The Jewish Day School 2030: Just Imagine …

by Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick

A close friend and colleague recently challenged me with a profoundly weighty (hypothetical) question which at first blush sounded straight forward and easy to answer. However, upon further reflection, I soon realized that the question he posed was far more complex and daunting. His question was: “assuming that the Jewish day school affordability crisis is resolved and that financial sustainability was no longer a significant challenge, what would our day schools actually look like today and into the future?” I was not quick to respond. I needed time to reflect on the hypothetical scenario which was so far removed from today’s reality (in addition to the fact that I do not posses a “crystal ball”). Nevertheless, his question inspired me to think about the myriad of potential responses to this question and about what our schools would in fact look like in the absence of these challenges. As a result, I began to reflect, dream, and imagine what our Jewish day schools can become in the future if the “right conditions” where to exist.

Many of the assumptions that follow are theoretical; others are based on current trends. Transcending these assumptions however, is a yearning to think and dream about the future of our Jewish day school community, unencumbered by what we think are insurmountable fiscal barriers, obstacles or challenges.

As we know, many transformative advances, going back to the dawn of the industrial revolution, where inspired by dreams, aspirations and vision. Many of these advances – whether they were in the areas of science, technology, education or commerce – all emerged and evolved as a result of society’s ability to stretch it’s creativity and imagination and to think boldly and creatively about what “could be”, as opposed to “what is”.

One of the most complex challenges currently facing the Jewish Day School community relates to the “affordability” or “sustainability” crisis. For the purpose of this post, I would like to take this reality off the table. Therefore, my theoretical starting point is as follows: Imagine if Day school affordability was no longer a challenge facing our Day School community, thus enabling schools to focus all of its resources and energy exclusively on student recruitment, retention quality, impact and achievement, what would our Jewish Day Schools look like in the future?

For starters, it would be unimaginable to think about the future of our Jewish Day Schools in the absence of a fully integrated technological environment. To this end, one can envision an institution that is transformed into a high-tech educational incubator for creative and innovative teaching and inspired learning – a place where digital technology is no longer a dream or luxury but rather a “new normal” for high level and effective student engagement and learning as well as for real-time teacher growth and development; a place where integrated and blended learning opportunities inspire students to utilize state-of-the-art technology in the sciences, the arts, Judaic studies, the humanities and advanced placement courses as well “virtual homework centers” which are staffed by faculty on a rotating basis.

Beyond these obvious and rudimentary 21st century teaching/learning constructs, just imagine Jewish day schools which possess the necessary resources – human and financial – to no longer “aspire” to be schools of excellence (as written in many a school Mission Statement), but to actually become and evolve into living, breathing and functioning organic educational environments which exhibit and exemplify best/model practice in academic, social and experiential learning and teaching; and which have the metrics to prove it.

Just imagine a 21st Jewish Day School whose mission and value proposition promotes, supports and offers:

  • Ongoing mentorship and coaching support for all faculty, heads of schools and trustees;
  • Student teaching laboratories and clinics developed and offered in collaborative partnership with colleges and universities;
  • “Curriculum Mapping” which continuously informs, supports and assesses curricular goals;
  • Individualized Professional Development portfolios for all teachers and faculty;
  • Teacher and faculty compensation packages which are competitive and commensurate with other professions requiring licensure and certification;
  • Parent feedback/engagement programs whereby parents are continuously informed about the academic progress of their child;
  • Web-based homework stations and tutorials for students requiring remediation;
  • “Career Ladder” opportunities for all promising teachers and faculty;
  • Advanced Placement (AP) in Judaic and General Studies and a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math tracks for all qualified students, and state-of the-art laboratories;
  • Inspiring and stimulating classes, lectures and shiurim aired in real time from Israel;
  • Instructional feedback and teaching performance norms and standards for all teachers and faculty;
  • Meaningful and fulfilling volunteer engagement opportunities for all parents and trustees.
  • Mandatory board and trustee training and development;
  • Mandatory community service engagement / Chesed / Tikkun Olam / Jewish Civics projects;
  • Mandatory leadership succession planning for all Heads of School and Board Chairs/Presidents;
  • Joint educational partnerships and programs with local Jewish day schools, synagogues and Jewish communal agencies;
  • Generous merit and need-based scholarship assistance to all qualified parents/families;
  • Comprehensive medical insurance and pension programs for all full-time career teachers;
  • Teacher and student overseas exchange programs with Israeli and European Jewish educational institutions.

