Are We Not on the Wrong Track?

by Stuart Zweiter

Jewish day schools are the incubators for the Jewish community’s future leadership; they are the fertile soil that will nurture and support a flourishing Jewish community. How can we maximize the potential, the strength, stability and sustainability of these precious institutions? Enhancing the work of teachers and school leaders is the only consequential road to developing strong schools. All of the research, bar none, confirms this. Making schools into stronger institutions educationally is the key to their financial stability and institutional sustainability.

The Jewish communal world and the foundation world have been talking about Jewish school sustainability for several years now. Focus has been placed on strategies for more effective governance, management, fund-raising, marketing, and recruitment. And foundations have followed suit with very significant funding for programs aimed at addressing these unquestionably important matters.

There is no doubt that all of these current funding strategies have value – but does anyone who really knows schools believe that that these programs are the preferred road to sustainability? Are we not rather depleting and exhausting significant financial resources that could and must be invested in programs that contribute to genuine sustainability? We cannot continue to throw millions of dollars at these important but still secondary components of Jewish schools and expect that it will result in sustaining thriving schools. Can you imagine a philharmonic orchestra that is well versed in management, marketing and sales techniques and strategic planning and donor engagement, but does not focus on making sure to have the best conductor and best musicians in place? For how long might those marketing strategies be effective?

Great principals and teachers produce great schools. Great schools attract the enthusiasm of students, parents, communal organizations and philanthropists. That leads to genuine sustainability. It is challenging to get individuals to invest in endowment funds. It is extremely difficult and not worthwhile or justifiable to get individuals to invest in endowing poor or mediocre schools.

Principals play the vital role in setting the direction for successful schools. School professional leadership needs to have deep and sustainable understanding of educational leadership, of creating school climate and culture, of how to partner with and lead lay leaders, of how to conduct the orchestra known as a school, so that they will know how to lead an institution that is genuinely sustainable and worthwhile sustaining.

The Jewish education world needs substantial investment in ongoing multi-year in-service professional development programs that can transform the work of principals and teachers, and have profound results for students and schools. The foundation and Jewish communal world must invest in serious long-term programs that empower, enrich, energize and enable school leadership teams to create and maintain great schools; and to invest in serious long-term teacher professional development that bring great teachers into maximal and meaningful engagement with students. Our children cannot wait any longer.

Stuart Zweiter is the Director of The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University.