‘Superheroes teach here’

‘Superheroes teach here’

Och family gives GOA in West Orange $10 million to support teachers

Preschoolers, kindergarteners, and their teachers celebrate Dr. Och’s 85th birthday in 2016; Dr. Och is in the center, and Adam Shapiro stands behind him.
Preschoolers, kindergarteners, and their teachers celebrate Dr. Och’s 85th birthday in 2016; Dr. Och is in the center, and Adam Shapiro stands behind him.

Much of what makes up a good school is intangible — talented, intuitive teachers; smart, curious students; committed, trusting parents; all backed by a tireless, selfless administration.

That’s accurate, but it’s far from complete. Schools also need training, technology, and resources. And those elements cost money.

So in 2010, when the Och family gave what was then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange a $15 million matching grant for scholarship aid, to help families who wanted to send their children to the school to be able to do so without impoverishing themselves, that made a huge difference.

Now, barely a decade later, the Och family has made another school-changing gift. This time, a $10 million matching grant to what is now the Golda Och Academy will help the school hire and retain teachers, and to help those teachers grow professionally, sharpening and renewing their skills.

The gift is the Dr. Michael Och Fund for Faculty Excellence; it’s from the Jane and Daniel Och Family Foundation. GOA leaders believe that the gifts from the Och family are among the largest ever given to a Jewish day school; they might possibly be the largest such donation.

“This is a tremendous, transformative gift to our school,” its head, Adam Shapiro, said. “Dan and Jane and the entire Och family have been unbelievably kind and generous supporters of the school.” (Daniel is the son of the late Golda Och, the school’s namesake, and of Dr. Michael Och; Jane is Daniel’s wife.)

“The fund’s purpose is to promote faculty excellence,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We have amazing teachers in our school right now, and we are creating a system where, when we look for a teacher, we can recruit the absolute best, and we can offer an even more robust professional development plan to each and every one of them, to help them elevate their work. And we’ll be able to compensate our teachers in a better way.”

Dr. Och lights the chanukiyah to mark the school’s renaming in 2010.

Even though educators and school administrations have known the value that classroom teachers bring to school, this pandemic year has made that understanding ever clearer, Mr. Shapiro said. “The pedestal that we put our teachers on has always been high, but it’s never been as high as it has been this year,” he said. “That’s why we’ve posted big banners on our buildings, saying ‘Superheroes teach here.’”

But it’s hard to stay balanced on a pedestal, particularly without the resources that keep you alert, agile, and resilient. That’s what the new funding will do.

“Our teachers have always gone above and beyond to help our children with their academic, social, and emotional needs,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We can help them grown as professionals and help them feel better about themselves as professionals. We know that if we can do that, it creates a virtuous cycle.”

As opposed to a vicious cycle, where worse chases bad down the drain, a virtuous circle at school means that “our teachers feel even better about the work they are doing, and that helps our students do even better both inside and outside the classroom. It’s basic.

“In the world of education, you have to support your teachers. They should understand how important they are to this entire process.”

The campaign that sparked the first huge donation the Och family made — it also raised about $17.5 million in matching funds — was based on the goal of affordable tuition. “The idea behind it was to go primarily toward endowment,” Mr. Shapiro said. “And we created a national model for what day school affordability could look like. We blazed that trail, and other day schools have followed.”

When the campaign was wildly successful in 2010, “of course we spent some of it immediately, but the majority of it went into the endowment,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Now we have the largest endowment among Jewish day schools in the country. We have recognized the important of being able to plan responsibly. If you have dollars coming in consistently every year, that go directly back to our families, they can plan.” When families know how much financial aid they will get from year to year, much of the uncertainty is removed from their own budgeting process, as well as some of the worry. “So they can keep their kids in school,” he said.

In 2015, Dr. Och stands between his son Daniel, left, and Adam Shapiro outdoors at GOA’s lower school campus in West Orange.

(Not all the funds come from the Och family; the school is supported as well from the Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative, which Paula and Jerry Gottesman founded, and which supports all the day schools in the federation’s catchment area.)

So this second Och family gift supports another pillar of this — or any — school, its teachers. The family’s $25 million has gone to make the school home for the students, their families, and now the teachers who help them learn and grow.

“And we’re so glad to be able to do this in honor of Michael Och,” Mr. Shapiro said. “He is such a vibrant member of the community. This gift is such a testament to everything that he has done and continues to do.”

The Och family’s connections to the school go back to its beginnings, in 1965; Golda and Michael, who lived in Maplewood with their children, were among the parents who created it. Daniel was in its first kindergarten class, and his brother, Jon, was in its first first-grade class. Their younger sister, Susan, soon followed them there.

Daniel’s mother, Golda, who died in 2010, was not only a founder and a parent at the school, but also a teacher and business manager there, and his father, Michael, a retired radiologist, still is actively involved in the school. That means that the Och family has seen all parts of the school throughout all of its history. They know it intimately.

Based on that knowledge, he knows that it’s important to support teachers because “academic excellence is of paramount important to any school, and teachers are so important to our kids,” Mr. Och said. He’s glad to help both the teachers and the school “because I am so passionate about it, about its being both an incredible Jewish day school and an incredible private school. It will be really important to have the ability to pursue academic excellence by having these resources, hiring the best teachers, recruiting and retaining them, and then giving them the resources they need.”

He’s confident that GOA is providing an education that’s outstanding in both Jewish and secular academics. “I watch the colleges that our students go to, and the things that they achieve, and it’s clear that our results are competitive with the best private schools,” he said. “We are hopeful that this gift, and the matching community support, will continue that into the future.”

What about the Jewish part? “Parents will pursue a day school education because they want their children to grow up surrounded by Jewish values, and they want to interact and socialize with like-minded parents,” Mr. Och said. “This gift is about making sure that when those parents make the decision about where to send their children to school, they don’t have to compromise on the academic side. Their kids will get a world-class academic secular and Jewish education.

“This is about making sure that this education continues in the future.”

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