What was so remarkable about the diversity of the 625 educators gathered at the North American Jewish Day School Conference at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Feb. 6-8 was that the diversity was unremarkable
The conference, only in its second year but sold out, is cosponsored by four organizations representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and pluralistic schools. And while transdenominational gatherings are rare in the Jewish world, the unity and clarity of purpose at this gathering made any more-that-unites-us-than-divides-us pabulum unnecessary and irrelevant.
“Every one of our schools is a school serving the Jewish people. Every one of our schools wants to help build a vibrant Jewish future,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of conference sponsor RAVSAK, a Hebrew acronym for the Jewish Community Day School Network, which includes 120 schools. “We all want our kids to develop the skills and the disposition and the information base and the relationships and experiences that will help them go on to live active Jewish lives. And the fact that some of our schools have different visions of exactly how that might look doesn’t change the fact that we all have to do this together.”
Around 220,000 students attend more than 800 day schools across North America, including a large number of ultra-Orthodox schools not represented by the officials from 220 schools and 100 educational organizations who attended the conference.
“The High Performance, High-Tech Jewish Day School of the (Very Near) Future,” as the conference was titled, focused on several topics, including integrating technology into the curriculum, better serving special-needs students and creating sustainable cost models, all in the context of issues particular to dual-curriculum schools.
“These topics are educational issues that all the schools are dealing with,” said Elaine Cohen, executive director of the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School Association, a conference sponsor. “When you talk with people who come from slightly different environments, it opens your thinking and gives you ideas.”
Buzz and energy filled the hallways and session rooms as Jewish educators, most of them in administrative positions, studied together and exchanged ideas about their biggest challenges and their best practices.
They came both with a sense of urgency to collect the tools necessary to confront a changing world and a measure of pride that the Jewish educational world is ramping up its game.
“I daresay that Jewish education is emerging as a professional field. It has been in some ways a cottage industry without standards of practice, without opportunities to meet and discover and develop those standards of practice,” said Scott Goldberg, director of Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, also a conference sponsor. “Convenings like this take us one step closer to being a professional field, and we’re not going to be a profession of Orthodox Jewish educators and Conservative Jewish educators and Reform and community Jewish educators - there is going to be one field of Jewish education.”
All four sponsoring organizations had already been collaborating and had strong working relationships when the recession hit three years ago. They decided to experiment with a joint conference, since many of them used the same speakers and dealt with the same issues.
More than 500 educators showed up to the first joint conference in Teaneck, N.J., last year.
“I could never have provided this for my schools alone as quickly and as deeply,” said Jane West Walsh, director of the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, a conference sponsor. “Now we can capitalize on the fact that it’s shared.”
Walsh helped provide a focus this year on special needs, a topic that Reform Judaism is exploring movement-wide with a just-launched task force on inclusion.
Dozens of sessions explored both on the philosophical imperative and practical reality of better integrating special-needs students, who, most agreed, are not being adequately served by schools of any denomination.
Dealing with a range of needs, from autism to physical disabilities to learning differences, educators discussed ways to challenge assumptions, look to models in public or other private schools and raise money for programs for special needs integration.
Exploring new funding models for schools in general featured prominently in the schedule. While a recent study shows that day school enrollment has decreased less than 1 percent during the economic downturn of the last few years, lay leaders and professionals agree the day school movement could face a long-term crisis as families look to options - Hebrew charter schools, home schooling, online courses - that don’t charge tuitions of $15,000 to $30,000 a year, as days schools do.
Funders as well as fundraisers explored topics such as endowment legacies, fundraising for small schools and creating a development staff.
They also looked to models that might integrate online classes as a way to both cut costs and diversify class offerings.
With technology as a focus, presenters asked attendees to turn on their cell phones and laptops in sessions that sought to imbue educators with the courage and the skills to embrace the technology that digital native students are already using.
“We need to think about learning differently, because our learners are different,” Goldberg of YU said.
Sessions looked at both the negatives and positives of technology - the perils of multitasking, cyberbullying and constant distraction, along with growing opportunities to collaborate digitally with schools in Israel, utilize online learning to enrich opportunities for students and for professional development, and increase interactivity and student collaboration in a 3D learning process.
A highlight for many educators was a kinetic keynote by Ron Clark, a North Carolina teacher who, in a school in Harlem, pushed math scores in his previously low-performing class from the 37th percentile to the 86th percentile in just one year. His success came from a combination of high-energy performance art, holding to lofty academic expectations for his students and focusing on etiquette and respect, attracting the attention of Oprah Winfrey and earning him a teacher-of-the-year award from Disney. Partially with the proceeds from the award and a book he wrote at Winfrey’s encouragement, and partially with grassroots fundraising and in-kind donations, Clark built the Ron Clark Academy in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Atlanta. That school features a bungee chord in its library and a two-story electric blue slide in the middle of the school.
“The slide is a symbol of what we all need to be if we’re going to keep up with the kids and the way the world is moving,” Clark told the Jewish educators, hopping from table to table as he spoke. “Instead of taking the stairs, take the slide. Do something you’ve never done before and live your life with no fear.
“Uplift yourselves, and uplift your students.”