AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Day School Leaders at Harvard Ponder: How Will You Improve Your School This Year?

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

July 8, 2015

Harvard AOL 2015Summer is the perfect time for day school leaders to reflect, dream, and plan on how to strengthen and improve their schools in the coming year. To help them do just that, AVI CHAI sponsors selected day schools leaders to attend one of two leadership institutes at The Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Fifteen leaders attended the summer’s first institute, Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership (AOL), from June 21-27. The goal of the institute was to help identify areas of school improvement, establish priorities, develop strategies, and build a base of support around a change initiative. Attendance drew from administrators of private and public schools from across the country with 1-5 years of leadership experience. In addition to the programming with this broad group, Jewish day school leaders also met as a cohort to discuss how to apply the learning to their own particular environment. While the overall Principals Center program focused on implementing change, the members of the AVI CHAI cohort had a more specific goal: enhancing and advancing the Judaic mission of their schools. In addition to the cohort sessions facilitated by Jonathan Cannon, which took place during the institute, participating leaders will be practically applying their Harvard learnings this coming year. Each will develop a significant Jewish mission/vision project at their school – focusing on areas such as curriculum, classroom instruction, professional development, or Jewish practice, such as tefillah.
Amongst the benefits of the Harvard experience, participants overwhelmingly mentioned three: the opportunity to reflect; the practical Harvard know-how on leadership best practices; and the diverse peer network for learning and support. Here is a more in-depth look at these areas:
Participants noted that the Harvard experience offered a much-need opportunity and valuable context in which to reflect.  “It’s a chance to step outside your environment and think with the broader cohort, and the more specific Jewish day school cohort, coming from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. It has given me different lenses for how to approach my work. It’s hard to do big-picture visioning during the school year. This program has helped me validate my work and refocus,” said Aileen Goldstein from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.
“Harvard lives by the need for reflection: at the end of every session, we take two minutes to reflect. I want to use this with my staff next year – at the end of the staff meetings, just take two minutes to stop and think,” added Mordechai Schwersenski of the Torah Academy of Philadelphia.
For the Jewish day school cohort participants, there were valuable opportunities to reflect on their schools’ Judaic mission and program in particular. In one evening session led by Jonathan Cannon, day school leaders processed a session on Supervision and Evaluation through applying it to how to evaluate Judaic studies teachers. After an exercise where they were presented with case study examples of Judaics teachers and worked as a group to evaluate them, Jonathan urged the group to examine bigger-picture questions in this realm. These included: What represents success in Judaic studies teaching? What should we be measuring when we evaluate our teachers? How do the answers to these questions impact the supervision and evaluation process?
Such questions clearly impact the day-to-day work of day school leaders and how they carry out the Jewish mission of their schools. The Harvard program provided the time and space in which to reflect on them in a more strategic way and with colleagues who could offer support.
Participants heard from celebrity experts in school leadership such as Kim Marshall, author of the Marshall Memo, and Robert Kegan, whose work helps people overcome their “immunity to change” to close the gap between their good intentions and behaviors. John Collins led a session on the importance of writing – and how to teach and evaluate it – across the curriculum. Interspersed with a good dose of humor, his session had participants engaging in writing exercises and their evaluation, as well as sharing and discussing their answers with neighboring peers in the lecture hall.
Rabbi Schwersenski attested to the value of the wealth of knowledge which the Harvard program provides and the practical nature of the learning. “I walked away from every session with something practical. Every workshop could be turned into a year or two years of work at my school. There are real themes I will take back, such as the strategy of teaming, and how teams function.”
Participants not only learned valuable knowledge. They also gained a network of people to reach out to with questions or for good ideas. “No one is an island. Others in the AVI CHAI cohort, and also schools in the general program, may be not at all like us, but we have some of the same challenges and successes. This shared understanding makes us able to fast-track collaboration,” said Jordan Herskowitz of Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ.
For instance, in the Jewish day school cohort meeting, Jonathan Cannon facilitated a group discussion about the meaning of excellence in Jewish day schools. Customer service – and similarities and differences between how day schools and businesses conduct it – was also debated. As leaders spoke passionately about their schools, the group came to see similarities in their approaches, challenges, and thinking on these issues. They also gained new ideas from each other, as well as from thinking about Jonathan Cannon’s inspiring question, “We often ask ourselves, ‘What do we have to do for this child?’ What if, instead, we asked, ‘What can we do for this child?’”
In future posts about this Harvard program, we will highlight participating day school leaders and their reflections about the Jewish missions of their schools and day schools in general. Meanwhile, the Harvard institute Leadership: An Evolving Vision will take place July 12-18, offering a second day school cohort with 3+ years of leadership this valuable opportunity to reflect, network, and learn.

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