A thought experiment

What would happen if parents sent their kids to day schools that consciously aligned with their household’s affinity for a particular denomination or attitude toward Jewish tradition or Israel or Hebrew language instruction – regardless of geographic proximity?

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I pondered this last night after a conversation with a colleague who, as a downtown resident, recounted how he agonized over whether to send his child to the Reform day school further uptown or the Conservative day school a block away from “the Reformie”.  What struck me about this particular dilemma was threefold:  How could one so easily substitute one school for the other?  Though they are practically on top of each other on the Bathurst corridor, ideologically, they are miles apart.  And, more importantly, how could my colleague consider either of these schools as valid options for his child when he self-identified as neither Reform nor Conservative?  The only heartening realization here was that the quality of education and teaching seemed to be “controlled” – that is, the individual assumed the teaching/education would be equally good at either school.  Thumbs up, teachers!

And so, I wondered:  Do the considerations that drive day school attendance mirror the considerations one has when buying a house?  Do folks choose a school based on where one’s friends live, proximity to essential amenities, location, location, location (and did I mention location?) and, of course, curb appeal and prestige?

And if these, then, are the considerations of (some) parents, why do schools persist in assuming that parents (on the whole) are making an ideologically driven educational decision when, in fact, some-to-many are making a real-estate decision… ?  And how does one design curriculum and recruit the best role-modeling-teachers when, for not-a-small-number of folks, all that they are really looking for in a school is just a nice house for their kids?

The Forward is doing a series on day schools…!

Naomi Zeveloff (at the Jewish Daily Forward) began a series this week on “Day School Solutions”… and I am very much heartened to see that it began with a school that did the impossible and unthinkable: slashed tuition in half.  As I read the piece about Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, I kept waiting for the part where Zeveloff described the building imploding under its own weight or shrivelling up into a dessicated hulk and blowing away in the wind… but it did not happen.  Instead, as Zeveloff reported:

According to [Board President Eric] Kaseff, about 40% of the families donated at least $10,000 per student on top of tuition. Private donors from the community helped make up the difference, giving $40,000 in the first year of the program.

Some good old-fashioned belt tightening also helped close the gap in the school’s operating budget. For example, Hyman Brand now has one principal overseeing the entire school, rather than its former model of having separate lower, middle, and upper school principals.

The school is still operating at a deficit, but it’s about $100,000 per year, down from $300,000 to $400,000.

What’s more, the middle class seems to be coming back. In the first year of the program, enrollment jumped to 222 from 212. This school year, another 20 students enrolled. Most of them are new recruits, but there are a few returnees. According to Kaseff, parents are unanimous in their appraisal. “They said, ‘Before, I was on financial aid, but now you have turned me into a donor,’” Kaseff said.

(Side note: I am an avid listener to the Forward podcasts.  Having heard Naomi Zeveloff and listened to her voice resonating in my earbuds, it seemed almost rude to refer to her as “Zeveloff” in the paragraphs above, but a bit too cheeky and familiar to call her “Naomi” either… Podcast listeners, do you experience this as well?  Or do I just have a podcast crush?)

And now back to the tuition rant…

I am sure the naysayers (or more like the folks that regard yearly tuition hikes to be as natural as what a bear does in the woods) will be quicker than light to dismiss this seeming success story…  After all, they will say, HBHA is in Kansas.  It’s a small school.  222 kids!   It’s still is running a deficit…

But I wonder how long these naysayers will be able to continue to say “NAY!” when the Jewish middle class, who are the base and backbone of the Jewish community (and, I might add, its demographic anchor) are pummelled by economic hardship and tuition increases that far outstrip cost of living and inflation… Who will go to these schools when these families sadly conclude that their commitment cannot balance their chequebook?

And for those who have been through the subsidy-seeking process, imagine how being perceived as a donor radically changes that demeaning dynamic…  I could go on, but I think y’all get the point.

The rest of the Forward series will report about other day schools who faced daunting challenges and managed to overcome them… like another school in Massachusetts with a substantial population of kids with special learning needs.

Feel free to contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com and let her know what you think of her series … and you can follow her on Twitter @naomizeveloff too!

Four other, less problematic metaphors

Metaphors are like the subway.  No.  Actually, metaphors are like an over-sharpened pencil.  Sorry. Let me try again.

Metaphors are like a little, furry kitten.  (Everything goes down better with a picture of a furry kitty, doesn’t it?)

And, yes, Mr. Strunk and Mr. White, all the previous examples of metaphors were actually similes – but the point remains.

Metaphors are the primary means for articulating abstract concepts.  Useful indeed!

Metaphors are also useful to folks because they can connect two seemingly unconnected phenomenon (such as metaphors and furry kitties, or chalk and cheese, etc.) and, in making the connection, generate new knowledge and greater insight.  Through changing the relationship between object and symbol, we can appreciate nothing short of a new reality created by the metaphor.

