genuine partnership – in this case, between the volunteer and professional leadership of the school. The literature on nonprofit management and leadership is replete with references to the leadership partnership between the top professional (head of school) and the top board leader (usually the board chair or president). The partnership between these two leaders is the most powerful inflection point to move a day school forward. Regular communication, often on a daily basis, characterizes this relationship. In fact, these two leaders have the capacity to monitor the school’s progress on most key initiatives, issues, and committees, including even the COT and HSEC.

I strongly recommend that day school leaders reach out to the available knowledge bases and best practices which are readily available – in particular, The Trustee Handbook from NAIS (the National Association of Independent Schools, and the various publications of Boardsource). In these and other publications, you will find guidance on how to build the most robust volunteer-professional partnership in the service of your school’s mission and identity. You can read about the characteristics of a high performing COT and HSEC. You will also find valuable general support and guidance for the important leadership work that you have each undertaken.

Many leaders – volunteer and professional – set out for themselves the tacit goal of getting everything perfectly right every time. This is neither realistic nor desirable. By building effective leadership partnerships and by ensuring the high functioning of key committees such as the COT and the HSEC, day school leaders create the internal capacity to reflect on performance and to engage in ongoing improvement processes, which are essential to a healthy and vibrant Jewish day school culture.

Joshua Elkin is an Executive and Leadership Coach focused on strengthening both volunteer and professional leaders within Jewish and other nonprofits. Josh’s executive leadership experience includes 20 years as Head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, and more recently, 14 years as founding Executive Director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).