Through The Prism: Reflections on The Curriculum Initiative

by Adam Gaynor

This week, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation released Through the Prism: Reflections on The Curriculum Initiative, a report that details the history of The Curriculum Initiative (TCI), a Jewish educational organization that provided Jewish resources and programs at over 240 private high schools around the country. After 16 years in operation, TCI’s board made the difficult decision to close the national office in 2011, spinning off its Northern California and Mid-Atlantic offices to the bureaus of Jewish education in San Francisco and Baltimore.

TCI’s lifespan provides important lessons about the challenges of scaling and sustaining a small Jewish organization, particularly in a difficult economic climate. It also points to the opportunities that arise when different organizational structures are considered. More importantly, I believe that TCI’s lasting legacy lies with its signature educational approach, and the influence it can have on the field of Jewish education.

TCI was founded to engage Jewish teens who are the most dissociated from Jewish organizations and communal life: the tens of thousands of teens attending secular, Catholic, and Episcopal independent high schools. In its early years, TCI struggled to truly connect with this population. TCI had great success training teachers in schools to integrate Jewish content into history, literature, and comparative religion courses, but few of their students felt connected to Jewish life outside of the classroom.

This started to change in 2006 when TCI embraced a new approach, characterized by the following intertwined strategies:

  1. Attention to adolescent psychology;
  2. outreach to the friends, allies, and teachers of Jewish students;
  3. integration of multicultural and feminist theory and practice;
  4. a focus on “emergent “curriculum; and
  5. investment in student and faculty leadership.

The impact of this combined approach was palpable, as TCI’s Jewish student participation increased rapidly (158% in one year, at the organization’s zenith) without an increase in the size of TCI’s staff. More importantly repeat participation, tracked through a sophisticated database, grew dramatically as well.

But let me demonstrate through a case study why the five strategies above are intertwined, and why their implementation was so successful at inspiring Jewish teens at schools as diverse as stodgy New England boarding schools, progressive San Francisco Catholic schools, and artsy New York City schools.

Amara, a student from a blended Puerto Rican Christian and Ashkenzi Jewish family from the Bronx, attended the Cambridge School of Weston (CSW) boarding school on the outskirts of Boston. In 2006, TCI educators trained in multicultural education theory – the primary framework for identity exploration in secular education for over 30 years – made a case to CSW that the school’s multicultural approach was a perfect framework for introducing Jewish programming to the school. Consequently, Amara’s faculty advisor suggested that Amara attend an upcoming TCI Shabbaton. Amara, raised with little awareness of her Jewish heritage, replied that she would not feel “Jewish enough” among the other Jewish kids. However, her African American Christian roommate, Brittany, encouraged Amara to attend, and bravely attended the Shabbaton with her for support.

Amara was stupefied by the diversity of Jewish teens at the Shabbaton, and found that the workshops, designed around student questions about Judaism, appealed to her emerging Jewish interests.

The following year at CSW, Amara founded a Jewish student club and was elected president of the students of color club. With weekly TCI training and support, Amara integrated the interests of both clubs by hosting a “Jews of Color” film festival, and partnered with the gay-straight alliance to host a school seder that used “liberation from oppression” as a shared experience for Jews, people of color, and queer students (and all combinations thereof).

Of course, none of the strategies described above that engaged Amara and Brittany, and that fostered a vibrant Jewish community at CSW, could have been  successfully implemented without the intensive work performed by highly experienced, deeply trained, and well paid Jewish educators, which leads me to TCI’s most important asset: human capital.

In 2006, TCI moved toward hiring senior educators over young, inexperienced, untrained educators. We rejected the conventional wisdom that only young people can connect with teens. Unsurprisingly, this increased financial investment in educators yielded:

  • Stronger teaching and content development
  • Stronger relationships with students, teachers, schools, parents, and colleagues
  • Increased year-to-year programmatic and relationship continuity at schools
  • A wider pool of donors
  • Decreased staff turnover
  • Decreased outsourcing for content and guest educators

Of course, there are a lot of lessons that we learned over many years of experimentation at TCI. My hope is that The Samuel Bronfman Foundation report spurs conversation about what constitutes excellent Jewish education, and that organizations can integrate some of what we learned into their particular contexts.

Adam Gaynor is a consultant at The Whelan Group and a doctoral student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU. He was formerly Executive Director of TCI.

Also see our post: The Curriculum Initiative Releases Report on its 16 Year History