Small Schools, Big Challenges, Bigger Opportunities:
A national conversation continues through RAVSAK’s small school Reshet
by Dr. N. Shira Brown
The Shalom School is an important nexus for the community of Sacramento, California. With only a small Jewish Federation and no JCC, not to mention a lack of kosher restaurants, not even a deli, the day school is one of the only places of central congregation beyond the denominational lines of synagogue affiliation. With approximately 90 children from K – 6, the parking lot is an intersection of daily banter and community planning. Community events often gather around the school.
Despite this central role, the value of the Shalom School, and others like it, is not always immediately intuitive. Young families may choose a community with a Jewish day school over other locations, even if they opt out of the education, because a Jewish day school is a marker of community vibrancy. Synagogues can take for granted that their ability to hire a new young rabbi often hinges on the presence of a Jewish day school for the rabbi’s own present or future family.
For the wider community, school alumni are steeped in Jewish identity and literacy. When they launch into the more heterogeneous environment of public school, they are knowledgeable advocates for their heritage by providing a Jewish lens to the views of others. They are articulate ambassadors of their culture, language and the land of Israel, as they are steeped in a rich identity of tradition. They grow into adulthood as persuasive communal and philanthropic leaders.
Yet many of these small schools that are critical to the vibrancy of their small communities face many daunting hurdles. At the recent RAVSAK/PARDES conference, titled “Moving the Needle 2014,” leaders from 38 small schools, representing an incredible 70 percent of this niche market, participated in a two-day “Small School Deep Dive” learning track. This level of intensive problem-solving surrounding the unique challenges of small schools was unprecedented and incredibly well-crafted by the program’s planning committee, under the leadership of RAVSAK’s executive director, Dr. Marc N. Kramer and associate executive director Dr. Idana Goldberg, in partnership with The Jewish Federations of North America and in collaboration with PEJE.
The challenges experienced by the small community day schools are not completely in sync with those of their larger counterparts. Some issues are simply based in numbers. For example, while both large and small schools contend with enrolment challenges, a loss of just five students for a small school with fifty children represents an incredible 10 percent drop in the population. This can create a significant impact on the school’s financial and social realities.
Further, many struggles in small schools simply do not exist in larger schools. Small Jewish day schools often rely heavily on lay leaders for professional services. Young, sometimes relatively inexperienced board members are often asked to take ownership over formidable tasks including recruitment and retention, fundraising and development, school budgets and business planning, as the schools lack the financial resources to hire professional staff. Often, small community lay leaders and professionals leave their board or staff meetings with more questions than answers. The tasks ahead can feel overwhelming, and the human capital sparse. Additionally, Federation and other extended support can be tenuous, as the community expectations surrounding many critical issues often outstrip the school’s ability to chart its own destiny.
As unique and formidable as the challenges may seem, however, the will towards charting solutions is even broader and deeper. Moreover, the collective wisdom shared among these schools through the facilitation of a national organization alters the field entirely. In the weeks leading up to and since Moving the Needle 2014, conversations regarding best practices and national benchmarking quickly became the norm, led and facilitated by RAVSAK. Streamlining processes towards the tried-and-true is easier to accomplish when everyone is talking to one another, and comparing notes. For example, when the Kadimah School of Buffalo needed to rapidly restructure due to a massive shift in enrollment, it was aided significantly by the insights of the larger brain trust assembled through RAVSAK.
Thankfully, best-practice solutions need not be financially overwhelming, as schools learn from each other. During one in-depth discussion at the conference about recruitment and retention, schools quickly learned that some of the most inexpensive techniques are, by far, the most effective. “Parent ambassador” programs, parlour meetings and a vibrant social media presence wins out over the more expensive options of direct mail and print advertising.
Another example of schools learning better evidence-based practices came in fundraising and development. During the conference, schools were encouraged to develop longer-term, more sustainable fundraising through values-based, philanthropic relationship-building, while moving away from more vulnerable yearly fundraising events.
The close of the conference was not the end of the conversation. RAVSAK has now launched an online forum for small schools to vet ideas and concerns, called the “small school Reshet.” This follows on the heels of similar, highly successful “reshetot,” or forums, for other groups, such as heads of schools, board members and Judaic instructors. Within just three weeks, already 40 members have joined the forum for small schools with an early exploration of potential resource-sharing.
In the past, many small schools felt like islands. Indeed, many were. But this larger national conversation is beginning to change the nature and tone of the small Jewish community day school’s daily work. Schools are building sacred partnerships with one another that will raise the bar across the field. Ultimately, whether solutions address the metaphorical forest or trees – the possible or seemingly impossible – these conversations express perhaps the most valuable message of all: You are not alone.
Dr. N. Shira Brown is a proud board member of RAVSAK: The Community Day School Network and serves as Chief of Emergency Medicine for three hospitals in the Niagara Health System, Ontario, Canada and Chair of Philanthropy for the Kadimah School of Buffalo. Shira and her husband, Marc Brown, Kadimah alumnus and current co-president, are members of Young Israel of Greater Buffalo and work tirelessly to advance community day school education in upstate New York.