How We Are Spending Your Summer Vacation (2019)

Happy Summer!

We hope everyone is enjoying the beginning to middle of summer!  While our teachers are cycling in and out, vacationing and thinking about the future, and while our administrative team is also taking some downtime and ramping up for the next school year, I wanted to take an opportunity to share some updates and exciting news.  (If all you are interested in is the hiring updates, you can scroll straight through to the bottom!  You will be getting updated handbooks and relevant information later on in August.)

Building Learning Communities Conference

Last week, I had the privilege of taking a team of OJCS Teachers to Boston for the the Building Learning Communities Conference.  It was equal parts validation and inspiration to see how far our school has come.  Our teachers had an opportunity to see just how innovative OJCS currently is, while being exposed to thinkers and ideas that will continue to propel us forward.  If you want a taste of what we learned and how we thought about it, I invite you to scroll through my Wakelet below:

Makerspace Update

Yes, we are still building the Makerspace!  And, yes, it has come with some of the inevitable delays of construction.  We will unlikely be ready to open on Day 1, but are working hard to get it done as quickly as we can.  We are planning to open with Science in a different space (TBD) and will provide updates as we get closer to the start of school.

OJCS & CBB

I am looking forward on Thursday to my annual visit to CBB to say “hi” to our OJCS students and alumni.  I’ll post pictures on social media.

Hiring Update

We are pleased to share with you an update of new hires as we are almost completely staffed up for 2019-2020!  We are thrilled that these new administrators are joining our amazing team of returning administrators and teachers to make next year our best yet!

  • Dr. Avi Marcovitz will be joining our Administrative Team as our new Head of Jewish Studies!  Avi comes to us with extensive administrative and organizational leadership education and experiences, including prior day school teaching and administration.  He additionally carries rich subject matter expertise, a passion for Jewish day school, alignment with our “North Stars” and an enthusiasm to help us on our journey to becoming the school we want to be.  He has already begun and looks forward to meeting everyone soon!
  • Rabbi Howard Finkelstein is being re-introduced as our Dean of Judaics Emeritus!  This is not merely an honorific, but a way of meaningfully engaging Rabbi Finkelstein as both advisor and rabbinic presence in the years ahead.  While he is still in town and even after he makes aliyah, we look forward to Rabbi Finkelstein’s wisdom and participation in relevant conversations as we move forward.
  • Staci Zemlak-Kenter will be joining our teams as our new Development Director!  Staci is a trained social worker with years of development experience in the Atlanta Jewish Community who is coming into this half-time role with lots of ideas about how to make our fundraising dreams come true.  She will begin on August 1st and she looks forward to meeting everyone as well.
We are finishing up with final interviews and contracts for a Grade 6 EA, an additional Core French Teacher and a part-time Music Teacher, so stay tuned!

The Courage to Finish: My Charge to the Class of 2019

We had an amazing graduation last night at the Ottawa Jewish Community School – and I am not just saying that because I had a child in the class!   I was so proud of our students, our families, our school and our community.  It was really something special.  And, yes, I did say last week that I was kinda done with the weekly blogging for the summer.  And, yes, it does feel like I have delivered a speech a day these last few weeks.  And, yes, it runs the risk of being overly self-serving to say that a number of people asked if I could post my speech.

But they did.

And so I will (paraphrased because not everything translates into writing).

“There are many heroes in the story of a Jewish day school journey…

There are the teachers who put in untold hours of love and talent not only to nourish your brains, but your souls as well.  Our teachers are not just here to inspire a love of learning.  Our teachers recognize that our students are, in fact, our most important subject matter.  There is very little we can ever do to show our proper appreciation for our teachers, but we can directly prove the adage it takes a village and show our proper respect.  I’d like to ask every teacher who taught any of our graduates in any capacity over their years to rise…

 

There are the students who come to school each and every day (or at least many days) ready to learn and eager to lead.  And we have and will rightfully spend most of our time tonight celebrating you each…

 

But for me, tonight, I want to spend a little time celebrating who I think may be the most important heroes of the story, and that…is our parents.  And I think the adjective that best describes these heroes is “courage”.

Courage to Choose

In today’s world, we are all, in a sense, Jews by choice.  Choosing to be Jewish is counter-cultural by definition; choosing to attend Jewish day school is almost revolutionary.  We all chose Jewish day school for different reasons: some of us are alumni of Jewish day schools (including this one!), others were seeking the comfort of the family environment, some had a desire for personalized attention, others had a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, there were some who simply went where everyone else was going.  But each parent with their own unique constellation of reasons had the courage to choose Jewish day school.

Courage to Sacrifice

You have each sacrificed in many ways to be here this evening.  For many, it has been a financial sacrifice.  Jewish day school is not yet as affordable as we may wish it to be, and there are those in this room who have forgone both luxuries and necessities to be here.

You have all sacrificed your most precious gift – time.  Between the normal schlepping and carpools, you have volunteered at events and at PTA and in innumerable ways big and small.

Courage to Finish

In talking with the kids in New York [on our Grad Trip], I realized that for many of them – and you – I am the fourth head of school you have had on this journey; five if you count Mr. Friedman twice.  Each person, I am sure, had their own ideas of what makes a Jewish day school excellent and, I am sure, those ideas may not have always aligned.

With each new administration you had to choose and choose again, and for whatever complicated set of reasons you chose to come, you chose to stay and that, too, is a profile in courage.

The largest class I have ever graduated was 23 and the smallest was, but 4, but what I can tell you with 100% certainty is that not one parent on graduation night ever regretted the decision to finish.  And looking around this room tonight – and as one myself – I am confident that this remains true.

You have already given us the greatest gift we can have – the sacred and holy task of educating your child – let me give you the only gift tonight that I can, a brief gift of time.  To take just a brief minute or two not to document this experience, but to be in this liminal moment in our children’s lives.  I’d like to invite the graduates to rise and face your parents…

 

Returning to our graduates, my prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars.  I pray that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

“Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.

“Ruach” – be joyful.  School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments.  We know you had many moments of joy at OJCS and know that you have many more moments of joy ahead of you in the years to come.

“We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.

“We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place.  Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do great deeds and be inspired to learn more.

“We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone.  Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous, but required.

“We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish.  One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 Graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight…

 

You each are blessed more than you realize.  My blessing for you is that you never be content to merely count your blessings, but that you always be someone who makes their blessings count.”

The Transparency Files: Evaluation of Self

Although the weather outside is only finally warming up, it is actually June and we have reached our final month of this amazing 2019-2020 school year!  It is hard to believe how much has happened this year and how much we still have on tap for the final weeks!  Circumstances led me to switch up the order of my annual series of closing “Transparency Files” blog posts.  This year, I began with the results of the Annual Parent Survey and the results of the Annual Faculty Survey (shared directly with Faculty), am now moving here to my self-evaluation, and will finish with a discussion of next year’s new initiatives and conclude with an introduction of the 2019-2020 OJCS Faculty.

