What happens online, not only doesn’t stay online, it follows your child to school.

I distinctly remember when it hit me.  I was hosting a large PTA-sponsored spaghetti dinner a year or so into my last headship and after everyone had settled into the room, I took a step back and zoomed out.  This event was taking place in a room about as large as our school cafeteria and as I panned back and forth, the “a-ha” came screaming out of my consciousness.  If you had taken a picture of a typical student lunch and mapped it onto a picture of this parent dinner, it would be a perfect match.  The parents of the same children who typically hang out together were hanging out together.  The parents of the same children who typically struggle to find friends to sit with were struggling to find friends to sit with.  The same groups, the same pairs, the same cliques – what was true for the students was true for their parents.

And of course it was.

As our school year is winding down and parents look forward to our sharing out the faculty lineup for next year (coming soon!), I want to revisit territory I first staked out, here, in a blog post titled, “Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?”

In that post, I asked the following question: “Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?”

My answer was most affirmatively, “Yes,” and I will let you (re)read the post to see why.

But, I also qualified my answer in the following way: “Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.”

Well…I think I would like an opportunity to ask that question: “Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address the role parents play in behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

And, again, I think the answer is, “yes”.

But, boy, is that more complicated.

The simple issue to explore is how to help parents best partner with school to truly become a community of kindness.  The simple challenge is how to lovingly intervene when it becomes apparent that help may be required.

We are parenting in uncharted territory.  Our children have access to information and to each other in ways we, not only never anticipated, but in ways that continue to change – and we may, or not, even be aware that it is happening.  Whether it is through texting, chatting, or gaming, our children are in constant contact.  And just like in reality-reality, their behavior in virtual reality provides opportunities for kindness and opportunities for its opposite.  And parents play a crucial role in determining the outcomes.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, if it finds its way to me, it means the outcome was not-so-good.  When it finds me, it usually means that a child has been excluded or disparaged.  When it finds me, it usually means that a child has been exposed to language or content which may be inappropriate.  When it finds me, it usually means that a parent is concerned about which influences are following their children from school without an invitation.

And when it finds me, I have to ask myself what am I to do?

This is normally the point in my blog where I would proceed to ramble on for another 500 words or so and provide the answer to my own question.

But to be transparent, I can’t.  Because I actually don’t know the answer.

So, please, whether you are a parent, educator or concerned party, comment on this blog (or email me at j.mitzmacher@theojcs.ca or come in for a coffee if you are local) and let’s collaborate on an answer.  You can take the time it normally would have taken you to finish this blog post to formulate your response.

How do I address my fully accepted responsibility to care about the role parents play in behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

A Chance to Be Our Best Selves: My Words to Kitah Alef at Our Kabbalat Ha’Siddur

The following was shared with our Kitah Alef (Grade One) Families during our school’s annual Kabbalat Ha’Siddur – our celebration of early Jewish learning with the gift of a siddur:

“Before we call each student up by name to give them their siddur, I want to take just a minute or two to share a few words.  I realize we have a large class and I am the only thing keeping them – and you – from cake, so I really will be as quick as I can…

The Hebrew verb “to pray” is l’hitpallel.  The root of the word – peh/lamed/lamed – means “judgement” and the grammatical structure of the verb is reflexive.  That means that the most accurate way to understand what it means to pray in Judaism is to see prayer as an act of self-judgement.  In other words, in addition to all the reasons why we could and do pray – to express gratitude, to connect to community, to be part of a chain in history, to offer petition, to engage in mindfulness, to talk to God, etc., – the gift we give ourselves when we find time to pray is an opportunity to measure ourselves against our best selves.  And that’s the gift that our children give us – as parents and as teachers.

Each day, our children present us – their parents and their teachers – with an opportunity to be our best selves in service of them.  For parents, this is the sacred obligation we take on when deciding to have children.  For teachers and schools, this is the holy task we are entrusted with when parents take the leap of faith to provide their children with a Jewish education.  It is a responsibility that we do not take lightly or for granted.  It is what gets us here early and keeps us here late.  It is why a Kabbalat Ha’Siddur – why a celebration of a receiving a siddur gifted by the school, decorated by the parents, and instructed in by the teachers is so appropriate to mark this stage of our journey.

