The Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West team labored close to two years on their assignment. They administered surveys, compiled data and poured through reams of material. This homework, however, was completed not by students, but by staff and faculty. And the project was not so much required as extra credit.
The Agoura school's administration voluntarily underwent the rigorous process in order to become accredited by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles (BJE) and two secular accrediting bodies. The resulting 318-page tome, which reflected input from administrators, faculty, parents and families, detailed every aspect of the school's operation from governance to finances to faculty credentials and student curricula.
Ten years ago, the BJE made history in the world of Jewish education by developing and conducting the first-ever accreditation process for Jewish schools. Prior to that, schools might have undergone the process with state or national agencies, but did not have a mechanism to demonstrate that they were accomplishing their Jewish educational goals. Today, 30 Jewish day schools and yeshivas and 40 religious schools in Los Angeles are BJE accredited.
The process is spelled out in a manual created by Emil Jacoby, the BJE's former director and now senior consultant. It takes early childhood centers, yeshivas, day schools and religious schools through a thorough, standardized process to ensure that each school is fulfilling its missions and goals.
Jacoby designed the manual to integrate BJE requirements with those of other accrediting bodies. For day schools and yeshivas, BJE accreditation occurs simultaneously with Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and/or the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS).
Accreditation "insures that schools have a clear sense of their mission and goals and values," said BJE Executive Director Gil Graff.
It also gives schools credibility that comes from being reviewed by an impartial independent group of experts, Jacoby said, and assures outsiders that they can trust the school's claims about its focus and philosophy.
For Heschel West principal Jan Saltsman, accreditation translates into necessary accountability.
"We are accountable to our students, to our parents, to the larger community," Saltsman said. "With CAIS, WASC and BJE, we are held accountable. If you don't have the accreditation, who are you accountable to?"
In addition to legitimacy and credibility, it also brings financial benefits. Only BJE-accredited schools are eligible for a share of $1.6 million in Jewish Federation funding, which the BJE disburses to support Jewish schools, or the $350,000 of Federation dollars, which the Bureau earmarks for day school scholarships. Also, the BJE itself provides about $100,000 in grants for schools to pursue projects identified through the accreditation process.
The three-part process begins with a school performing a detailed self-study and presenting the results in a written report. A visiting team of experienced educators then evaluates the school during a three-and-a-half-day site visit. (BJE visitors, who volunteer their time, are matched to the institution by denomination.) The BJE accrediting commission then reviews the visiting team's report to determine a term of accreditation. The maximum term is six years, and institutions are typically revisited at the halfway point. For subsequent accreditation, they must demonstrate progress made on previous recommendations.
The BJE manual has served as a model for other bureaus of Jewish education, including those in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It was recognized by the Jewish Educational Service of North America (JESNA), an umbrella organization that shares best practices in Jewish education. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, which accredits early childhood programs, cites the BJE's manual in its own accreditation instructions.
Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu in Culver City received first-time joint accreditation from BJE and WASC in April of last year.
Clarisse Schlesinger, the school's assistant principal of general studies, described how the whole school learned about ESLRs (pronounced es-lurs), the acronym for Expected Schoolwide Learning Results. Every school must articulate its ESLRs -- the core concepts its students are expected to master -- as part of the accreditation process. Each grade learned about Ohr Eliyahu's ESLRs in age-appropriate language. So first-graders, for example, could affirm "We love to do mitzvot" and "We can write in Hebrew and English."
"Examining ourselves in this way was terrific," she said. "We learned a lot ... and identified areas we thought we could improve."
As a result of the analysis, the school made several changes, including adopting a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade math curriculum and giving Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Ohr Eliyahu's dean and executive director, more time to interact with parents, teachers and students. They also received a BJE grant to help enhance their library.
Now, Schlesinger will switch from reviewee to reviewer. She will represent WASC on a review committee evaluating an Armenian school in Orange County later this year.
Goldberg, who is also Ohr Eliyahu's principal, said he was grateful to the BJE for encouraging the school to undergo accreditation.
"The idea of evaluation and self-reflection is critical, but unless you're encouraged, you don't always make time for it," he said. "We grew a lot from the process."