So let’s lean in…

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility for performing the evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Please know that I have already shared the results and analysis with the faculty and have sent the full unedited results to our Board’s Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for my evaluation.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s…

This year’s self-evaluation is based on goals created for this year (which was done at the beginning of the year in consultation with that same Head Support & Evaluation Committee).  You will not find a complete laundry list of my day-to-day responsibilities.  [I am focusing here on more of my “principal’s” responsibilities, not as much on my “head of school’s” (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.)]  You will find selected components [there are more goals in each area than I am highlighting here] for the 2018-2019 OJCS academic year:

Establish steady and measurable growth of the student population

  1. Establish and drive a recruitment plan to promote the school and attract new students.
    1. Develop a recruitment strategy with the Admissions Director by December 1st.
    2. Review and track recruitment effectiveness and make adjustments as required (ongoing, but December – April is the key period).
  2. Design and execute a retention strategy and plan.
    1. Develop a “moves management” database for all current families and launch weekly retention meetings with Admissions Director by first week in December.
    2. Annual Parent Survey is taken each May, shared with families and utilized in plans for the following years (when appropriate).
    3. Complete exit interviews/surveys with students and parents to better understand reasons for leaving are done as decisions become final in the Spring.
    4. Parent Ambassador for all new OJCS families to launch the first week of school.
  3. Strengthen pipeline with Ganon & Early Beginnings.
    1. Meet with directors to share updates and solicit feedback twice-yearly (December & May).
    2. Schedule engagement opportunities for Ganon and Early Beginnings JKs w/OJCS K for November.
    3. Develop a plan for the ongoing transition of Ganon’s JK to OJCS by February.
  4. Deepen relationships with synagogues.
    1. Re-launch the Rabbinic Advisory Committee in November with a goal of identifying concrete engagement opportunities for OJCS and each synagogue.
    2. Meet with each Rabbi by January to identify a specific engagement opportunity for Jon (speaking, Shabbat dinner, etc) and a select group of prospective parents.

OJCS is a school of excellence (through our work with NoTosh we aspire to be “the best school in Ottawa”)

  1. Translating our “North Stars” (“The OJCS Way”) into a strategy document.
    1. Work with NoTosh to revise final strategy document by December 1st.
    2. Translate the strategy document into a slide-deck for presentation to teachers/board/parents by January.
    3. Create parent collateral to help drive external identification of “The OJCS Way” with “excellence”.
  2. Connecting the dots between our work with NoTosh and our work with Silvia Tolisano.
    1. Meet with members of the NoTosh Design Team and the Silvia Cohort to keep everyone on the same page (ongoing).
    2. Encourage at least 10-15 prototypes through the prototype protocol.
  3. Clarify what role the CAT-4 plays in evaluating academic “excellence”.
    1. Analyze CAT-4 results with teachers to evaluate how useful they are in shaping instruction.
    2. Based on data and “The OJCS Way” blog out results while holding individual parent meetings (as needed).
  4. Create a technology plan for teachers, students and school.
    1. Work with Technology Director to develop plans for current and desire technology in the school.
    2. Work with teachers – and then parents – to decide which devices students will need to have (both in school and at home) in which grades.
  5. Develop a comprehensive Professional Development (PD) plan.
    1. Ensure that each teacher has a signed Professional Growth Plan (PGP) by November.
    2. Work with new Coordinators to see what common themes arise from PGPs and decide where and how to address over the course of the year (PD days, faculty meetings, conferences, resources, etc.).
  6. (Constantly) improve faculty morale.
    1. Launched “Positive Notes” prototype in January
    2. Results from the Annual Faculty Survey indicate success.

OJCS inspires Jewish journeys in its students, families and community.

  1. Deepen and develop personal relationships with holiday and Shabbat experiences.
    1. Invite children’s classes to house for Sukkot (September).
    2. Begin rotating families through for Shabbat dinners.
    3. Prototype at least one holiday workshop with PTA.
  2. Expand holiday family experiences.
    1. Make sure each grade has at least two Kabbalat Shabbat experiences at school.
    2. Grow our annual Chanukah and Passover celebrations to deepen family engagement.
    3. Coach a few teachers who have family engagement as part of their PGP to maximize their prototypes.
  3. Thought-leadership.
    1. Make sure blog has appropriate balance, including connections between the way Judaism is lived in school and how it could be lived at home.
    2. Work with local synagogues on Shabbat and holiday programming.

I am pleased to say that we managed to hit many of the above goals and are on our way to hitting the rest!  Here are some things to focus in on…

…we just recently met with our friends at the SJCC and Ganon Preschool to deliver preliminary plans for the next two years of transition of JK from Ganon to OJCS and we are holding meetings this month between JK and SK teachers to launch new initiatives in 2019-2020.

…we are pleased to be cosponsoring a Shavuot program this week with Congregation Beit Tikvah and co-facilitating a Shavuot program with Kehillat Beth Israel.

…we are meeting with PTA leadership this week to pass along feedback from the Annual Parent Survey and to explore ways to engage more parents in holiday workshops or other parent education opportunities.  This is an area we are desperate to improve in next year.

…we have drafted a BYOD (bring your own device) policy for Grades 4-8, which will be sent to parents later on this month.

…the schedule kinda got away from us, but we do have a final K-5 Kabbalat Shabbat on June 21st at 3:00 PM!

Those are just some highlights!  As always, your feedback – whether publicly commented here, privately shared with me through email or social media, or directly shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I told our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

This is probably a couple of weeks later than I had hoped, but I am pleased to share with you the results of this year’s Annual Parent Survey!  If you want a full comparison with last year, you can reread those results or toggle back and forth.  What I will try to do here, is to capture the highlights now that we have a baseline for comparison.

The first thing to name is that the percentage of students represented in this year’s survey is lower than last year, even if it captures slightly more students.  Last year’s survey covered 81 students and this year’s covers 84.  Also, the survey is per student, not per family, which means that it is even less representative than that.  In the service of anonymity, we have no way to know how many families the survey actually represents.  Finally, for most of the sections below, only 70 students – or roughly 40% of the school – is represented in the results.  (Surveys of 14 students did not include data outside the opening and closing questions.)  We would love to see that number at 70% or higher in the future to be more sure that the results are valid, but as always, we believe that all data is valuable data.

Whereas it is common wisdom that folks with concerns are usually more likely to fill out these surveys, the truth is that it would only strengthen these numbers, because by and by they are pretty good!  More than being worried about the motivations for why families do or don’t fill out surveys, we are most concerned that our families feel that they have an opportunity to provide us with feedback and, even more important than that, that the school factors in parent voice as it makes decisions.  We can only hope that we prove to families each year that we do take voice seriously, we do lean into healthy critique, and we do want to hear from them.  We will revisit when we give the survey, how long we keep the survey window open and how we could incentivize folks to fill them out.  We will aim for over 50% next year and 70% in the years to come.  In the meanwhile, let’s celebrate the parents who did participate and try to make meaning of what they are telling us.

As was the case last year – and is usually the case everywhere – it is the parents of our youngest students who are the most invested with decreasing participation as the years go on.  It is, however, a bit more representative than last year’s group.

