The Resourcefulness of a Community Under Distress
By Dan Ahlstrom and Sharon Pollin
In a genuine crisis, what should a school know and expect from its immediate and larger community? What resources, financial, personal and otherwise, can a school rely upon and look to draw upon? We are both heads of Jewish day schools that suffered from catastrophic hurricanes, Katrina and Harvey. Traumatic events such as these can present a strange combination of devastation and opportunity. Conditions of chaos disrupt stable systems while fostering environments that may be ripe for creative emergence. In the aftermath of calamitous events, we’ve been able to reflect on what we’ve learned as leaders, how our communities responded, and suggestions for the future.
Sharon Pollin, Jewish Community Day School of Greater New Orleans: JCDS completed 2004-2005 with its first ever eighth-grade graduation and an enrollment of 86 students. On August 29, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Our school’s first floor was flooded, requiring major repairs. The school would be closed for a year; families evacuated the city. Twenty percent of all evacuees stayed away from New Orleans for the long term.
Dan Ahlstrom, Beth Yeshurun Day School: Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the Middle Texas Coast on August 25, 2017. The storm expanded rapidly from a tropical depression to a major hurricane in less than 40 hours and deluged the city in 51 inches of rainfall. Beth Yeshurun Day School and Congregation, located in separate buildings, were both flooded. Three hundred students and their families were displaced. The school split up, functioning in different locations, and returned fully to the campus on January 9, 2018.
SP: JCDS had no idea where our families were, or if they were in town or in another city. Families able to return to the city had enrolled their children in other schools. Many decided to stay where they had evacuated. The school was faced with the first of two existential crises. In order to determine the viability of reopening as a K-8 school, the first order of business was to find our former students. Two devoted school employees spent countless hours on the phone and internet tracking them down to find out how they were and where they were. (The head of school had fled and did not return.)
DA: Our first challenge was communication. We needed to know the flood’s impact on our families, teachers and staff. This began with a simple communication tree. As head, I reached out to senior admin, who in turn reached out to their direct reports, who reached out to teachers and our families. We used cellphones, text messaging, email and in some cases personal visits to find out and document what had occurred. This information was crucial in the first week after the flood and again later when we applied for relief funds.
Second, we needed to assess the damage quickly. We had mistakenly thought, at first, that we could use our parents, temporary labor and other volunteers to clean up and move back into our school in a couple of days. Thankfully, we also reached out to a damage and disaster restoration service and a commercial contractor. They were able to help us professionally access the damage and make useful recommendations regarding the impact of the flood on our facilities. Our board and the board of Congregation Beth Yeshurun worked closely together during the first days of the flood and acted quickly. We placed the school as our first priority and began work on restoring the facilities as soon as the rain stopped.
Third, we needed to find a temporary home and get up and running as soon as possible. Once it was determined that we could not return to our campus, our senior administrative team and executive committee began looking for temporary locations. We considered portables, strip malls, abandoned schools and recreation centers. Each of these options was unfeasible for a variety of reasons. Our local community middle and high school, Emery Weiner, and the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, home of the elementary Schlenker School, made room for us on their campuses. We also had considerable help from the Jewish Federation of Houston. The elementary school was back up and running within a week and the early childhood program within two weeks.
SP: The New Orleans Jewish Community had relocated its leadership to Baton Rouge, about 60 miles away. Their first order of business was to find people and determine their needs. When it came time to restore the school several months later, thanks to the generosity of the national Jewish community, including the AVI CHAI Foundation, United Jewish Communities and the federations of several cities, the dollars were here. The majority of the community was committed to ensuring a thriving, pluralistic school. Even though many of the students had left the city or enrolled in other schools, there was a mentality of “If we rebuild it, they will come.” Work began by tightly stretched professional contractors; everyone in the city needed help rebuilding. Our building’s facilities manager was a devoted lifeline in this endeavor. The first floor was stripped down to the studs, and everything that needed replacing – computers, desks, textbooks – was replaced.
Based on the small numbers of children left in the city who would be willing to return to the day school, the realization soon dawned that it would not be possible to begin where we had left off, as a K-8 school. We needed to shift our point of view from “reopening” the school to a “reboot.” The school would open for students in kindergarten through third grade in August 2006.
DA: In their last strategic planning process before Harvey, our board incorporated risk management. When the flood hit, we were prepared to operate all aspects of our school remotely. Thankfully, our marketing/communications teams were already using a school messenger system to quickly text and email our families. I maintained weekly virtual and in-person meetings for administration to collaborate and tackle issues and needs. However, there was a learning curve to using the technology.
BYDS communicated often with our temporary hosts and repeatedly told them how thankful we were to them for taking us in during our time of need. This helped soften the blow when we asked for a few weeks more of accommodation. Our emergency communication plan worked as anticipated. Payroll and other business operations were also intact even though we did not have access to our campus.
SP: The recovery trajectory of JCDS after Katrina was not smooth. The school reopened in August 2006 with an enrollment of 23, recovered to 52 students in grades pre-K to 5 by 2011, but by 2013 enrollment had plummeted to only 27 students. A sustainability expert was hired who recommended that the school close. I believe it was the shock of this moment, even more than the storm’s devastation, that galvanized our core stakeholders. The expert’s advice was soundly rejected, and vows were made to access every possible resource to overcome the obstacles that blocked the school’s successful future.
DA: Harvey’s impact on our school caused our stakeholders to band together like never before in our history. It’s a shame it takes a crisis to do that. Parent and community support was overwhelming at first. It was great to have people available, but in the immediate aftermath of the flood, there were times when there was little work to do, when we had to wait before moving forward.
