Day Schools Seek Solutions to Leadership Crisis

By Dan Levin

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.
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First, the good news: The number of students in Jewish day schools has risen 11% nationwide in the past five years, and 83 new schools have opened their doors in the same period. Now the bad news: There are not enough heads of school to lead these educational institutions.

Across the religious spectrum, Jewish day schools are having difficulty finding and retaining heads of school who are trained to take on an increasingly complex and political job. “One somewhat positive way of looking at the problem is that the need for quality leaders is not keeping pace with the rapid growth of the day-school movement,” said Nina Butler, educational consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation.

But others involved see a deeper problem at hand, and one that could perhaps have been prevented. “In many ways this is a pipeline problem,” said Bob Abramson, director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, which is run through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Commission on Jewish Education. He noted that over the past 15 years, many graduate students in Jewish education were not prepared to handle the changing nature of day-school leadership and lacked the necessary Jewish and general-education backgrounds.

Education experts agree that too few qualified professionals are entering the field, and those who are already working in the field are given insufficient training to tackle higher-level positions, like head of school. Furthermore, they say, those higher-level positions are becoming tougher than ever, fraught with board conflicts, administrative duties and fund-raising pressures. It all adds up to a crisis in Jewish day schools.

In an effort to address this problem, 50 Jewish educators attended a “think-tank consultation” at the Jewish Theological Seminary last November. In an unprecedented collaboration, educational leaders of the three major denominations sat down together, along with general-education experts, strategic planners, and lay and professional Jewish leaders, to strategize about the most effective ways to proceed. Working committees set up at that initial meeting have continued to meet, to carry on the collaborative effort.

The think tank was sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Participating organizations included the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools; the Solomon Schechter Day School Association; The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools; Ravsak, a network of Orthodox day schools; the Jewish Education Service of North America, and the Yeshiva University Azrieli School of Education.

“It is significant that all the major denominations were all able to come together to work on this project in a neutral setting,” said Nathan Kruman, associate director of AMODS, which is a division of Yeshiva University’s Center for Jewish Future. “This issue is bigger than all of us.”

During two days of meetings, those involved discussed various issues and recommendations given by the planning committee, as well as experts in corporate structure and education.

Looking both at the near future and the long term, members of the think tank spoke of several issues regarding heads of school. These include the often difficult relationship between head and board due to different expectations; the increase in retiring leadership with no qualified replacements; the high volume of administrative work required, and the fact that contracts can vary from school to school, leaving some heads of schools feeling shortchanged.

“We think people would stay in the field if they had a standardized contract so they didn’t have to fight over each paragraph,” said Butler. “Benefits vary greatly from one head to another.”

Others see the issue as more systemic, with the culture of Jewish day schools and the politics that play out among them in need of adjustment. “We need to be able to assist our lay and professional leadership in creating institutions that respect the human and professional needs of the people who fill those positions,” said Kruman.

Those in charge of moving forward with the recommendations and concerns of the think tank are currently working on an action plan.

For short-term solutions, the planning committee has focused on “low-hanging fruit,” which includes improving benefits and compensation packages and standardizing contracts to attract a greater number of applicants immediately. In the long term, the planning committee has noted a need to cultivate the existing leadership as well as training boards to work more effectively and compassionately with the heads of school. Another proposal would allocate additional resources to the “pipeline,” by marketing to those in higher education who have the commitment and training to fill these positions.

The main areas on which the planning committee intends to focus are identifying measurable qualifications and skills for heads of schools, cultivating up-and-coming Jewish-education professionals through training and professional development, and finally hiring and mentoring those people so that they stay in their jobs.

The planning committee has met since the conclusion of the think tank, but there has been no formal timetable set for when or how these measures will be implemented.

On December 28, the committee met again, to proceed with developing a strategic implementation plan based upon four overarching strategies: raising consciousness, including bringing lay people into the conversation; providing tools to schools; changing culture within and around day schools, and building field capacity to find and develop leaders. If these goals sound vague, it is because the committee wants to take the necessary time to adequately solve this issue, said Butler.

“We need to improve how we identify, cultivate, induct and support heads of school,” said Butler, “because there are issues at each of those stages that provide pieces of the full puzzle. We’re working hard to understand those pieces, and place them together in a way that leads to a clearer picture, pointing to the obvious work we are mobilizing to accomplish.”

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