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The 3 Things That Make or Break a Jewish Day School

We all know that school leadership matters. Many know this from personal experiences. Others know this from research literature on the subject. In fact, in public schools, the quality of school leadership is second only to teachers in its influence on students’ achievement. Schools with effective leaders have more satisfied teachers, lower rates of teacher turnover, more positive learning climates, greater parent engagement, and, ultimately, higher student achievement.

Until now, however, we have not been able to meaningfully answer this question: What is effective educational leadership for Jewish day schools and how can it be nurtured and sustained?

A new study of elementary, middle, and high school Jewish day school leaders, across all denominations and types, by a team of researchers at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) highlights three distinct practices that school leaders themselves articulate as necessary for Jewish day school success. The study—commissioned by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) and titled Leadership in Context: The Conditions for Success of Jewish Day School Leaders—included a survey of 304 day school leaders, and interviews with 72 of them, in order to detail the specific conditions that help lead to success in each of the practices:

Visionary Leadership for the School

First, school leaders need to consistently articulate the Jewish vision of the school, encourage staff to promote the Jewish vision, and be role models to bring the vision to life.

To do this, school leaders first develop relationships with teachers. According to the study, a relationship of trust helps leaders build a committed staff united by common understanding of school values and a shared purpose. Participation in professional development on topics related to Judaic studies also enables leaders to promote the school’s vision for Jewish living and learning.

In this area, the research revealed some important additional findings that show room for improvement at many schools. We learn that novice leaders are less satisfied with their relations with teachers. This finding is important in light of the survey data showing that 41 percent of the school leaders in this research have been in their current position for three or fewer years. In addition, only about one fifth of the leaders have attended professional development about Jewish living and learning to support visionary leadership.

Instructional Leadership and Support for Staff

Second, school leaders need to support and promote the ongoing learning and professional growth of their teachers and other leaders in the school.

To succeed in this practice area, leaders make time for instructional leadership. Specifically, they devote at least three hours per week for observing and mentoring teachers and curriculum development to support teacher improvement. They also grant autonomy to make decisions. School boards and heads of schools who trust leaders with important instructional decision-making enable leaders to both bring in and/or veto new initiatives and approaches. Leaders who are given autonomy to make decisions likewise empower their teachers to pursue their own ideas and initiatives.

The findings in this area reveal that leaders who dedicate time to administrative duties, such as budgeting, day to day logistics, and marketing—or time teaching classes—have reduced time for instructional leadership. However, schools with administrative supports, including adequate facilities and technologies, have leaders who can embrace instructional leadership. And, when given autonomy, leaders are better able to focus on instructional leadership to develop their staff.

Community Leadership for Parents and External Partners

Finally, school leaders need to champion their schools to parents and to community institutions to build support and financial sustainability. Success in this area starts with close communication among school leaders and parents. One benefit of this communication is that schools can better align educational programs with the needs of families. A school leadership team helps to divide responsibilities among different leaders, allowing them to dedicate sufficient time to interacting with their constituencies. Also, through joint programs and community support, leaders expand course offerings and introduce new approaches to support academic learning and student engagement in the Jewish community.

The research shows that meaningful engagement with parents goes beyond classroom and student requests. Rather, this engagement includes frequently revisiting and articulating schoolwide policies to reconcile multiple perspectives among members of the community the school serves. We also learn that novice leaders with focused leadership responsibilities (such as Jewish studies principals) have fewer interactions with the school community because they are uncertain about the extent to which they should be interacting with the school community.

Imagine what success can look like if school leaders, boards, teachers, and parents deliberately and thoughtfully strive toward these. Together, these stakeholders can help day schools create environments that foster excellent leadership and excellent Jewish education.

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