This percentage is higher than last year and is confounded a bit by the fact that families who are moving out of Canada for example, or who are graduating would sit in the same “No” with families who attritting before Grade 8.  That the percentage is higher has some logic because our attrition rates are down again heading into next year, but I cannot unpack the “No” box while maintaining anonymity.  All of this to say is, if it is true that our most critical parents are filling out this survey, the overwhelming majority intend to continue at OJCS.  That says a lot about them and about us.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

So I will remind/tell you that for this and all categories, we look at the range between 7-9 as the healthy band, obviously wanting scores to be closer to 9 than 7, and looking for numbers to go up each year.  Last year, our score was 7.13 and this year it is 7.20.  Is it healthy?  Absolutely, although still closer to the low end of the band than we would prefer.  Did it go up?  Yes, although not as much we would like considering how much better a school we have become by a variety of other measures.  Is there a disconnect between what the school believes is true and what parents see and believe?  Is this a failure of communication?  These will be important questions for us to chew on.  Let’s dig deeper…

A few things jump out…

  • The topline number is essentially unchanged (7.17 to 7.11), while remaining lower in the healthy band than we would like to see.
  • Unlike last year, the score for “learning LEVELS” and “learning STYLES” is exactly the same, which leads me to wonder if people understand what we’re actually asking about (are these actually good or clear questions).
  • Even the ones that are below the healthy range (in the 6s) are actually all up from last year, which hopefully means they will enter that range soon.
  • I am pleased to see parents have pushed the question about individualized attention into the healthy range (7.09) as it is a core value of the school.
  • Our lowest score (6.56) is connected to homework, which we had already identified as a critical concern.  We hope that the new Homework Philosophy we shared out just a few weeks ago will help see that score rise when it is implemented next year.

  • So here is where having comparison data is actually helpful.  Each score in this section is lower than we want it to be and each score in this section is higher than it was last year.  (Remember that we think 7-9 is the healthy range; a “5” still means “satisfied” on the scale).
  • The topline number is still below a 7 and that still remains unacceptable.  It may round up, but next year it has to get there on its own.
  • The biggest improvements in this section are connected to our ability to meet the needs of students with IEPs and we know it is connected to our having hired a Director of Special Education this year.  We also know that it is not yet where we want it to be, but this is a clear example of where parent voice, aligned with teacher and student voice, leads to meaningful action.  (Fill out those surveys y’all!  We really do pay attention.)

As was the case last year, there are no huge bombshells, but there are some things worth pointing out…

  • The topline number is essentially the same (7.27 to 7.24).
  • Our lowest scores (and we added two new sub-questions in this category) deal with French and we are excited to see those numbers begin to approach healthy levels as we move forward next year with the intense professional development for our French Faculty that we announced earlier this week.  We are a bit disappointed that the added contact time and rigor have not yet registered, but we know they were steps in the right direction.  Our newest families have the same high expectations of us that we have for ourselves, and now it is time for the school to deliver on its promises.  This is another clear example of where parent voice, aligned with teacher and student voice, leads to meaningful action.  (Fill out those surveys y’all!  We really do pay attention.  We even wrote it twice to be sure you noticed!)
  • From the comments in the experimental section on French outcomes, it is very clear that we do, in fact, have three populations at OJCS.  We have families who are satisfied with what we presently offer with a “Core” and “Extended” program.  We have many families who want to see the quality of those programs increase, especially the ones who are counting on our ability to graduate students out of “extended” into Grade 9 immersion programs.  We also, however, have families who would like to see us – at least as an option – provide an analogous immersion experience to the public board.  This conversation, as we said, is just beginning.
  • We noted last year that we were counting on Art, Music and PE to be improved by assigning them teachers who could focus more exclusively on these specialties and we are pleased that each score has gone up!

  • With regard to Jewish Studies, we are very pleased that all our numbers are significantly up from last year and have entered the healthy range (one score needs a little rounding to get there, but still)!  Reading last year’s results, I said that, “I fully expect that the changes we proposed for Jewish Studies – emphasis on Hebrew fluency, reinstitution of structured tefillah, etc. – will lead to higher scores in the year to come.”  Well…we made those changes and it is wonderful to see that they landed with our families.
  • We clearly have work remaining to bring our hot lunch program, our field trips (both quantity and quality), and helping our friends at the JCC with feedback about after-school programming to bring those scores into the healthy band…speaking of after-school programming…

From our experimental section, we gain this data point.  If we have at least 40 students, as is indicated, expressing interest in a French after-school experience, we have a responsibility to figure out the how and the what.  Stay tuned.

  • I will hold most of my comments on my own scores for an upcoming “Transparency Files” with my full self-evaluation.  Here, I will simply say that I am relatively pleased with stable scores in the healthy range.
  • My lowest score is in providing learning for parents…and I agree!  I am legitimately struggling to figure out how to do this better with the busy lives of our parents.  Last year I tried to teach a weekly class, but we couldn’t carry a critical mass week-to-week to make it viable.  I’m open to suggestion (like, please do) on how to do this better.  Help me to help you to help me.
  • Our lowest score in this area (ticked slightly down from last year’s 6.97) is about our “code of conduct” and we are pleased to share that we are working on launching a new, school-wide behavior management system next year based on the “7 Habits” and anchored in our “North Stars”.  I will be surprised if this score doesn’t go up next year.

Last data point:

Remember this question was scaled 1-5.  Our score is interestingly unchanged at 4.14.  I’m not sure how much more room to go up there is, but it is a windmill we will gladly tilt at.

So there you have it for 2018-2019!

Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys!  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses and a couple of experimental sections.  Your responses added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  Please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern as you have seen that we really do use this data to make enhancements and improvements each year.  By the by, we are pleased with how well satisfied our parents are with how the school is going…but be assured, just like with everything else, we expect to see growth and progress in a school where there is “a floor, but no ceiling”.

In the next few weeks, I will look forward to sharing my self-evaluation, an exciting enrollment update, and to introducing the 2019-2020 OJCS Faculty!

Shofar So Good! (This is a LONG blog that I hope you read.)

The holidays start so early this year that I can barely squeeze in my favorite pun! With only four school days before Rosh HaShanah, we are doing our very best to get into the holiday spirit.  Our “Shofar Patrol” has been making the rounds, apples are being cut, and honey is being poured.  Let me take a moment to congratulate all our new teachers and all our new parents on a wonderful first week of school.  Your enthusiasm and your passion are welcome additions to our growing school and inspire our hopes not only for this year, but for the years to come here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

During our opening assembly, we talked as a school not only about the new colors and photos on the walls, but about the 18 new signs – 6 in Hebrew, 6 in French and 6 in English – that reflect what we now describe as “The OJCS Way”.  These are the “north stars” that came out of the work we did last year – the core values that help describe what is unique about our school.  We shared these values in a “Town Hall” last spring and they are described in greater detail in your OJCS Handbook.  We are excited to begin living those values and seeing how they impact culture and innovation in our school and community.  I also want to use them as a frame to discuss a few live issues we know are percolating…

“We learn better together.”

Those of you who are new to our school and to me, will learn that I embrace radical transparency.  I believe it is important to be authentic, honest, open to feedback and willing to lean into difficult conversations – all traits we believe worth modeling for our children. We have nothing to hide in our school and our parents are our partners. One of our north stars is that “we learn better together”. There are lots of “we’s” in our school – students with students, students with teachers, teachers with teachers, etc. – but parents are also part of the “we”.  Working together we can resolve almost any issue and adequately address any concern.

“Each person is responsible each to the other.”

I looked back to my blog a year ago and the number one issue facing our school was…our change to drop-off procedures!  It is hard to recall just how much bandwidth this took up, but it was significant.  There are a few lessons to be learned there…

We take the safety of our children as our highest concern.  The reason we invested so much energy last year in changing our drop-off procedures is that we wanted to ensure that the parking lot was controlled and safe.  We were so committed to it – and still are – that our entire administrative team commits itself each and every morning to being there.  (And we also think greeting our students each morning is the best way to start the day!)  It took a while for families to learn the ropes – and we have the emails to prove it!  But sooner than later, we got into a rhythm and now we have a safe and efficient drop-off.