Although these strategies and tactics appear to be somewhat ambitious in their totality, there are Jewish day schools which do in fact offer and enjoy many of the aforementioned programs and opportunities. However, for many of our schools, these opportunities hardly ever come to fruition – due in part to fiscal constraints. One can therefore argue that although an inspiring vision can be offered, accepted and embraced (by Board, faculty, parents and community), quite often it is minimized or quashed when its realization is inhibited or repressed due to financial exigencies. This daunting reality may lead to communal frustration, disappointment and apathy; and, an eventual erosion of Board, faculty and professional leadership confidence. It may also lead to myopic planning and institutional paralysis.

As we so often hear “an inspiring vision is only as good as its implementation strategy”. But, sometimes an exciting and inspiriting vision can in fact ignite, motivate, encourage and launch an exciting reality which heretofore does not exist. This stark reality challenges all of us – lay and professional leadership – to think and dream beyond the limitations and boundaries of current fiscal reality. I underscore the word “current” in an effort to invoke and even provoke us to think about a shift in our educational thinking, planning and leadership. Granted – it’s really hard to think and dream about tomorrow, when we are mired down in the day-to-day realities of running high performing Jewish day schools. “Changing the tires on a moving bus” may be a normative reality and an all too often used catch-phrase, (especially for a Head of School). But, it should not limit our individual or collective capacity, willingness or ability to stimulate, encourage and inspire an educational future which our students, their families and community will enjoy and rightfully deserve. In fact, most Jewish day schools which are vision-driven, strategic and forward-thinking in their mission and value proposition are institutions that will flourish in their effort to stimulate interest, engagement, support and eventually philanthropic investment. All of this irrespective of fiscal challenges. The dollars will follow, if quality is guaranteed. History and experience dictates that funders, donors, prospects and philanthropic investors are attracted (with a passion) to excellence. They want to invest in success and desire and even yearn to be part of (or join) a winning team which is informed by creative, innovative and transformative educational thinking … not by deficits, “sky-is-falling” pronouncements or doomsday crisis scenarios.

Yes, it will always be somewhat challenging and even frustrating to” imagine” and to dream, let alone actually create high performing Jewish day schools absent the looming heavy weight, reality and burden of affordability considerations and obstacles. But, maybe, just maybe, if we create an inspiring environment which imagines and envisions removing this barrier from the equation, we may hopefully be able to more easily reflect and dream, unencumbered, about a bright and stimulating future for our Jewish day school community. At the end of the day, it’s not about burrowing our heads in the sand, thereby minimizing current fiscal realities; but rather, to quote Stephen Covey – it’s about always and consistently “keeping the end in mind.” And, if the “end” is indeed about high quality education, positive impact and educational excellence, then it’s our individual and collective responsibility to create those conditions conducive to creating that reality.

So to my friend and colleague who posed the vexing question – what would our Jewish Day Schools look in the future, if “affordability” was no longer an issue? I answer with a modest and humbled response. The reality of current day school costs and affordability is daunting and palpable; and will impact our schools for the immediate and foreseeable future. The unswerving challenge for day school leadership however, is to transcend this hurdle by ensuring that we don’t miss a golden opportunity (and responsibility) to inspire, dream and transform the Jewish lives of our children and future generations. Innovative, creative and forward thinking fundraising and advancement efforts must move forward – some schools and communities will succeed at greater speeds than others. However, while pursuing these avenues, let us not get sidetracked, distracted, diverted or discouraged from creating an exciting and inspiring future for our Jewish day schools. Visioning, dreaming and imagining are powerful drivers for effective and successful philanthropy.

“If you wish it, it is no dream”. Just imagine …

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is Director of Institutional Advancement, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, Livingston, NJ.