What, why and how
Leading day school change in an ever-shifting environment
In today’s ever-changing and evolving world, organizational change is a very complex process to undertake. It requires the sublimation of institutional ego, a clear vision for what change can accomplish and a willingness to confront resistance to change.
Over the past several decades, much has been learned about the successes and failures of organizational change and its relationship to schools as nonprofit institutions.
From school reform initiatives of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to today’s post-pandemic “new normal” realities, one thing is clear – the nature and scope of school change is difficult, arduous, exhilarating and beyond challenging to achieve and sustain.
As we know, the concept of organizational change suggests that the status quo of an organization may no longer be acceptable, viable or effective. Otherwise, why change?
School change, as we know it today, can be the result of a variety of factors, including a school’s new strategic direction, mission or vision resulting from a credible strategic planning process; a new school leader’s or influencer’s push, pull and advocacy to move a school in a different direction; the impact of emerging demographic realities; the evolving composition of the school’s constituents; the availability (or paucity) of human resources; the financial condition or viability of the school; and/or an unexpected event resulting from a crisis (such as our recent pandemic).
Irrespective of the cause, the bottom line is that school change encompasses the action(s) undertaken by an institution to alter a major component of its organization. As such, the causes for school change can be endless.
As we know, change never takes place in a vacuum. To be sure, Jewish day schools and yeshivot that endeavor to engage in a change process should do so by focusing on those specific areas they actually want to change. They need to define why they want to change them; and finally, determine how change will take place. To this end, it is essential that the school leadership views school change with tremendous specificity as opposed to broad-stroke aspirational planning or “blue-skying.”
Experience in the field of education and nonprofit management strongly suggests that “whole-school change” requires an inordinate amount of time, energy, vision, grit and a strategic leadership bandwidth. In reality, most institutions are ill-prepared to engage in this type of holistic or comprehensive change process; and, if they do attempt to engage in this process, in the absence of comprehensive planning, it can potentially become a formula for disaster – especially in a school that is not culturally, financially, politically or operationally prepared or positioned for “whole-school change.”
Given these realities and complexities, I strongly suggest that schools that do aspire to engage in a credible change process seriously consider an “incremental change” model as opposed to a change process which is all encompassing and across the board. This will again require a clear and laser-focused articulation and mapping of what needs to be changed in the school, why it needs to be changed; and how that change process will be implemented and managed. Finally, the what, why and how of school change must be crystal clear from the get-go.
The Incremental School Change Model
There is a growing assumption in the nonprofit field which suggests that school change can only be seriously effectuated if it is the result of an extensive strategic planning process. As a professional deeply committed to the centrality and critical importance of strategic planning (as an essential precursor for organizational change), this assumption may not always be the case. There are a growing number of schools which do have a pretty good sense regarding those areas which require change in the absence of a strategic planning process. The challenge for them however is to determine how to embark upon a change process which is serious, rigorous, targeted, planful and above all, sustainable.
By definition, incremental change unlike “whole-school change” or “radical change” is a process that “adjusts” the status quo through minor changes.
“Radical school change” or whole-school change on the other hand, refers to a significant shift behind a school’s fundamental educational philosophy, mission, practices and culture. In this case, I suggest that a strategic plan be seriously considered (see: Day School Strategic Planning in a Post COVID Environment: A Time to Restart, Reboot and Recharge, eJewishPhilanthropy.com, June 3, 2021).
It is important to note that irrespective of whether school change is incremental or radical, they can both lead to significant transformational change (a topic for a different post).
Incremental change, or “first-order change” usually occurs via a series of small steps, with no single step taking up a long period of time.
