What was so remarkable about the diversity of the 625 educators gathered at the North American Jewish Day School Conference at the Westin Los Angeles Airport from Feb. 6 to 8 was that the diversity was unremarkable.
The conference, only in its second year but sold out, is co-sponsored by four organizations representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and pluralistic schools. (The first one, held last year in Teaneck, was attended by more than 500 educators.) And while transdenominational gatherings are rare in the Jewish world, the unity and clarity of purpose at this gathering made any pablum about more-that-unites-us-than-divides-us unnecessary and irrelevant.
“Every one of our schools is a school serving the Jewish people. Every one of our schools wants to help build a vibrant Jewish future,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of conference sponsor RAVSAK, a Hebrew acronym for the Jewish Community Day School Network, which is composed of 120 schools.
“We all want our kids to develop the skills and the disposition and the information base and the relationships and experiences that will help them go on to live active Jewish lives,” Kramer said. “And the fact that some of our schools have different visions of exactly how that might look doesn’t change the fact that we all have to do this together.”
About 220,000 students attend the more than 800 Jewish day schools across North America, including a large number of haredi schools not represented by the officials from 220 schools and 100 educational organizations who attended the conference.
“The High Performance, High-Tech Jewish Day School of the (Very Near) Future,” as the conference was titled, focused on several topics, including integrating technology into the curriculum, better serving special-needs students, and creating sustainable cost models, all in the context of issues particular to dual-curriculum schools.
“These topics are educational issues that all the schools are dealing with,” said Elaine Cohen, executive director of Conservative Judaism’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association, a conference sponsor. “When you talk with people who come from slightly different environments, it opens your thinking and gives you ideas.”
Buzz and energy filled the hallways and session rooms as Jewish educators, most of them in administrative positions, studied together and exchanged ideas about their biggest challenges and their best practices. They came both with a sense of urgency to collect the tools necessary to confront a changing world and a measure of pride that the Jewish educational world is ramping up its game.
“I daresay that Jewish education is emerging as a professional field. It has been in some ways a cottage industry without standards of practice, without opportunities to meet and discover and develop those standards of practice,” said Scott Goldberg, director of Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, also a conference sponsor.
“Convenings like this take us one step closer to being a professional field,” he said, “and we’re not going to be a profession of Orthodox Jewish educators and Conservative Jewish educators and Reform and community Jewish educators. There is going to be one field of Jewish education.”
The sponsoring organizations for the conference, which also included PARDeS”“The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, were already collaborating and already reported to have strong working relationships when the recession hit three years ago. They decided to experiment with a joint conference, since many of them used the same speakers and dealt with the same issues.
“I could never have provided this for my schools alone as quickly and as deeply,” said Jane West Walsh, executive director of PARDeS. “Now we can capitalize on the fact that it’s shared.”
Walsh helped focus this year’s conference on special needs, a topic that Reform Judaism is exploring movement-wide with a just-launched task force on inclusion.
Dozens of conference sessions explored both the philosophical imperative and the practical reality of better integrating special-needs students, who, most agreed, are not being adequately served by day schools of any denomination.
Dealing with a range of needs, from autism to physical disabilities to learning differences, educators discussed ways to challenge assumptions, to study special-needs programs in other schools, and to raise money for programs for the integration of special-needs students.
Exploring new funding models for schools in general featured prominently in the schedule. While a recent study shows that day school enrollment has decreased less than 1 percent during the economic downturn of the last few years, lay leaders and professionals agree that the day-school movement could face a long-term crisis as families look to other options – Hebrew charter schools, home-schooling, and online courses – that don’t charge tuitions of $15,000 to $30,000 a year, as many day schools do.
Funders as well as fund-raisers explored topics such as endowment legacies, fund-raising for small schools, and creating a development staff. They also looked to models that might integrate online classes as a way both to cut costs and to diversify class offerings.
With technology as a focus, presenters asked attendees to turn on their cell phones and laptops in sessions that sought to imbue educators with the courage and the skills to embrace the technology their students are already using.
“We need to think about learning differently, because our learners are different,” Goldberg of Y.U. said.
Some sessions explored the negatives of technology – the perils of multitasking, cyber-bullying, and constant distraction. Others focused on the positives – the growing opportunities to collaborate digitally with schools in Israel, to utilize online learning for students and teachers, and to increase interactivity and student collaboration in a three-dimensional learning process.
A highlight for many educators was a dynamic keynote by Ron Clark, a North Carolina teacher who pushed math scores in his previously low-performing class in a Harlem, N.C., school from the 37th percentile to the 86th percentile in just one year. His success came from utilizing high-energy performance art, holding to lofty academic expectations for his students, and focusing on etiquette and respect. His work attracted the attention of television personality Oprah Winfrey and earned him the 2001 Disney Teacher of the Year award.
Partially with the proceeds from the award and from a book he wrote at Winfrey’s encouragement, and partially with grass-roots fund-raising and in-kind donations, Clark built the Ron Clark Academy in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Atlanta, Ga. That school features a bungee cord in its library and a two-story electric blue slide in the middle of the school. “The slide is a symbol of what we all need to be if we’re going to keep up with the kids and the way the world is moving,” Clark told the Jewish educators, hopping from table to table as he spoke. “Instead of taking the stairs, take the slide. Do something you’ve never done before and live your life with no fear.
“Uplift yourselves, and uplift your students.”
Los Angeles Jewish Journal