It is deja vu all over again now that we have turned our attention to pick-up.  The issues are similar – we really want to make sure in a complicated world that each child finds his or her way to the right parent, carpool, bus or caregiver.  We also want to make sure students don’t wander into the parking lot or off campus without anyone noticing – things that could have happened here as a consequence of simply opening the doors and letting our entire school pour out.  There are minimal and maximal ways we could address this issue.  Lean too much to one side and you have greater convenience and less safety; lean too much to the other and you have greater safety and less convenience.  We are trying to find a middle path.

We invite your patience and appreciate your flexibility as we adjust to this new way of ending our day.  We firmly believe that sooner than later we will get into this rhythm as well, and we will add a safe and efficient pick-up to our safe and efficient drop-off.

“There’s a floor here – but no ceiling.”

This may seem like an odd place to anchor a conversation about snack and recess – which is the hot topic of the week – but it is actually where it lives.  The promise we make parents at the time of enrollment, not just at the beginning, but each and every year as we never take re-enrollment for granted, is that we have an appropriately rigorous floor for each student, but no ceiling of expectation for how far their passion and talent can fly.  That is why we are moving towards personalized learning, investing in innovation consultants, reimagining our schedules, introducing new technologies, playing with our space, etc., etc., all in the service of providing the highest-quality education possible.

We spent an enormous amount of time last year collecting data from alumni, former students and families, current students and families, the schools our children graduate into as we grappled with three really important conversations: What needs to be true about our French outcomes?  What needs to be clear about our Jewish expectations?  What is unique about teaching and learning at OJCS?  The answers to those questions were transparently shared out in Town Halls about French, Jewish Studies, and “The Future“.  And part of those answers required a re-imagination of our schedule, because time is a zero-sum game. And the reason we shared it so openly then was that we knew it would invite questions and we were happy to answer them then…and we remain happy to revisit them now that we are beginning to live them.

I want to focus here on the Lower School (K-5).  Up until this year, our Lower School had been functioning on a Middle School schedule – bells every 40 minutes dictating artificial changes that don’t suit the needs of younger students.  We wanted to move towards a larger block schedule that gives students and teachers the breathing room they need to let the learning flow at a more relaxed pace or to extend the learning where enthusiasm takes it.  So we have made that change.  It isn’t perfect (yet).  Some grades were easier than others due to personnel needs, but we are closer to where we want to be than where we were.

In Grades 1-5, in order to increase contact time in French and Jewish Studies – a need that came out loud and clear from our research last year – we are being more creative with the 50-minute block that was given to snack and recess each morning (a little over an hour after their arrival).  There has been no decrease in recess or physical activity.  (It has actually gone up with an added period of Physical Education.) What has changed – and where we are seeing the most questions and concern early on – is the nature of snack.  Our desire to provide our students with the nutrition they require remains intact.  Our willingness to provide our students with the time they require for snack has not changed.  What has changed – and where we have growing pains to work through – is that the time being given over to snack comes with a little bit of learning.

This will look and feel different in Grade One than it will in Grade Five. It will look and feel different in Week One than it will in Week Thirty. And the flexibility and autonomy our teachers have (now) allow them to make daily adjustments as per the needs of the children.  If some days the snack needs to come with little to no learning…that’s okay!  If some days the recess needs to be longer…that’s okay!  Another one of our “north stars” is that “we own our own learning” – and our teachers and students have full ownership of what needs to be true on a daily basis.  They are not being micromanaged by the administration.  That’s the real change to pay attention to – that we aren’t letting the bell dictate when learning begins or ends, or whether students can eat or not, or whether students get a body break or not – we are letting our teachers and students begin to take ownership of their learning since they know best what they need and when.

This is so new for us!  And for you.  It is natural that you have questions and concerns.  We welcome them directly.  We are having the same conversation with our teachers who also want to make sure that students have time to eat and time to play…and time to learn.  A number of parents have asked whether it would have been smarter to simply increase the length of the school day.  Believe me, I would love a longer day to work with and perhaps that’s a conversation we should be having.  But please don’t think that aren’t carefully considering the wellbeing – mental or physical – of our children.  We know the research on movement and on nutrition.  We believe our teachers – working with their students and with you – will discover what is best for each class and that we will land in a place that feels comfortable for all.

“We are all on inspiring Jewish journeys.”

One of the highlights of the first week was our inaugural “Welcome Ceremony” for Kindergarten students and parents.  Tears were shed as we took just a pause to name the liminal moment a child begins his or her formal Jewish learning.  To see them all under the tallitot surrounded by parents as our teachers shared a poem in Hebrew, French and English, and as Rabbi Finkelstein led a parental blessing before a final farewell, was to see the beginning not just of a family journey at OJCS, but – we hope – “an inspiring Jewish journey” leading…wherever it leads.  It was also a reminder of the sacred trust a family places in us for the education of their children and the holiness of such work.  A truly special way to begin the year…

“Ruach”

We added ruach (spirit or joy) as a “north star” not just because we needed six to make sure our “north star” was a “north Star of David”, but because we know how important ruach is in the life of a school.  We want our students and teachers to feel the joy of learning and the love of community.  We want each person to feel that special feeling when he or she can be their truest self and know that they will be heard and respected and loved.  That’s a lofty ambition, but one worth reaching towards.  It is why we are so excited about next week’s Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB).  It is why we are looking for greater parent engagement in our PTA and in our school.  It is why we created cafeteria space to eat and to sing together instead being siloed into classrooms.  It is why we raised money to install air conditioning in our hottest classrooms so our students can learn in comfort and not distress (with more to come).  It is why we are increasing field trip opportunities, adding electives to Middle School, and constantly re-imagining what we do and how we do it.  It is why we get up in the morning each and every day with a fire in our bellies and a smile upon our lips.

Research shows that one of the most important variables to academic success is teacher joy – when teachers are excited to teach, students are excited to learn.  And when students are excited to learn, anything is possible.  That’s the future we are building at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  That’s why we are willing to make changes, even when those changes are hard and sometimes even when those changes fail.  We will never let fear of failure prevent us from reaching towards those (north) stars, because we’ll never get there if we don’t try.

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special school- thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5779 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

What a Difference a Year Makes

Sitting here in my office on the Friday before teachers report on Monday, I cannot but marvel at how different things are from just a year ago.  This will not be one of my overly-verbose and lengthy blog posts with oodles of details.  I do that often enough and if we are being honest, I will probably be doing it again sooner than later.  Here I just want to name the feeling…and that feeling is best described by one of our new “North Stars” – ruach.

We have had so many teachers in and out of the building this summer – which represents a major cultural shift – working and planning and preparing and organizing and beautifying. Why?  Because they are full of enthusiasm and excitement about the year to come…

We have had so many vendors, parent volunteers and campus employees working tirelessly this summer – which continues a major cultural shift – painting and repairing and cleaning and beautifying.  Why? Because they understand that how the building looks and feels matters and they are invested in the year to come…

Prototyping a new behavior management system at OJCS!

We have had opportunities for the administrative team and the teachers to gather for social bonding this summer – which begins a major cultural shift – axe-throwing and karaoke singing and eating and playing together.  Why? Because we know that our relationships contribute to the joy we feel when we come to work and we know that our joy is contagious to our students and parents and we have such high hopes for the year to come…

Last year was amazing, but it barely scratched the surface.  This year will be a huge leap forward, but it too will only be a step in the direction we are heading toward.  When we say that we intend to be the finest school in Ottawa, we do not mean it as hyperbole or as a marketing slogan.  We mean it literally and it is already beginning to happen.  We see it in our two kindergarten classes which are still growing even this close to the beginning of the school year.  We see it in our overall growth of nearly 10 percent.  We see it in the caliber of our new faculty – many of whom sought us out.