One of our school’s North Stars is that “we are all on inspiring Jewish journeys” and the Kabbalat Ha’Siddur is just the next stop on a journey that, for many, began together under the chuppah on the first day of Kindergarten.  My prayer for this class is that in the same way that the siddur we give them today is not a trophy to be admired on a shelf, but a tool to be used for discovery and meaning; let today’s simcha not merely serve as a moment to celebrate, but an inspiration to reach the next stop and the stop after that in the extraordinary and unpredictable Jewish journey of this remarkable group of children and families.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Thank you to Morah Ada for all the love and work that goes into a day like today.  Thank you to the Kitah Alef team for their support and participation.  Thank you to the parents and grandparents for all the things you do – seen and unseen – to make a Jewish day school journey possible.  Let me now invite up Keren Gordon, our Vice Principal, along with the teachers in Kitah Alef, as we prepare to celebrate each of our students…”

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

Looking out my office window at the sunny skies [when I first wrote this on Tuesday afternoon!], is both a reminder of the first stirrings of normalcy and what we hope next year and beyond will bring… as atypical as this third year of COVID has been, we do find comfort in familiar habits and experiences.  And so if it is May, it must be time to share the results of this year’s Annual Parent Survey.  If you would like to see a full comparison with last year, you can reread those results or have them open so you can toggle back and forth.  In this post, I will try to capture the highlights and identify what trends seem worth paying attention to.

The first thing to name, which does not come as a tremendous surprise considering the times we are living through, is that we continue to have a less-than representation.   In fact, it seems that the more we grow, the percentage of students represented by the survey decreases.  Our enrollment has grown each year that I have been here, but our survey has gone from covering 81 students to 84 students to 54 students to 58 students to 52 students.  That means that this year’s survey represents barely more than a quarter of our student population!  As the survey is per student, not per family, it runs the risk of being even less representative than that.  (In the service of anonymity, we have no way of knowing how many families the survey actually represents.)  Our goal of 50% seems more and more unrealistic each year.  [If you have feedback on what might incentivize greater participation, please drop it in the comments or email it to us directly.]

I simply no longer know if or how to draw meaningful conclusions about participation rates.  Whereas it is common wisdom that folks with concerns are usually more likely to fill out these surveys, there is no common wisdom when it comes to pandemic times.  So for what we hope is one final year, instead of worrying about the motivations for why families did or didn’t fill out surveys, let’s celebrate the parents who did participate and try to make meaning of what they are telling us.

For the second consecutive year, we have more spread than normal.  It is more typical to have a big cluster in the youngest grades with diminishing returns as you get older.  Again this year, we have a healthy distribution across most of our grades.

Without knowing how representative this quarter of students is, this data for sure lines up with what is true – that we have, again, had a fast and successful re-registration.  The percentage who replied “yes” is up and the “noes” are always complicated to unpack because we have no way of knowing who of the “noes” represent graduations or relocations, as opposed to choosing to attrit prior to Grade 8).  What continues to be true is that the overwhelming majority of families – regardless of their feedback – stay with us year-after-year.  This continues to say a lot about them and a lot about us.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

The first chart gives you the weighted average satisfaction score (out of 10); the second chart gives you the breakdown by category.  I will remind you that for this and all categories, I look at the range between 7-9 as the healthy band, obviously wanting scores to be closer to 9 than to 7, and looking for scores to go up each year.  In terms of “overall satisfaction”, we have now gone from 7.13 to 7.20 to 8.17 to 7.91 to 8.0.  Although it is just a tick up from last year, the difference is statistically insignificant.  This is just the second time that no families graded the school a 1, 2 or 3.  Of course, we always want to see numbers continue to go up, but based on how we survey it is hard to get much higher.

This continues to be a good news story, but let’s dig deeper…

  • The topline number – probably the most important – like our overall satisfaction is slightly up 7.91 to 7.93 and a very positive outcome.
  • I am very pleased to see that every single category is up from last year’s all-time highs and that each score is well within the healthy range!
  • I am thrilled to see that relationships with faculty again comes in with the highest score (8.65) in this block, especially when you factor in all the challenges the of pandemic have created.  Kudos to our teachers!
  • Our lowest score (again) is again in “Homework” but it does continues to climb from 6.56 to 6.91 to 7.0 to 7.31.  Progress has been steady, and we are seeing steady improvement in the full implementation of our new Homework Philosophy.
  • I am thrilled to see such a high score (8.41) for “creative and critical thinking skills”…that is very much #TheOJCSWay.

