By Jane Taubenfeld Cohen and Ilisa Cappell
Prizmah seeks to strengthen the ecosystem of day school leadership. We believe that schools with strong lay and professional leadership are in a better position to focus on critical strategic issues facing their communities. We believe that when trust is a governing force between lay and professional teams, schools are well equipped to deal with the challenges and opportunities that come their way. We believe that leadership doesn’t have to be lonely and that there are skills, capacities and dispositions that can be learned. And we believe we can help. We outline here the steps we have taken to accomplish our ambitious goals and the ways in which our vision is evolving as we learn more about the needs of our lay and professional leaders.
This year, we have undertaken two major initial initiatives to strengthen day school leadership: We commissioned a study to inform our work, and we assembled Prizmah’s leadership offerings, both ongoing and newly developed, under the umbrella of our new Leadership Academy.
The Leadership Landscape
Prizmah commissioned a report entitled “The Learning Leadership Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel,” written by Alex Pomson and Frayda Gonshor Cohen of Rosov Consulting and generously funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation. Through their research, the authors identified four conditions of Jewish day school leadership:
It’s hard, high-stakes work. Lead professionals are held accountable for all that happens in the school. Day schools are often unstable in their finances and enrollment. In addition, “high-stakes” refers ultimately to our sense of the day school’s mission. Professional and lay leaders are perceived to be ultimately responsible for the Jewish identity outcomes of their students.
There is a reality of toxic board cultures. As demographic and financial pressures have increased over the last decade, there is evidence of growing impatience with school change, and ever higher expectations from parents and board members who want instant gratification and response. There is today an expectation of perfection from the school that many observers believe was not there before. This expectation is a consequence of an unfortunate vicious circle: The more heads of school are paid in order to help make these challenging positions attractive, the more board expectations increase to levels where no normal person can meet them. The result is an ever-shorter cycle of hiring and firing.
Concentrated rather than distributed leadership in schools. Everything that happens in school is assumed to be related to if not dependent on the functioning of one individual. The head is expected to be an able business manager, a skilled instructional leader, a wise steward of human relations, and a forceful communicator who can mobilize the school community around a compelling educational vision.
“It’s the Wild West out there.” A last, but hardly new, challenge for day school leaders is the lack of widespread norms in this system.
Prizmah seeks to address these conditions through our work in the Leadership Academy, by developing a fieldwide understanding of what healthy Jewish day schools look like. The study has been instrumental in reflecting the needs of the field and is informing our next steps. But even as we base our initiatives on our collective experience and the report’s findings, we know that we need to keep learning from the successes and challenges of day school leaders to continue to meet the field’s evolving needs. Over the next year, those conversations will continue as we more fully explore the conditions of leadership. We will be meeting in virtual groups, conducting one-on-one interviews, and facilitating in-person conversations where possible to better understand what is true about the school cultures that enable heads of schools and lay leaders to be successful.
Prizmah envisions all Jewish day schools with an excellent head of school and lay leader working in partnership with one another and equipped to succeed. The Leadership Academy will support, train and connect leaders and emerging leaders through our own programs and services and through partnerships with existing programs in the field.
We envision a Leadership Academy that provides support for lay and professional leaders at all points along the spectrum of a leadership journey. Our offerings will include:
- Expanded opportunities for peer-to-peer networking through our Reshet platform
- Coaching for individual leaders, as well as for teams
- Cohort-based programs such as YOU Lead and our Head of School Excellence Project
- Content-rich experiences like boot camps to advance a skill set in a particular arena
- Partnerships with leading agencies and organizations across North America that marry the best the independent school world has to offer with Prizmah’s expertise in Jewish education
- Thought leadership
- “Smart Search” services to support schools with leadership placement and hiring
- Consultation on administrative structure in schools
- School Culture Audit and Improvement Plan
- Lay Leader Institutes for teams of lay and professional leaders
One thing we’ve already heard over and over is that leadership is lonely. We currently offer several cohort-based programs that were designed, in part, to alleviate the isolation leaders sometimes feel. The study supports this approach, noting, “Our interviews with school leaders make clear that they have derived great value from participating in cohort-based programs, especially those led or facilitated by seasoned Jewish educators.” It comes as no surprise that a strong network provides for rich opportunity for engagement and support. Alumni of YOU Lead and HOSPEP remain connected to their coaches and to each other; they find these connections invaluable. We are excited that our programming is on the right track in this way, and we hope to expand opportunities for leaders at various points in their leadership journey to benefit.
