Schools confront ‘leadership challenge’

Schools confront ‘leadership challenge’

What kind of people will make effective leaders of a Jewish day school? How do we attract more of them to the field? And what can be done to facilitate their success? Those are questions that a recent gathering of 50 Jewish educators sought to address in a think tank sponsored by 11 organizations representing all denominations. The impetus for the two-day conference last month at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York was the shortage of qualified heads of school for the growing number of day schools across North America. The organizing sponsor was PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a Boston-based conglomerate of major philanthropic partners that aim to strengthen the day school movement by promoting enrollment.

Just how pressing a problem this is has been highlighted by an enrollment census of the ‘003-04 school year that was conducted by sociologist Marvin Schick and published by the Avi Chai Foundation, one of the co-sponsors of the conference. A follow-up to the comprehensive study the group did in 1998-99, this survey documented impressive gains — an 11 percent increase in enrollment in the five-year period for students spanning preschool through high school. The number of schools also increased, from 676 to 759, with transdenominational community schools and schools dedicated to educating students with special needs among the sectors posting the largest gains.

Avi Chai’s executive director, Yossi Prager, a Tea-neck resident, said that while he feels optimistic about tackling the challenges ahead, "it’s a complex path." Prager is a member of a planning committee that came to the meetings with research on the best practices in both public and private educational settings to identify, nurture, and cultivate leadership and a draft of a plan suggesting steps to take. The think tank provided "lots of useful feedback," he said, which the committee will now assimilate and use to revise the action plan.

The group also heard from several outside consultants: Dr. Jeff Moredock from the National Association of Independent Schools; Carol Troum, a human resources expert working at Israel Bonds; and Barry Dym, a psychologist with a specialization in organizational behavior. Dym advised participants to study large corporations for insight into identifying potential leaders whose style and substance matches the mission of a school. "He challenged us to remember that leadership is not just about a person, but about aligning the organization in the service of its mission, its vision," said Dr. Rhonda Rosenheck, co-head of school at Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck.

Something exceptional about the November conference, said committee member Dr. Elaine Cohen, also from Teaneck and director of Solomon Schechter Day School Association, "was the fact that it was cross-denominational, with all the universities and [movement educational] networks participating."

Nathan Kruman, another Teaneck resident who heads AMODS, the modern Orthodox educational group, added, "I think it was wonderful to bring together the diverse talents and dedication of the professionals, both local and from afar. It was an acknowledgement that this problem is bigger than what any one organization can handle on its own. Coming together, we can make a greater impact on addressing this issue, although, based on the rise in enrollment in many schools and the number of schools, we are coming to this late in the game. It’s not just about turnover of heads of schools, but also about supporting them so they can improve the quality of education they can deliver to their students."

The modern Orthodox sector, according to the Avi Chai census, dipped in number of schools, but added nearly 1,700 students to its rolls. Kruman said that his group doesn’t limit its outreach to modern Orthodox schools but works as well with any school that wishes to tap into the resources available through Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School. For example, he said, the graduate school’s "Global Learning Initiative," a video-conferencing interactive distance-learning program, regularly brings together educators from schools throughout North America and abroad for sessions with its faculty and educators from Israel and elsewhere. The open, welcoming nature of the program, said Kruman, is emblematic of the process under way through the think tank.

Schechter schools, the official network of Conservative movement day schools, likewise experienced a drop in the number of schools between 1998-99 and ‘003-04, but an enrollment increase, albeit smaller, indicating stability and contradicting reports that Conservative institutions are debilitated. Schechter schools, Cohen indicated, may suffer less than other day school networks from the leadership challenge, since she reported, "there are more longstanding heads of schools at Schechter." Nonetheless, she noted, with "coming retirements, every year there are vacancies for principals and heads of school."

Day schools affiliated with the Reform movement, which account for only ‘ percent of all students enrolled, lost both schools and enrollment, suggesting a switch to unaffiliated community schools by the religiously liberal segment of the Jewish population.

Speaking of the steps the think tank will recommend in the near future, Cohen mentioned going after "low-hanging fruit, those changes that we can make happen in the short-term, [for instance,] putting forward model contracts, creating [better] compensation and benefits packages based on best practices [in existence].

"Long-term, we want to cultivate leadership on the professional side and work with boards to train boards to work effectively with professional staff and foster success of heads of schools," she said.

Finding candidates who may be outside the system is another goal, said Rosenheck. Some of these may have been involved in Hillel while in college or have worked at summer camps, she noted, making them ideal for transfer into a day school setting. Another angle the group explored, she said, was how to promote from within, "how to help someone go from a classroom teacher to a mentor to a leader of programs …, how to cultivate the desire to lead, to make it a worthwhile career path and develop in them the skills and confidence to begin to do that, to teach them how to collaborate, how to delegate a project from beginning to end."

Rosenheck said she is constantly engaging members of her own faculty, as well as other young people with whom she’s worked over the years, in this process. "I have conversations with teachers all the time asking, ‘What do they envision for themselves?’ I’m looking at the kids who took the educational leadership course offered at Prozdor. [JTS’ supplemental high school program where years earlier she served as principal]. I’m keeping my eyes on the field, remaining aware of what they’re doing, watching and seeing what skills they are developing and wondering, ‘Can I lure them here?’"

Kruman outlined four broad areas where the task force intends to focus: identification: coming up with profiles, qualifications and skills for successful heads of Jewish day schools; cultivation: motivating those not yet heads of schools to take advantage of growth opportunities and professional development; induction into the field: hiring, transitioning, mentoring; and support of school leadership. Within these, he identified an issue he considers of particular importance.

"Schools and boards need to work together to create an environment to promote school stability and leadership sustainability. That means the job of head of school has to be doable. We can’t expect a head of school, which has been compared to a Swiss army knife, to be a tool for every possible need or crisis. That’s not realistic."

Other conference sponsors were William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Jewish Education Service of North America; North American Association of Jewish High Schools; Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools; Jewish Community Day School Network, known by its Hebrew acronym, RAVSAK; and the Azreili Graduate School of Education at Yeshiva University.


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