Several common examples of targeted incremental change initiatives in our day schools and yeshivot may include, but not be limited to:
- Improving student health by creating meaningful and impactful physical fitness or food nutrition programs;
- Procedural and policy changes in order to improve and enhance student discipline expectations and policies;
- Introducing a hands-on middot (Jewish values) program which is integrated into the school’s curriculum;
- Improving teacher working conditions by offering enhanced benefits and incentives;
- Improving the school’s internal and external communications program;
- Improving community outreach and engagement;
- Reimagining how the school year is structured so that there is a balanced calendar of academic and experiential educational programs;
- Incorporating on-line and computer based instruction in both limudei kodesh and kimudei chol (religious and secular studies);
- Introducing more life-skills to students and parents;
- Creating greater safety and security measures in and around the school’s perimeter;
- The introduction of mandatory parenting education workshops and seminars;
- The restructuring of a school’s administrative operation in order to maximize operational effectiveness and increased efficiencies;
- Revamping of the school’s entire admissions process, policy and protocol so that it more accurately reflects the reality of the type of student the school endeavors to attract;
- The creation of greater depth and breadth of its professional growth and development program for faculty;
- The creation of a more comprehensive and creative teacher recruitment program;
- The establishment of student honors track for gifted students; and
- Creating self-contained classrooms, remediation services, resource rooms and counseling for students with exceptionalities.
These “change” action items or aspirational challenges are just a sample of the kinds of school activities which do not require or demand radical change. They are specific, targeted and incremental. They are also areas of focus which in most cases are made easier to change as opposed to those that require a more radical alignment. This does not suggest that they will not require additional human or financial resources or support. But the bottom line is that they are all doable; if there is a will there is a way.
Leading and Sustaining School Change
Leading school change requires a series of leadership skill sets, assumptions and resources. It also requires a school environment which welcomes and celebrates change and is willing and able to take on specific (planful) risks.
By-and-large, most of today’s yeshiva and day school change initiatives – whether they be operational, curricular or programmatic – are initiated and developed by the head of school and principal in close collaboration and partnership with the school’s management leadership team and faculty. In select cases, members of the school board and parent body will be invited to participate in the process. This can only enhance the credibility and transparency of the change process.
Prior to the school engaging in a change process, it is essential that the head of school and or principal (as leader) ask her/himself and the school leadership team the following critical questions:
- Why do you want this change in the school?
- Who will benefit from the change?
- Who will be affected most by the change?
- Who is likely to resist the change and why?
- Has the school explored all viable options at its disposal in order to create the change?
- What would the result of the change look like once achieved and how do we evaluate its success or impact?
Critical to the success of a change process is the creation of a team spirit which embraces and supports the anticipated change. In the belief that “people support what they help to create,” it is essential that the head of school and/or principal involve the team and faculty in every aspect of the change planning process. This process includes full transparency as it relates to the purpose or rationale for the change, how the change will happen, expectations and how that change process will be charted, measured and adopted.
When promoting, sustaining and leading change in schools, it will be imperative to: set clear rules and guidelines; be mindful and communicate clearly and frequently with faculty and constituents; and maintain clear and concise benchmarks in order to help measure and ensure that the school is on a well-defined path and track for change to happen.
Finally, a meaningful change process can only be as effective as the thought and planning which was invested in it. As such, it is important to remember that to be sustainable, wholesome school change must be constant and evolving, and include the building-blocks for sustainability and long-term impact. Like everything in life—the more thought you put into the planning process and its ultimate design, the greater the probability for a successful outcome.
In today’s ever-changing and evolving world, organizational change is a very complex process to undertake. It requires the sublimation of institutional ego, a clear vision for what change can accomplish and a willingness to confront resistance to change. But above all, it requires a level of ownership and commitment and an opportunity to challenge the school’s status quo by pushing a school’s limits, to challenge the leadership’s “comfort zone of complacency” and to explore other wonderful growth possibilities and potential for growth and improvement.
At the end of the day, successful school change can only happen if the school has the right professional leadership leading the charge. Anything less diminishes its importance and sense of urgency.
Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is principal of the Hebrew Academy, Margate Fla., organizational consultant and executive coach. He served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership positions on the local and national levels; and is co-founder of LEV Consulting Associates, specializing in strategic planning, organizational development and school change. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.