Today’s schools demand a wider range of knowledge and skill than ever before. Leaders need each other and need support, but they also need training. Whether leaders seeking a deep dive into an 18-month program or a three-day boot camp to hone and sharpen their skill set, Prizmah will expand our offerings to engage and teach leaders as they elevate their work.
We know schools need great leaders and leaders need great teams, whether they are just beginning their leadership journey or have been in a leadership role for many years. We believe that boards and professionals can work as partners and have tremendous impact, and that the lay-professional partnership is an area for growth. As the study notes, “It is also vital to develop leadership-learning frameworks in which heads of school can develop their capacities alongside and together with those of their chairs.” To cultivate this critical partnership, Prizmah turned to a nationally recognized leader in not-for-profit governance, BoardSource, to create a new initiative: Board Fitness.
We created our Board Fitness portfolio to strengthen the work of the board and its collaboration with the school’s head. Schools participate in a Board Self-Assessment (BSA) developed by BoardSource and customized for Jewish day schools. The results, coupled with consulting from Prizmah BoardSource-certified consultants, help boards more clearly understand areas of strength and identify opportunities for growth. We see this partnership as a model for Prizmah’s work – a three-way partnership between Jewish day schools, Prizmah and the best resources from the broader field. In this way, we truly develop a chut meshulash – a threefold cord – that has the strength and flexibility to support the growth of our leaders and our schools.
In addition, this year we worked closely with the North American Jewish Day School Strategy Group, representing the 12 largest federations in North America, to strengthen the governance practices of day schools in their communities. Their collaboration and insights were critical in our efforts to support the work of board leadership, and we are excited to learn about the ways in which partnership with federations can continue to enhance Jewish day school excellence.
Building the Future of Day School Leadership
You’ve heard the stories, and perhaps your story is one of them: The board member who knows she could do a job as board president, but doesn’t want to take on the role because it feels too overwhelming and she is scared that she won’t have the time. The classroom teacher who has taken on tasks on the brink of leadership such as coordinating shabbatonim and running the eighth grade trip to Israel, but hasn’t yet thought of himself as a leader in the community. The veteran head of school who has built a wonderful school with a great reputation, who senses that her board’s trust in her is waning and seeks a coach to rebuild her capacity to lead.
Jewish day school leadership is growing increasingly complex. We don’t mean it is hard simply because it requires so many different skills. It is demanding, because our lay and professional leaders care so much. And we at Prizmah want to help. Through our conversations with lay and professional leaders, our research, evaluations of our services, and input from current participants and alumni of our programs, Prizmah is learning more about the concrete ways we can make a difference. We are excited to partner together with you in this endeavor, to strengthen your capacity to lead your schools into a bright future.
Imagine Jewish day school boards holding reputations as models of good governance within our communities. What if they were the go-to destination to start one’s career in lay leadership and an entry point into Jewish communal service?
Imagine a strong leadership pipeline where we are talent spotting within our schools and communities to bring along those who are seeking leadership opportunities and those who don’t yet think of themselves as leaders.
Imagine lay and professional leaders working intentionally to develop their professional and board cultures based on shared values, clear lines of communication, mutual trust and common language.
Imagine tending to the garden of leadership today to harvest the fruits for our future. We invite you to join us on this journey.
Jane Taubenfeld Cohen is Dean, Prizmah Leadership Academy.
Ilisa Cappell is Senior Director, Prizmah Leadership Academy.