We know it from the additional new gifts from donors that we haven’t even had a chance to announce yet (stay tuned!), which will only bring the future closer.  We know it from the programmatic changes launching this year – many of which were described in prior posts – but hereto, includes some new ones that we have not yet had a chance to announce (stay tuned!).

I am as excited about this year of school as I have ever been about any year in any school I have had the honor of heading.  With our “North Stars” to guide us, a team of talented administrators to lead us, a group of gifted and loving teachers to make the magic happen, a community of caring parents to partner with, and – of course – our students whose voice will be amplified and whose educational journeys represent sacred work – this year will undoubtedly be our best yet.

If you were on the fence – get off.  If you were skeptical – believe.  The future of education is being written at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

That’s #TheOJCSDifference.

How We Are Spending Your Summer Vacation

Happy Summer!

Even though this is my second summer in Ottawa, my internal clock is still tuned towards a Florida calendar, so it feels like summer should be over any minute!  But luckily (for all of us!) we still have plenty of time to recharge and refresh before a full return.

That does not mean that we are not hard at work preparing for what will assuredly be our best year yet in 2018-2019.  And it is not just the new colours on the walls (with other surprises yet to come) that is worth being excited about.  We are about to take a great leap forward and before we all get caught up in the hullabaloo of workaday life, I want to take a chance to highlight a few things that may have escaped your attention.  [If you are only interested in a hiring update…scroll down!]

Website / Google Classroom / Blogs

Please be aware that due to significant and overwhelming feedback from parents, teachers, and students that we are – with the help of the amazing Josh Max – currently transitioning to a new and improved website and transitioning away from Google Classroom to a blogging platform.  Our website is about to be a whole lot more accurate and helpful to current and prospective families, as well as to donors, supporters, volunteers and community stakeholders.  A new virtual platform is about to make it a whole lot easier for parents and students to know what is happening in their classes and for teachers and students to share pictures, videos, examples and reflections of the incredible work they are doing.

“We learn better together” is one our North Stars and this shift towards a better and more accessible platform will help us expand the concentric circles of “we” to amplify and share the learning.  We will likely look for opportunities to provide education for parents who wish for it and all our current privacy policies remain intact.  Parents will continue to maintain full control over privacy, even as we take the next step forward.  Stay tuned for more information.  Feel free to ask any questions.

Meet & Greet / Back to School / First Day / First Day of K / Trimesters

There are a whole lot of bullet points that describe minor, but meaningful changes, so let’s name them clearly:

  • We are moving next year to a “trimester year” – dividing the year into three trimesters, no longer into two semesters.  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that we will issue three report cards (not one progress report and two report cards) and that the schedule for “Parent-Teacher Conferences” (or “Student-Led Conferences” should any grade prototype them this year) will come a bit earlier than in years past (Fall and Winter).  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that we will not have a “Back to School” evening this year. With more accurate and accessible information available to parents from the beginning and with a first “Parent-Teacher Conference” earlier on the calendar, we believe this evening has been rendered obsolete.  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that we do want to provide an opportunity for families in the Lower School (K-5) to have an opportunity to meet teachers, see their classrooms, find their desks, etc., before the first day of school.  Now that you do not need to schlep all your materials, we have framed this day – Thursday, August 30th – as a K-5 “Meet & Greet” with an open-ended window from 3:00 – 5:00 PM for families to drop on by.  [We have timed it that way to flow into the PTA Welcome Back BBQ.]  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that all our students, including K, will be ready to begin school on its first day.  Parents of Kindergartners will be invited to stay for a brief ceremony marking their children’s transition to OJCS and all parents will be invited to stay for a brief PTA Welcome Back to School Breakfast.

Middle School Retreat / Tefillah

We have two Middle School prototypes colliding during the first month of school – the launch of our new daily Middle School minyan, which we unpacked at one of our “town halls” last spring and our inaugural Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith (CBB) of Ottawa.  To help ease our Middle Schoolers into minyan and to take advantage of being away together at camp to set the right tone and to introduce the right habits, we are looking at the beginning of the school year (with regard to tefillah) in three phases:

  • Middle School Tefillah Bootcamp: 9/2 – 9/11
    • We envision these first days serving as a “Part I” conversation of some of the whys and whats of tefillah, as well as a straight bootcamp of the basic matbeah shel tefillah [literally “formula of prayer”] we intend to use with Middle School.
    • These sessions will be non-performative and, thus, can be held as a full Middle School (or any combination we see fit) in either prayer space.
  • Tefillah @ Middle School Retreat: 9/12 – 9/14
    • We want to take advantage of these 2-3 days (depending on how we schedule out the travel days), with less time pressure, to launch “Part II” of the whys and whats of tefillah as a way of preparing for regular tefillah upon our return.
    • Students will be encouraged to bring tallitot and tefillin on the retreat as we will be dividing into minyanim and beginning our work together.
  • Tefillah @ Middle School Beginning 9/17
    • We return from the Middle School retreat and launch our regular Middle School Tefillah on Monday, September 17th.
    • Dr. Mitzmacher will facilitate the Traditional Egal minyan in the Chapel; Rabbi Finkelstein will facilitate the Traditional Non-Egal minyan in the Beit Midrash.
    • We are looking at a Monday-Friday template for Middle School Tefillah
      • Monday: Regular Minyan (straight davenning using the matbeah)
      • Tuesday: Iyunei Tefillah (meeting in small groups for conversation; sort of an ongoing “Part III” of whys and whats)
      • Wednesday: Regular Minyan
      • Thursday: Torah Reading / Torah Study / Student Divrei Torah
      • Friday: Kabbalat Shabbat (using a different matbeah)

Please bear in mind that these are prototypes – which means they are subject to constant tinkering as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Hiring Update

We are pleased to share with you an update of new hires as we are almost completely staffed up for 2018-2019!  We are thrilled that these new teachers will be joining our amazing returning teachers to make next year our best yet!

  • Sharon Reichstein will be joining our Administrative Team this fall as our Director of Special Needs.  Ms. Reichstein is a specialist who brings decades of experience working with students who have special needs and looks forward to sharing her expertise with our faculty, students and parents.  As Director of Special Needs, Ms. Reichstein will be the central hub of ensuring all of our students’ needs are met through personalized plans.
  • Michael Washerstein is a passionate and experienced educator coming to us from Philadelphia to be our new Middle School English & Jewish Studies Teacher.  In addition to his secular educational experience, Mr. Washerstein’s time as a USY Advisor and experience as a MASA Teaching Fellow in Israel, will serve him well in his dual role at OJCS. Working closely with Rabbi Finkelstein, Mr. Washerstein looks forward to forging a strong connection with our Middle School students.
  • Yardena Shainbach has relocated to Ottawa after many years with the English Montreal School Board.  Ms. Shainbach is a fluent French speaker and will be taking on the Grades K-2 French position.  She is currently working on her Master of Education through the University of Ottawa.
  • Sigal Baray will be our new Kitah Gimmel Jewish Studies Teacher. Morah Sigal comes with decades of experience teaching Hebrew in Ottawa and is well known to our students from her time as an Occasional Teacher at OJCS.  She is currently engaged in coursework from an internationally recognized university in Israel.
  • Lara Vlajkov and Faye Mellenthin are certified teachers who will be Educational Assistants at OJCS next year.  Ms. Vlajkov will be part of our Kindergarten team and looks forward to lending her artistic touch to her day-to-day teaching.  Ms. Mellenthin will be working as an Educational Assistant with our Grade 3 class this year and comes with extensive teaching experience from the United Kingdom.
We are finishing up with final interviews and contracts for an additional Kindergarten EA, an additional Core French Teacher and a part-time Music Teacher, so stay tuned!