However, not all metaphors achieve traction.  (Case in point, all the terrible examples I concocted above …)

And some metaphors that get traction should be resoundingly un-tractioned because they limit or twist or corrode instead of expand thinking. (Case in point, my previous post, re: parent = consumer, school = Starbucks, student = venti decaf mocha-java frappucino.)

(And yes, the original piece was about how best to market day schools, but, sadly, the school-as-Starbucks, parents-as-consumers metaphor infects other, ostensibly non-market spheres of Jewish day schooling…)

So here are four other metaphors (okay, fine, nudnik, similes) through which one might regard and consider the day school dynamic in a less capitalistic, market-driven, profit-crunching, objectifying manner …

Day school as a Broadway show where learning is performance, the students and teachers are actors and parents and administrators are backstage support, etc etc etc

Day school as extended family… where learning is relationship-building, the students are children, teachers and parents are the elder, nurturing generation, etc etc etc

Day school as ecosystem… where learning is about sustainable living, the students, teachers, parents, etc. all strive to define their roles in relation to the larger system, etc etc etc

…and my personal favourite, expounded in my doctoral dissertation (which has apparently now been sucked into the information vortex known as “Google Books”), Day school as dinner party which regards Jewish learning to be an act of consumption, teachers as cooks as well as hosts who fête learners as guests at the “table” of study.

Please feel free to add your own traction-seeking, reality-framing metaphors in the comments section below!

Can we please stop talking about schools as service providers?

Here is Pillar #4 for effective marketing of Jewish day schools to the Jews, compliments of Chuck English at ejewishphilanthropy.com:

Your parents are customers. Think Zappos or Starbucks and provide your parents with an outstanding consumer experience. They are paying a lot of money to send their kids to your school and they have choices. This presents unique challenges in an educational setting because the product can’t always conform to the desires of your customers. There has to be integrity to the educational product and experience. But parents can still feel like their voice is being heard if the outcome isn’t the one they wanted. Respect and responsiveness must still be the basis of all communication. Every interaction with a parent – in the front office, in the classroom, in the tuition office, in every email or letter and e-newsletter, must let parents know how much they are valued and appreciated. Perhaps more importantly, there needs to be multiple channels – both online and off – that allow parents use to provide opinions.

Can I go on record and say that:

Can I get that in a Venti cup?

SCHOOLS ARE NOT STARBUCKS.

PARENTS ARE NOT CONSUMERS.  THEY ARE PARENTS.

TEACHERS ARE NOT SERVICE PROVIDERS.  THEY ARE THE PILLARS UPON WHICH JEWISH EDUCATION (and by extension, the COMMUNITY) STANDS.

And I am not saying this because I am a Jewish educator.  I say this because Jewish tradition, in the form of countless maxims from the Sages, values and venerates Jewish learning and its practitioners.  Jewish tradition does not operationalize, rationalize, monetize or scrutinize Jewish teaching in the fashion suggested by the school-as-Starbucks metaphor.  In Jewish tradition, this “market discourse” approach would be anathema.

But for folks who do not look to the Sages for strategic planning, let us consider the logical end of this “market discourse”, if we follow this ever-popular and ever-sickening line of metaphor-making…  I wonder:  What then is the Child?  A latté?  What is a Jewish Education?  How one steams milk to the optimal temperature?  And can a particular line of lattés be discontinued if it does not generate enough return on investment?  And can we apply Taylor’s principles to make Jewish education more efficient, more scaleable, more profitable?

Are you getting nauseous yet?

(And let us not get started on the value of Birthright, shall we?  It is too early in the day…)

Worried about liberal jewish day schools being “stuck in neutral”? there is a solution!

… admit, nay, recruit non-Jewish students!  

Like this school does in Foster City, California…

J.J. Goldberg wrote that liberal day schools were “stuck in neutral” (but did not mention the “A” word by way of explanation in his piece either… hmm…)  All you need are some semitically-challenged students to kick the car back into drive!

This Abraham is not Jewish.

This Abraham is not Jewish.

Says a Grade 11 student at another Bay Area Jewish institution:

I think learning Jewish tradition and history is pretty interesting. I get to learn about a culture I would have never really thought about.

True that and well said!

The interested young man, Kapi’i Cole by name, can also speak Hebrew and hold his own at any Shabbat table.  What a catch!

That non-Jews would opt in to the day school experience makes sense considering how public education has degraded over the past forty years in the United States.   But that day schools would actively recruit the semitically-challenged is new.

This Abraham is.

This Abraham is Jewish.

Kehillah Head of School Lillian Howard said:

The educational and ethical foundations of Jewish culture are attractive to diverse families [and] there are non-Jewish students for whom this is a good fit… And it works very well for us because we are a pluralistic school that values diversity.

The fact that the school had a 14% bump in recent years did not hurt the bottom line either.

You can read the rest of the piece here.