SAT Scores? Jewish Identity? What Else You Got?

by Ross Bloom

There are two predominant arguments that are made for the value of day school: the Jewish and the secular. The Jewish argument states that day school is the best way to imbue traditional Jewish values in our youth – at any observance level – and build the next generation of Jewish leaders. The secular argument states that our schools do as well as or better than competing public and private schools in preparing our children for success in high school, college, and the working world.

But in our day and age, people – including prospective parents – have a stake in many other causes and value systems in addition to the “Jewish” and the “secular.” They may be environmentalists; they may be Zionists; they may be committed to reform in the American educational system; they may be collectors of fine art.

Jewish day schools have considerable value for those who care about Jewish identity and SAT scores, but their value doesn’t end there. We need to break through the binary and identify the diverse ways our schools speak to our audience’s varied interests. For instance, say I was a parent and you were talking to me – an environmentally conscious foodie. You would get major points if you engaged with me about your school’s relationship to food justice.

How might a school show its connection to a parent’s interest in food justice? They could feature activities that are happening in their school to promote these values. Across the country, Jewish day schools are working to create more just and sustainable food systems both within and beyond their schools’ walls. Denver Academy of Torah students have contributed to the building of a community farm in the heart of Denver, Colorado, serving and educating a diverse local community. In St. Louis, Missouri, The Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy is participating in a farm-to-table school lunch program that brings local fruits and vegetables into the school – along with an educational component featuring farmers and chefs from the area. Students at The Jewish Day School in Bellevue, Washington, run a food pantry for the local community. These are just three examples that illustrate how Jewish day schools are working to improve the food system and learning along the way.

How cool is that?

Day schools’ value goes way beyond the categories of Jewish identity and SAT scores. Hebrew, Israel education, and units on different countries help build our students’ understanding of a complex international landscape in a society where many schools barely teach basic geography. Tzedakah and social justice programs raise questions for students about the kind of society they live in and how they want to change it. Recycling, compost, and energy conservation norms at school, combined with Jewish values, stories, and knowledge, reinforce a sense of gratitude and care for the earth and its resources. The point is, when you’re cultivating prospective families, you should spend a lot of time learning about their interests in a broad way. While you’re at it, be sure to have in your arsenal a bunch of stories that present a textured, multifaceted view of your school’s impact.

Can you identify a “third way” that would speak to prospective parents in your community?

Ross Bloom is the Program Associate for Regional Advocacy at the Partnership for Excellence for Jewish Education. This piece is cross-posted at the PEJE Blog.