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

After making transparent the results of my own evaluation by both myself and my faculty, it is time to turn to our other annual survey: the Annual Parent Survey.

For comparison sake, please know that I do have results from the former version of the survey and will do my best to highlight any trends I see, as well as indicate anything of import in this year’s survey.

It is hard to get an exact read on turn out because we changed from one survey per family to one survey per child.  We do know that 81 students are represented in this survey, which is just a bit over half.  We will use that baseline moving forward and hope to get closer to 70-80%.  Why do some families choose not to provide feedback (in this forum)? Families could be thrilled with what’s going on! (I’d love to vote for that one!)  Families could be resigned that the results are not taken seriously enough to invest the time in.  Hopefully, when people begin to see more links between the feedback they provide and meaningful improvement in the school it will inspire a greater rate of return.  In the meanwhile, even if validity is somewhat challenged, we operate here with a spirit of curiosity and believe we can learn from whatever there is to learn…so…let’s move on to the results.

From my experience, it looks mostly how you would expect.  There does tend to be diminishing enthusiasm for surveys as the students move on, but great job Grade 6 parents!

I wasn’t sure whether to include this data point as I didn’t want to be biased by it – all the feedback is meaningful.  That is why we conduct exit interviews with each family who chooses to leave OJCS prior to graduation – we are genuinely interested in their feedback.  I could have conducted an analysis where I separated the feedback between these three categories, but I have chosen to look at the results as a whole so as not to dismiss any piece of feedback because a family may or may not be continuing.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

Is that good?  I don’t have the exact same question from prior surveys to give you comparison data.  I can tell you from having used this survey in other locations, that scores between 7-9 tend to be healthy, and you look at scores below 7 as something you need to pay close attention to (and are thrilled if you ever get a 9 or higher).  So landing at 7.13 is technically within a healthy range, but is lower than I would like it.  I will definitely be looking to see this creep up in future years. Let’s dig deeper…

These next sections will require a little artful cutting-and-pasting from SurveyMonkey, so I apologize if it doesn’t “look” as professional as I would prefer…the data is still the data.

[Please note that the data is being sliced and diced according to my technical skill, not because there is any particular meaning to the groupings.]

The most important data point here is that our mark for offering a high-quality education is within the healthy range, 7.17.  Like above, please know that all our just-barely-above-7 scores are lower than I would prefer and clearly have room to grow.

What jumps out are the ones that fall below 7:

  • There is link between “learning styles” and “individualized attention” that really get to the heart of the school we are hoping to become.  Our premise of being a school that promises a “floor, but not a ceiling” lives here.  I will be surprised if those numbers don’t start to climb as soon as next survey.
  • There is also a link between “homework” and “study habits” that we need to pay attention to as well.  As we get more clear about what we believe teaching and learning should look like in school, we will also need to have an important conversation about what we think it should look like at home.

It is really important to name that not having comparison data makes it hard to identify trends.  So I see these numbers as pretty upsetting – and they are – but I don’t know if they reflect progress.

  • Preparing children for high school is our number one responsibility; less than a 7 is not going to cut it.
  • I’m not pleased with the score for “21st century technology” as it seems to be a step down from last year’s results (at least when compared to a question about “technology”), but as this is my area of expertise, I do feel confident that these numbers will climb next year.
  • Considering how hard we try to accept and accommodate children with exceptionalities, it is genuinely disheartening to see these numbers so low.  I think if we are being honest, the shakeup of the administrative team from last year to this has hurt our school.  We went from having a full-time, qualified special needs professional to divvying up responsibilities across multiple people and it left us a bit shorthanded. This will be addressed next year.  We also need to provide more training to our faculty on how to make accommodations.  We have a strategic goal to be even more inclusive in the years ahead…but we need to make sure we are meeting the needs of the students we presently have.

No huge bombshells here and pretty healthy in the core academic areas.

  • We are hopeful that the changes we proposed for French (which will be finalized and shared out in our final “Town Hall” – see below) will help the French numbers climb.
  • We believe that centralizing the teaching of Art, Music and PE to instructors who are both qualified and focused on their speciality will enhance the quality of all three in the year ahead.  These have been perennial concerns.

  • With regard to Jewish Studies, we know that there is work to do both in terms of academics and experiences.  I fully expect that the changes we proposed for Jewish Studies – emphasis on Hebrew fluency, reinstitution of structured tefillah, etc. – will lead to higher scores in the year to come.  As a point of reference, this year’s scores are slightly higher than the prior one, which is encouraging.
  • More field trips, more consistency with hot lunch, and providing feedback to the JCC about their after school programming are absolutely necessary.

You’ve heard me talk about myself enough by now…

  • I will pass the kudos on to our hardworking security team.
  • I think we are pleased, but nowhere near satisfied, with the score about student behavior.  We believe we have made meaningful progress this year, but are not quite where we would like to be.

Last data point:

Remember this question is only scaled 1-5!  So I am actually pretty pleased to see a 4.14, but like everything else in this survey, we will be looking to see growth in the years ahead.

So there you have it for 2017-2018!

Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys. In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses.  They added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  But please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern as we use this data to make enhancements and improvements headed into next year. By the by, we are pleased with how well satisfied our parents are with how the school is going…but be assured, just like with everything else, we expect to see growth and progress in a school where there is “a floor, but no ceiling”.

Want a sneak-peek on how we are going to get there?

The Transparency Files: Evaluation of Self

Even though I am adjusting to a more traditional “Northeast” calendar, with later beginnings and endings, it is still startling that we are down to the last eight weeks of this remarkable year!  There are still so many signature events still to come and so much amazing work to do, and yet here we are…the home stretch has officially begun.

And so, I would like to begin my annual series of “Transparency Files” blog posts which begins with my own evaluation, soon moves to reveal the results of this year’s Parent Survey, continues with a discussion on next year’s new initiatives and concludes with a conversation about next year’s faculty and schedule.

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As head of school, I have the responsibility for performing the evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as head of school.  Please know that I have already shared the results and analysis with the faculty and have sent the full unedited results to our Board’s Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for my evaluation.

In future years, I will invite you to begin by reviewing last year’s post.  This year’s self-evaluation is based on goals created for this year (which was done months ago in consultation with the Head Support & Evaluation Committee).  You will not find a complete laundry list of my day-to-day responsibilities.  You will find selected [there are more goals in each area than I am highlighting here] components for the 2017-2018 OJCS academic year:

 Executive Leadership & Organizational Management

Jon’s 2017-2018 Goals

  • Identify appropriate benchmarks and standards across the curriculum.
  • Create and disseminate survey instruments to measure OJCS graduates’ transitions and successes (or failures),
  • Launch planning process to re-imagine teaching and learning at OJCS / innovation process.
    • Develop prototype of a light Makerspace with Jewish content integrated.
    • Purchase and experiment with 3D printer.
    • Amplify use of Google Classroom.
  • Develop collaboratively additional evaluative tools (outside of CAT-4 and curriculum-driven assessments) for measuring academic success and instituting a process for tracking and sharing information over time.
    • Revise exams for Grades 7 & 8 to incorporate all of Jewish Studies.
  • Ensure all in-house professional growth is embedded, ongoing and meaningful.
    • Provide frequent and varied professional development opportunities for all teachers (conferences, workshops, classroom exchanges, etc.).
    • Connect Jewish Studies Faculty to Prizmah.
  • Each teacher will have a Professional Growth Plan with artifacts, deliverables and accountability.
  • Explore the possibility of accreditation through OFIS, CIS and CAIS. (Likely CIS).
  • Work with SJCC, Ganon, Federation, etc. to lay the groundwork for OJCS to initiate JK transition beginning in 2018-2019.

