Business Leaders Running Jewish Day Schools – A Good Thing?
By Mark Springer
In 2016, I retired from my position as principal of the Mason-Rice Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts, a high performing public school district outside Boston. My retirement concluded my 38 year career as a teacher and administrator in the public schools of Massachusetts. Within a few months of my retirement, I was approached by members of the Board of Trustees from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston about becoming the new Associate Head of School for Program and Instruction. They explained to me that they had just hired Rebecca Lurie as the new Head of School (HOS) right out of the business world with no experience in the world of education. I’m sure I smiled; I imagine I raised my eyebrows; I know I thought they were out of their minds. After meeting Rebecca, however, I was inspired and I agreed to join her team as the Associate Head of School for Program and Instruction following my retirement from Mason-Rice that summer.
Those of us in the public schools have always blanched at the thought of business leaders and politicians telling us how to educate our children. While everyone considers themselves an expert in education because they all went to school, those of us in the field know full well the many challenges presented to educators in today’s world. We know there are no easy answers. Our challenges are immense, the solutions nuanced and complex. How would a person steeped in the business world attempt to solve the problems facing one Jewish day school in suburban Boston?
Private schools are quite different from public schools, and Jewish day schools face their own set of unique challenges given changing demographics in the Jewish community across the country. Schechter was facing the very common problem of declining enrollment and unsustainable budget shortfalls.
To address the startling challenges in front of them, Schechter’s Board of Trustees took the bold step of reaching into the business world to find a leader who would rapidly change our present course. This individual was uniquely qualified in a number of other ways than many traditional candidates. She was a Schechter graduate with a double degree from Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, majoring in Talmud, with her three children enrolled in the school. As a member of the Board of Trustees, Rebecca was intensely involved in the challenges facing our school, and possessed the self-confidence, humility and cheerful optimism that attracted the attention and deep interest of the board. Her background leading Talent Management at Staples, Inc. was also seen as an incredible strength as any school is only as good as the teachers tasked with instructing its students.
Being a HOS at a private, 15 months-Grade 8 Jewish day school is a far different role from that of a public school principal. It is more similar to the role a superintendent of schools would play in the public sector. Yet, where the public schools are funded through property taxes, a private school is funded solely through tuition, grants, charitable contributions and other established revenue streams (i.e. rental income). Our new HOS’s immediate challenge was to stem the departure of students from our school, provide faculty and parents with an optimistic and hopeful view of the future, and dramatically improve the financial position of the school. Donors would only donate if they had faith in school leadership and the belief that their investment was a sound one.
I have learned that individuals with a business background possess a unique skill-set that is rarely found in those cast in leadership positions in education. A strong business background brings many important qualities to the HOS position.
- These individuals are often well-versed in setting goals and holding people accountable in reaching those goals.
- Individuals from the business world often have a strong sense of how to engage in strategic thinking and planning – tackling both the macro market trends and the challenges the individual institution faces – and establishing implementation plans to ensure the strategic plan gets executed.
- With a strong business background, the school leader understands a balance sheet and an earnings statement, and can very capably handle him/herself in working with a demanding Board of Trustees who can be driven by financial statements, but truly want what is best for children and the future of their school.
Yet those skills alone will not get the job done. Adam Bryant, author of The Corner Office, identified one of the single greatest challenges facing top executives as understanding the value relationships play in building any successful organization. Numbers and spreadsheets and financial statements are easy, Bryant claims, in comparison to understanding the subtlety of being able to get the best work out of its employees. For a person with a business background to thrive, the following skills are necessary in abundance:
- Acknowledge they don’t know all the answers.
- Seek and accept constructive feedback.
- Remain steadfast in building a school where teachers love coming to work and children love coming to school.
Rebecca Lurie does not have an education background and she does not pretend to have one. Instead she relies heavily on our two building principals, our Associate Head of School for Program and Instruction, our Director of Marketing and Enrollment, our Development team and our Director of Jewish Life and Learning. She asks the important questions, listens intently and reflects deeply on what she hears. She is a leader and a learner, and regularly seeks out feedback from her team, students, faculty and parents. She has an uncanny ability to connect the dots among many disparate pieces of information culled from a variety of sources. Successful school leaders possess a true commitment to building relationships with all of the people around them and being very aware of their needs and desires, and Rebecca models that every day.
Only a year and a half into Rebecca Lurie’s tenure as HOS, there is an undeniable hope that pervades our school community. While she commands the respect of faculty, students and parents, she possesses a wonderful sense of humor, a warm smile and a genuine and deep care for the entire Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston community that has everyone believing that our school’s future is bright.
Mark Springer is Associate Head of School for Program and Instruction at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.