Starting a School in the Time if Coronavirus: Lessons Learned

By Dr. Sarah Levy and Mark Parmet

We’re starting a school. Yes, still (even with everything happening in the world). It’s called Einstein Academy, and we’re scheduled to open August 17, 2020, and it’s been a journey.

Our dream was … Building a new type of school from the ground up with students at the center. Genuinely integrating the students with the local community in a mutually beneficial relationship. Engaging the students in interdisciplinary inquiry-based learning. Celebrating children as individuals, with every single student receiving a personally differentiated plan. Involving parents as true partners and creating a community for all. Facilitating the students’ making personal connections to Judaism in a way that is relevant for them. 

And we’ve stayed consistent on that. Actually, our dream has been the only thing consistent during the whole process because it’s the only piece of this journey over which we had any semblance of control. 

We often joke that we could be writing a book about our experiences. Chapter four would be about the early days and how we didn’t have office space, so we moved from Einstein Bagels at dawn (usually around 6 or 6:30 in the morning) to the library when it opened and then finished the day at Starbucks because it was open (and the different excuses we made to people on Zoom meetings when we had to whisper or to excuse the ambient noise). Chapter seven would be about the clandestine rendezvous we had with a woman who had sent us an email saying that she “had information we might find interesting,” and then cautiously slipped us an unmarked manila envelope when we met her in person (it turned out to be research she’d collected regarding values-based education, but still…). Chapter 10 would be all of the emotions we felt when we received our first six-figure donation and how it rejuvenated us to keep doing the work we knew was so needed (in case you’re wondering, it was a mixture of shock, disbelief, pride, and just plain gratitude). 

And then there would have to be a whole section dedicated to coronavirus and all of the challenges and complications that a worldwide pandemic causes when one is in the midst of starting a school. While these last several months have been challenging for everyone in different ways, it was also provided an (unwelcome?) opportunity to learn and grow and learn some more. Here are a few things we have learned while trying to start a school during coronavirus:

Nothing worth doing is easy

We always knew that starting a school would be hard (otherwise, we figured, there would be many more people doing it). We anticipated some of the challenges such as securing funding and effectively reaching our target audience, and there were the challenges that we did not realize would be as difficult as they turned out to be such as finding a location and getting set up with the Colorado Childcare Contribution Tax Credit. 

And then coronavirus provided a whole new set of obstacles. In the midst of our building momentum and engaging donors and families, a pandemic hit that effectively shut down the world for months. Donors anxiously watched the stock market. Families barely survived the day with all of their kids at home. People were hesitant to make plans or commitments for the next day, much less the fall. We found ourselves thinking through alternative plans and sorting through CDC guidelines. Overnight our workload seemed to double while the time to do it was cut in half due to our own obligations to our dependents. 

And we stuck with it. And we learned the true meaning of grit. And we put in longer hours and came up with 17 different plans. And we believed in our dream. Because we started this whole project believing that our kids and our community needed what we had to offer and coronavirus just highlighted that need for us. 

The world needs doers of good and solvers of problems 

As we are not set to open with students until the fall, we did not have to shift to emergency remote learning like the schools around us did. Instead, we observed and talked to people about what was working and what was missing. What we heard from numerous families was that they were missing an opportunity for civic engagement, that they really wanted to engage their kids in the world around them during a difficult time, but they did not even know where to start. In response, we created Mission: Possible, a six-week unit framed around design thinking that teaches problem seeking and problem solving skills. 

We had over 650 unique page views of the material, which is not bad for a small start-up school in Denver. Families around the country engaged in trying to make the world just a little bit better through this program, and it showed us (and those who participated) that kids of any age can make a difference.

Our kids, even our littles ones, can be and should be empowered to make an impact on the world around them on a daily basis so that they are well equipped to really contribute when they are so badly needed. 

The present it important, and so is the future

As we wrote about in a blog for the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, we need to be working the pressing needs of managing today with the important needs of planning for tomorrow. While the future is far more ambiguous and sometimes scary than today or tomorrow, if we don’t balance our focus, we’re doing our future-selves a disservice. 

These last few months were a challenging time for us in this respect because we had to keep moving forward, despite (or maybe because of) the ambiguity of the future. We couldn’t put our plans on hold for months while we waited to see how the world would respond or what would be. We had to take a bit of a leap of faith and keep moving forward and hope that we’d figure it out as we went. And that’s pretty much what we’ve all had to do. We have to believe that there will be a life after coronavirus and the post-coronavirus world needs us to know that and work towards that so that we’re ready.  

We must always keep justifying our worth and pivoting when necessary

We consider ourselves to be in the world of entrepreneurial education, meaning that we view changes in the external environment as opportunity and proactively seek new initiatives created by change and competition. We started out with the intent to open a school in August 2020, and since then, we created an online learning unit that launched in the spring, considered opening a summer program, rethought our class sizes and safety precautions, and came up with a whole Plan B for what will happen if the state of Colorado is back in quarantine. 

Any organization, in order to stay relevant, must keep iterating and changing in order to meet the most current needs of its community otherwise it doesn’t have a reason to exist, and we’ve certainly seen that first-hand over these last few months. What people need today is so much different from what they needed four months ago and is so much different from what they will need six months from now. Just because what we provide might be needed today, we cannot assume that we’ll be needed in the same way tomorrow, so we must constantly be re-evaluating our role and purpose and the needs we are filling.

Ultimately, we have only so much control

We’re both planners (as I would imagine most people who set out to start a school are). We like to have contingencies in place for every possible scenario and each potential outcome. We like schedules and to-do lists and making decisions based on what the data told us would be best. We work long hours and don’t take a weekend, exploring every opportunity and possibility in order to ensure that we’re doing all we can for our students. And, sometimes none of that matters. Sometimes you can work really, really hard and do everything you think is right

For us, not once have we considered not moving forward with the opening of Einstein Academy. Every day has brought a new challenge and a new lesson, and, ultimately, we know that our school will just be better because of it.

Dr. Sarah Levy and Mark Parmet are the co-founders of Einstein Academy, a new Jewish day school in Denver, CO.