As time progressed, all of the stressors that accompanied this experience had a significant effect on morale. As overtasked staff and volunteers worked to run a school on multiple campuses while restoring our original school, tempers occasionally flared, illness and cynicism increased. As information changed or just wasn’t available, it caused mistrust. We lost some staff and some families. Our teams really had to rely on one another for emotional support. We always set our focus on the students. Schedules were made and changed as needed. We learned and grew from each other.
SP: One of the most useful things our sustainability consultant did was to identify 12 specific operational challenges she viewed as absolutely insurmountable. In effect, this list became our strategic plan. (Talk about lemonade from lemons!) The board, faculty and I prioritized, tackling several fronts at the same time.
Because the school had run through a lot of money in the years following Katrina, including much of its endowment, a key decision was made to not ask donors for money, at least not right away. We asked for emotional and verbal support but not dollars. We understood we had to first demonstrate that we were doing whatever it took to be a viable institution. This was a positive attention-grabber.
Another important moment had to do with our participation in Prizmah’s Governance and Fundraising Academy. Many of our top lay leadership participated, proving that we would walk the talk of change and improvement. It also helped that we achieved a significant matching grant challenge through the Legacy Heritage Foundation with the help of a new local funder. The support of national funders effectively communicated to our local constituency that we had turned the corner toward viability. This, in turn, supported our enrollment efforts. Families became ever more assured that the school would remain open throughout their children’s tenure.
Several other factors were also of significance. Prizmah’s Atidenu program for recruitment and retention taught us to collect and utilize data and best practices. We reopened a pre-K-4 program that had closed in 2012 and are seeing solid enrollment in that group, especially among younger siblings of current students. We opened a baby program in 2016 that serves infants to 18 months, year round. With only 10 spaces, it is now full with a modest waiting list. This August, our sixth grade reopened for the first time since the storm, including the entire fifth grade cohort from last year.
Finally, a few months ago, JCDS broke through its most challenging barrier and received community permission to begin an early childhood program in 2019. With the addition of classes for children from 15 months to three years, for the first time, the school will serve families with children from infancy through sixth grade. This is especially significant in the New Orleans educational landscape, where students are no longer required to attend neighborhood public schools, but rather must apply for admission to various parish public and charter schools. School choice may have benefits, but it is a fraught, stressful experience for parents as they strive to become informed consumers who are able to enroll their children into a good public school. Our ability to offer a seamless alternative makes a large impact in this community.
DA: It probably won’t be surprising when I say the process was continually evolving. Facilitating the needs of the teachers and families, construction, coordinating with our congregation and the broader community, and working with our board and donors did not lend itself to anything resembling consistency. We had a meeting schedule, but more than that, I had a list of people that I needed to check in with, some daily, some weekly, and so on. I kept track of the list and when I needed to reach out.
We had three distinct turnaround moments. The first was when we secured a new space for our students so that we could resume school during construction. Second, when we all returned to our campus after the winter break. Third, Pesach break. We had been so hyperfocused on recovery and operations that we hardly had time to think about anything else. After Pesach, our community finally had the head space to appreciate the tremendous amount of effort and work that went into our recovery efforts. You could visibly see the relief on people’s faces as they entered the school. Many of our families are still not back in their homes at this time. For them, the school is again a place of consistency, stability and support.
SP: The knowledge that I was not alone gave me tremendous strength. I had the support of our leadership, of the federation, of my Prizmah coaches, of my doctoral advisor. It was important for me to have these resources with whom to process various elements of the challenge. For our families and faculty, I understood I had to stay positive and upbeat. Projecting a sense of optimism and strength proved critical and contagious, as did providing everyone with concrete information to share loud and proud with the community. Did our enrollment increase? Did test scores rise? Is our pre-K-K class full with a waiting list? Did we raise more dollars from more donors than ever before? Shout it out!
DA: If, God forbid, we go through another Harvey-type situation, I would undoubtedly hire a crisis manager. I learned that patience is a finite resource, and it does run out. I learned to ask for what I needed and refuse things that we did not. I learned to decide quickly, to make the best decision I could with the information I had at the moment. I learned not to fixate on what doesn’t matter but to keep the process moving forward.
Based on our experience, I would strongly suggest that schools be prepared for all eventualities by practicing holding meetings remotely. The issues will become immediately apparent, and you can work out the bugs before an actual disaster.
SP: Disruption is a challenge. It can also serve as an intense wake-up call that provokes reflection on our core mission, vision and values. Traumatic events tend to cause us to laser-focus on what really matters and to engage others in those conversations. Disruption doesn’t always have to be catastrophic to engender change and growth. Even small disturbances can serve as an occasion to “shake things up,” to fend off stagnation and complacency.
DA: Harvey affected the entire city and community. Everyone needed remediation, relocation and renovation. Nevertheless, there was a special outpouring of generosity and true concern for our staff and families in the immediate aftermath of the flood.
By way of example, when we secured locations for our elementary and middle schools, we needed to move all of our equipment to the new sites. We had very little time, and most of the desks, chairs etc. had to be cleaned and disinfected before our students could use them. Within thirty minutes of securing the new locations, one parent had connected me with a mover who arranged transportation and manpower, another set up volunteers to clean the equipment; others helped coordinate communication, while a different group shopped for needed items. Throughout the year, through obstacles big and small, our community always seemed to find a reasonable and timely solution.
The only parting thought I have is an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. So many individuals, families and organizations locally and across the nation supported our school in so many ways that I cannot list them all. I hope this article finds its way to everyone who reached out to BYDS last year. Thank you!
Dan Ahlstrom is Head of School, Beth Yeshurun Day School, Houston; Sharon Pollin is Head of School, New Orleans Jewish Day School.