The Big Jewish Question on My Mind:
Successfully Navigating a Merger of Day Schools
By Rabbi Ari Leubitz
[This is the second in a five-part series on “Big Questions on Our Jewish Minds,” featuring alumni of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), part of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education JTS. You can join our series’ authors in conversation at the “Big Jewish Questions on Our Minds” session during the Prizmah Jewish Day School Conference coming up in March in Atlanta, Georgia.]
In our current academic landscape, conversations about day school mergers seem more prevalent and important than ever, though they are often difficult conversations to start and sustain. There are many reasons for a merger – from economic benefits to mission realignment to political needs. Regardless of the reason, the opportunity to merge creates both tremendous potential and significant challenge. I know this from personal experience. When merging schools and merging cultures, everything takes on a symbolic and emotional nature.
Merging and changing cultures is exhausting work. It can often feel as if even the small things become big issues. The literature speaks of school change as a “loss” for people. As people are processing the loss, many new issues arise. What may seem like a normal school event often turns into a clash of “what it used to be, what it should have been, and what it needs to be.” For example, planning a celebration for students at the end of their middle school career now becomes: “do eighth-graders actually graduate in a K-12 school?” Enforcing a dress code or uniform policy becomes a “what we did vs. what they did.” The lunch protocol and menu become “what they used to serve and where on- (or off-) campus we can eat.” Even the mascot becomes a heated emotional discussion of “keeping our legacy, memory, connection vs. establishing and chartering a NEW identity for the NEW school.” Discussions or debates of any of these seemingly small issues create the notion of needing a winner and a loser. That is never a constructive dynamic.
In 2016, I joined the recently formed Atlanta Jewish Academy (AJA) as Head of School. AJA was the merger of two existing schools, both long-standing institutions in Atlanta, each with a different culture and mission. I certainly had my work cut out for me, and it was a challenge. Looking back, I know it was worth all the exhaustive effort to build the school we have today.
Even with all the tools we have to navigate changes smoothly, and as much as we know about how cultures take time to change, the change itself always takes longer than we might think. It can be frustrating, particularly when, despite our best efforts, the culture reverts to its old ways of doing things. It takes focus and perseverance to keep it on track to the new direction. I learned so much through our process that is worth sharing.
- Wear your suit of armor. This is an emotionally-charged time for everyone involved. Not everyone is excited about the change and you’ll encounter push-back from various constituents. This may come in the form of students who protest a change in faculty, people uncomfortable with updates in dress code, or folks from different religious views who view the new entity through various (and potentially opposing) lenses. These are the inevitable growing pains that are present in any merger or transition.
- Patience is a virtue. This process doesn’t happen overnight. Fasten your seatbelt for the bumps and bruises that occur, along with the joy and gratification that will as well.
- It‘s a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces. Those of us in a position of leadership often have a vision that to us is a clear full-color completed jigsaw puzzle. Others may not initially see that same vision. They may just see a jumbled box of assorted pieces, which can be overwhelming and scary. For those in a Head of School role, it’s important to remember that we see the puzzle from many vantage points when others don’t, and it’s our job to help them visualize the finished puzzle.
- Open your ears and close your mouth (except to ask one specific question). One significant challenge in any merger is understanding the cultural differences of the merging entities before creating a cultural integration plan. Observation and insight are critical pieces of this puzzle, and the most valuable question we can ask is “why?” The answers will help us discern background and historical practices and enable each culture to gain a better understanding of the other. Asking “why” and listening to parents, staff, alumni, donors, students, board members, and any other vital stakeholders is essential. Other than “why,” we should focus our energies on observing, listening, and learning, rather than over-speaking.
- Have some fruit. Early in the process, it’s critical for the Head of School and Board of Trustees to locate the low-hanging fruit and start off with some easy wins that can make an immediate impact. Only after gaining more trust from the faculty, staff, parents, and community will you be able to tackle the historical, political, and more challenging/sensitive issues.
- Presence and Empathy. A school often expects changes to faculty and staff when a new head of school takes the helm. Combined with the real feeling of loss for each entity, many emotions and personal behind-the-scenes conversations are bound to occur. Everyone processes change differently so it is important for us leading the change to be present and empathetic. We must offer an outlet for those involved to share and even vent. More on this below.
- Be redundant. And then be redundant again! Once we establish the new mission and messages reflecting the new school, share, share, and share . . . again, again, and again. Communicate early and often. Articulate the mission and vision until we can recite them in our sleep. Be transparent about as much as possible as often as possible; it may not always be easy, but it will help build the trust among the community.
- Build Systems and Infrastructure. Create policies and procedures that reflect the mission of the new school and are in the best interest of our learners. I always select one student (let’s call him Jacob) and bring him into my mind’s eye when making decisions about school policies. I ask myself, “is this in the best interest of Jacob and his classmates?”
- Have a ruler handy. Measuring progress is imperative. Set a process to assess change fatigue, learn from missteps, and celebrate success. A culture that can learn and grow only gets stronger. I’ve seen it firsthand.
Finally, faculty and staff are the heart of the school; without their buy-in to the mission and vision, a merger cannot succeed. To that end, we have put in place some useful systems to attain and understand feedback.
- Nuts and Bolts. I email a form called “Nuts and Bolts” to all staff weekly, giving them a consistent vehicle to anonymously share their satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It’s been a valuable tool for me to get their input, and for them to know they are being heard.
- Team Building. Prior to each school year, we organize community-building activities that highlight the mission of the school and support cultural behaviors and norms. The style of the activities serves to break down the wall between schools.
- Looping in New Teachers. From day one, all new hires receive training about the school vision and meet with the Head of School to get an overview and specifics of their roles in carrying out that vision.
- Fireside Chats. Each department in the school meets with key leaders and the Head of School twice a year for open discussions. Questions are gathered up front and may be asked anonymously. Consider bringing the previously mentioned suit of armor to those meetings.
- Head of School Blog. For my first two years at AJA, I wrote a weekly blog to articulate my vision and mission for the school. The content was thought-provoking and often challenged the status quo, triggering some crucial dialogues.
Our work in school life is holy work and for many of us our profession feels like a calling. It does for me. We are shaping the future generations of the Jewish people. Our children deserve no less than our very best in all areas of their education, and so in times of stability and times of change, we must keep our eyes on the prize, and focus on the needs of all in our community to realize our success.
Rabbi Ari Leubitz is the Head of School for Atlanta Jewish Academy. He is both an alumnus and current mentor for DSLTI, a program of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson School of JTS.