I am pleased to say that we have achieved many of the above (and more)!  Without going through each one individually, as many of my blog posts this year have been about them, let me share some general thoughts…

…the conversation around “benchmarks and standards” has shifted as we, instead, began with work clarifying our core values.  When that work is complete (see the ad below), we can then drill down.  We want to begin asking ourselves questions like, “Do these benchmarks bring us closer to what we believe to be true about teaching and learning or not?”  Please remember (or know) that we are never talking about discarding or ignoring the Ministry of Ontario standards – we are talking about ensuring that they are simply the beginning of the conversation; that they are the floor and not the ceiling of our expectations.

…we are so grateful to our teachers and parents for their willingness to dive deeper into Google Classroom…we believe that open and frequent communication between school and home is the key to a successful school experience.  We also are not sure that Google Classroom is the best platform for what we ultimately wish to do educationally.  Stay tuned.

…we made the decision, but may not have adequately explained, to move our standardized testing window to the fall to come into line with when other private schools in our community take them.  We will have a conversation next year about which tests we take, which grades, why we take them, how the data will be used, etc.

Advancement

Jon’s 2017-2018 Goals

  • Launch annual campaign
  • Steward major donors
  • Hit the match through MATCH
  • Build capacity with the Development Committee through Prizmah coaching

It is the work we do in this area that determines how much we are able to achieve in all the others.  There is no private school in North America who subsists solely on tuition revenue.  That is why there is no private school in North America who does not have some kind of annual campaign, asking those who can, to do.  And in a Jewish day school where we aspire to ensure that finances not be the reason a child is unable to attend, we need to raise that much more.  And we do. Our lay leaders worked this year and last with a Prizmah Coach to launch this year’s annual campaign.  And I am proud to announce that we raised enough to qualify for matching funds from the AVI CHAI Foundation!  Thanks to all who gave what they could this year!

Next year we hope to increase the percentage of families who participate because we want to show all our donors and supporters that no one cares more about the school than its families.  Even the smallest contribution matters…we look forward to more conversation on this topic next year.

Public and Community Relations

Jon’s 2017-2018 Goals

  • Teach a “Parent University” course to all interested parents/caregivers.
  • Develop a “Parent Ambassador” program which can serve as a way of disseminating information, mentoring new parents, guiding tours, etc.
  • Blog weekly, Carpool line daily, twice-yearly meetings with all parents, meeting/phone calling as needed and as proactively as possible.
  • Be a presence at all our local synagogues/form a Rabbinic Advisory Committee.

I think this has been an area with some big successes and big fails.  I am pleased with how the blogging is going and people’s responses to it – especially as it is new for our parent community.  I am outside each and every morning as part of carpool and glad to be there.  It is the best way to start each day and a critical engagement point.  I have worked hard to be a presence at all our community’s synagogues and enjoyed speaking at most of them at some point during the year.  It is new (for me) working in this kind of communal context and I have stretched myself religiously in order to be present.  It has been worth it in ways big and small.  We have also succeeded in creating a Rabbinic Advisory Committee that is playing a vital role in helping us enhance the “J” in “OJCS”.

The biggest fail in this area has been with “Parent University”. Normally it takes a few years to get sick of me, not a few weeks!  After launching with a robust number of attendees, it began to dwindle down to a number too small to work meaningfully with.  Feedback was much more about timing than content, and figuring out how to engage working parents is a huge issue.  Similarly, although some constructive work was done in further developing our PTA, we were not yet ready to launch a formal “Parent Ambassador” program. Finally, although I think we have had an opportunity to meet with many, if not most, families many times throughout the year, I do think we need to at least formally invite each family in a couple of times each year to really be sure we are meeting needs and hearing concerns.

Finance and Operations

Jon’s 2017-2018 Goals

  • Revise budgeting process to be more proactive, less reactive.
    • Work with Committee to initiate the process earlier.
    • Develop a budget for the school we want to be as a strategic first step.

The paradigm shift – which we are actively in now – is budgeting for the school we dream of being, at least as a first draft, instead of the one we currently are.  We have actively engaged our full administrative team, relevant staff, and board to dream the high dream.  Of course there are fiscal realities we must attend to, but without knowing what we are aiming towards, there can be no plan to get there.  As mentioned above, I’m encouraged by resources being marshaled to deliver on the OJCS promise.

Those are just some highlights; you will also get an additionally honest look at my shortcomings when I share back results from the Annual Parent Survey.  As always, your feedback – whether publicly commented here, privately shared with me through email or social media, or directly shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I told our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

Let’s Talk About the “J” in “OJCS”: The Jewish Studies Town Hall

As promised, we held a Town Hall on Thursday, April 26th to share back the results of our investigations, thus far; to discuss what we currently believe to be true; and to sketch out next steps.  We were pleased by the turnout and with the candor and seriousness of the conversation (see more below).  We would be happy to share out the entire slide deck from the town hall so that folks who were unable to attend can be in the know.  Please feel free to email me (j.mitzmacher@theojcs.ca) with your request.  What I would like to do here is walk you through the highlights and offer you the chance to add your voice to the conversation by commenting below.

A few caveats as prologue…

The spirit of this conversation is one of “transparency” – a value we have discussed in depth in prior posts.

You can read an earlier post about why this is a pressing issue for our school.

Let’s restate the fundamental issue…

Unlike the work we do in secular education (which is also going through revisiting and re-clarifying), there is no external set of benchmarks and standards that we are required to follow.

There are no universally adopted textbooks or curricular materials shared by all Jewish day schools (or even by traditional groupings of Jewish day schools).  We have to translate our school’s mission-vision-philosophy into self-created (or borrowed) academic benchmarks and standards.

We have to build a schedule around those outcomes. We have to choose curricula based on what we believe to be true about teaching and learning.

There are also no norms for Community Day Schools on how to meet the needs of a diverse Jewish population.  If there was a “best model” out there for a school of our size with a population such as ours…we would be happy to borrow it!

What does Jewish Studies currently look like at OJCS?

  • K:       10/40 Periods in Hebrew
  • 1-3:   5/40 Periods in Hebrew & 8/40 Periods in Jewish Studies
  • 4-5:   Core: 5/40 Periods in Hebrew & 8/40 Periods in Jewish Studies (w/English as the language of instruction; Extended: 13/40 Periods in Jewish Studies (w/Hebrew as the language of instruction.)
  • 6-8:   5/40 Periods in Hebrew & 8/40 Periods in Jewish Studies

What kinds of data collection are we doing to better understand the issues?

  • Grade 9 Alumni Surveys
  • Grade 12 Alumni Surveys
  • Annual Parent Surveys
  • Conversation with Synagogue Partners
  • Anecdotal Testimonials
  • Exit Interviews (pending)

What have we learned thus far?

We know that the questions we have historically asked don’t give us much data on answering the hard questions.  Two difficult truths we have to acknowledge about the recent history of our school:

  • Most graduating students don’t speak fluent Hebrew.
  • Our children are not entirely well-prepared for B’nai Mitzvah (regardless of denomination).

For many of the parents who shared critical feedback, these were the issues most flagged as being of concern.

What couldn’t wait for process?

We felt that some things simply couldn’t wait for the fuller discussion to unfold, so we immediately restored brachot and tefillah to the best of our ability and launched Extended Hebrew pilots for Grades 4 & 5 at the beginning of this academic year.

Hebrew we will get to below, but in order to work on tefillah in a school such as ours, we needed to engage our wider community:

We invited our entire community’s pulpit rabbinate to join an ad-hoc “Rabbinic Advisory Committee” (RAC) of our board to help us tackle the challenge of revisiting our Jewish Studies mission and vision, to strengthen the relationships between our school and our community’s synagogues and to help us think through the challenge of meeting the spiritual needs of a diverse Jewish community.

We were blessed with full participation, rich conversations, respectful disagreements, sage advice and collective wisdom across our three meetings, thus far.

The end result of our work so far with our RAC, with the input of our Jewish Studies Faculty, and board, is the proposed re-launch of meaningful tefillah next year.

The OJCS Tefillah Prototype

Prologue

There are two really important things to keep in mind…

We are committed to the idea of not letting the “great” get in the way of the “good”…our prototype for next year is not great.  There is a lot still to be figured out and we are open to ongoing critical feedback to help it eventually get great.  But we believe it is good…and that good is at least one step further ahead than our current location.

There are very few Community Day Schools left in North America that view their Jewish missions to extend to the furthest reaches of its community.  We did a lot of research and in most communities of our size, particularly when there is an Orthodox Day School, the Community Day School simply aims towards the center of the population that exists from the perceived edge of the Orthodox school through to the left.  It is really important to know that The Ottawa Jewish Community School remains committed to klal yisrael and believes we can and will continue to be a home for all Jewish families. Doing so both makes the work more challenging and more vital.

Schedule

With budget and schedule being the leading indicators for value, we intend to restore tefillah to our formal schedule next year by recapturing at least 30 minutes (daily) out of the current schedule and repurposing them for tefillah.  This will be a net gain of at least 30 minutes of Jewish Studies “time” without impacting other academic time.  In the Lower School (K-5), timing would be more flexible (during a larger JS academic block).  In the Middle School (6-8), timing would be fixed (likely mid-morning) and shared to provide opportunities for full Middle School participation.

We will additionally look to schedule more opportunities to bring families in for special services, like Friday Kabbalat Shabbat, or Middle School Shacharit.

Staffing

With support of qualified administrators, the teaching and facilitation of tefillah at OJCS will remain with its Jewish Studies Faculty. We could explore additional mentoring/support from our local clergy (including hazzanim) once we are clear on matbeah and nusach/tunes.  We could also partner with clergy if/when we introduce targeted sessions on ta’amei ha’mikrah.

Gender

OJCS is committed to the idea that both boys and girls will have the same academic requirements for tefillah and have the same opportunities for religious performance.

This represents a logical extension of the status quo.  For example, we will continue to require boys to wear kippot and continue to offer support for girls who express an interest to do the same.  When engaged in morning minyan, we would honor each child’s sense of personal obligation to wear tallitot and don tefillin regardless of gender.

This extends to the leading of brachot, birkat ha’mazon, Shabbat rituals, etc.  We believe as a rule of thumb that we should continue to employ more of a developmentally appropriate, unspoken egalitarianism of this nature (assigning co-leaders, co-hazzanim, equal distribution of brachot and rituals, etc.) in the Lower School and more of an intentional egalitarianism of this nature (checking with students and likely parents about comfort levels) in the Middle School.

On a final note, we should, perhaps, as a next phase of this work extend the conversation to address hetero-normative, gender-normative and LGBT perspectives as we serve children from all kinds of families.  The images and language that we use, even something that can feel as benign as a weekly “Abba & Ima” can feel exclusionary for children being raised by a single parent or same-sex parents.  Their spiritual wellbeing is worthy of our consideration as well.

Structure

We imagine that most tefillah in the Lower School will take place at the class/grade level and that most tefillah in the Middle School will take place as a middle school.  The goal in the Middle School would be to offer two daily, halakhic minyanim: Traditional Egalitarian and Traditional Non-Egalitarian.

What do we believe to be true about Jewish Studies at OJCS?

  • We believe we will need to collect more data over more years to better answer questions and address concerns.
  • We believe that for some families nothing short of a Judaism that looks and feels like theirs will satisfy and we will have to figure out what that means – for those families and for OJCS.
  • We need to ensure that we don’t overly focus on structure and lose sight of why we want our children to engage in meaningful Jewish experiences in the first place!
  • We will need to dedicate time and resources to ensuring that joy, music, Jewish camping wisdom, creativity, student ownership, etc, receive as much attention as the formal learning.  They are all required for the outcomes we collectively hope to achieve.

Pivoting back to the larger questions, what can we do next year?

  1. We will increase the rigor and immersive experience of what contact time with Hebrew we presently make available.  We will move K-5 to an “ivrit b’ivrit” model (with next year’s Grade 5 grandfathered out) and explore additional streaming in Grades 6-8 to increase contact with Hebrew during “Judaics” classes.
  2. We will be able to adjust our schedule to add contact with Jewish Studies (without coming at the expense of other academic time) to build tefillah back into the schedule.
  3. We will wait until the Middle School Retreat to launch the new Middle School minyanim so as to lay the proper ground for our students to be set up for success.
  4. We will provide additional extracurricular contact time with Hebrew through clubs, lunch, etc.
  5. We will look to launch prototypes around parent engagement and social justice.
  6. We will work with parents, faculty, board and Rabbinic Advisory   Committee to explore additional areas of our Jewish Studies program in need of exploration, re-imagination and innovation.  Next up?  Our Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum!

We had in attendance at the “town hall” our full administration, our Board President and several board members, and a good mix of parents who represented different age groups, different views on the school’s Jewish mission and vision, but who demonstrated a shared sense of the issue’s importance, provided meaningfully constructive feedback and exhibited a genuine desire to partner with the school to get it right.

We took good notes from the serious conversation that followed the presentation and I have opened a GoogleDoc to track the feedback and recommendations that we hope continue to come in (see below).  Here are some highlights from that night’s conversation:

  • Although turnout on a weeknight was good, there was a real desire to see the school invest more resources in engaging parents in this conversation.  We need more voices and more buy-in as we move the work forward.  We will have to look towards additional forums (including virtual ones) to onboard more folk on this journey.
  • There were questions raised about how the school values religious diversity among its administration, teaching faculty and board.  And though the status quo (in all three) does reflect denominational diversity, it is a fair question about whether that was strategic or happenstance, and how to embed that value moving forward.

So…here we are 1,800 words or so later.

This is where you come in.  We desperately want to know what you think…

…what questions did this answer for you?

…what questions did this raise for you?

…what do you want to know more about?

…what else do you want us to know?

We cannot encourage you more to email, comment or come in for a conversation.  We need all voices heard as we work towards clarifying and enhancing our Jewish mission and vision – next year and in the years ahead.

By the way…if you like Town Halls (and you know you do!)…

Stay tuned for a Town Hall later in May where we will share back the results and the plans we’ve been working on to clarify our value proposition and how it will impact the 2018-2019 school year!

If you have not filled out your Annual Parent Survey (and 70 already have as of today!), please do so by April 30th if you want your feedback included in the report.