  • After having seen steady growth on the topline number, which again is so critical to our school, it is a bit disappointing to see a drop.  We have gone from 6.61 to 6.97 to 7.58 to 7.15.  It remains well within the healthy range, but we will be looking to get back on the upward track next year.
  • The metrics for Spec Ed are a bit of mixed bag with the communication score holding steady, but the satisfaction score for those who have IEPs dipping just a bit.  The numbers remain strong and of all the things to suffer during the pandemic, it is not surprising to see it impact our most vulnerable students.  Kudos to Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs Education, and her new team for all their work this year!

  • Thrilled to see that our topline number continues to remain (essentially) at 8!
  • Very happy to see that every metric in General Studies is well into the healthy band and each one is essentially unchanged.
    • Math: 7.09 to 7.60 to 7.67 to 7.15.
    • Science: 7.09 to 7.72 to 7.61 to 8.37.
    • Social Studies: 7.41 to 7.96 to 7.95 to 7.86.
    • Reading: 6.93 to 8.0 to 7.85 to 8.29.
    • Writing: 6.51 to 7.07 t0 7.41 to 7.95
  • The biggest movement this year, which I am thrilled to see is “Science”, where we have invested precious bandwidth in Hackathons and Innovation Day and reopening the OJCS Makerspace, and in “Reading” where we have, not coincidentally, a number of teachers focusing on their professional growth.  This is a clear example over time where parent voice, aligned with teacher and student voice, leads to meaningful action.  (Fill out those surveys y’all!  We really do pay attention.)
  • I am also very pleased to see “Writing”, like “Reading” continuing on a strong upward trajectory over the last four years.

  • I am pleased to report that despite another year of COVID functioning and the continued integration, that the quarter of students represented in this survey are reporting steady numbers for French outcomes.
  • We would like to believe that the result of our TACLEF consultancy is continuing to pay dividends and that our recent announcement of expanding our French program to incorporate French-language physical education will help these numbers continue to tick up in the years ahead.  Bon travail to the French Department!

  • We are again thrilled to see all our Jewish Studies metrics continue to hold strong for another year.  We are especially pleased to see the OVERALL metric essentially hold steady from 7.29 to 8.08 to 7.91 to 7.90.  Considering, that we again went forward without filling the “Dean of Judaics” position and all the additional COVID-related challenges, this is especially encouraging.  Kol ha’kavod to the Jewish Studies Department!
  • I am taking the slight dip in “Tefillah” as a personal challenge!  It is my favourite subject to teach (students) and to coach (teachers) and I am going to make it my mission to push prayer past 7.0.
  • I am also going to – assuming a return to normal – encourage our community’s rabbis to resume a greater role in Jewish life at OJCS.

  • Considering the circumstances, it is both surprising and positive that with all the protocols that were in place that we’d see growth in both Art and PE – both of which have reentered the healthy band.  We know that even with a rigorous, trilingual curriculum, that we need to continue to offer the kinds of high-quality PE/Drama/Art experiences that make a well-rounded education.  We said last year to “look for these numbers to go back up next year”.  Mission accomplished!
  • It is worth noting that even though none of our extracurriculars, athletics, hot lunch, etc., programming has reached pre-COVID numbers (understandably) they are all up from last year…with lots of room to grow.

From this year’s experimental section, we yield these two data points (and two sets of meaningful commentary).  Compared to last year, there is a larger cluster in “very satisfied” and “extremely important” – which is likely not a coincidence.  As we cannot predict the future, even with wholehearted hope of a return to year-round, in-person learning next year, our ability to navigate situations like these last few years with minimal disruption and maximal academic progress – not to mention the continuance of meaningful Jewish experiences – will likely continue to be powerful value-adds for OJCS in the years ahead.

  • These are mostly wonderful scores, all just about the same and well into the healthy ranges.  We know that we have Ellie to thank for a lot of those high scores!
  • I am sadly saying again this year, that, “[a]fter having to take a COVID pause, I will be interested to see what the impact of ‘Student-Led Conferences’ will be on the ‘parent-teacher conferences’ metric once finally launched.

  • I have already shared my thoughts on my own job performance in my prior “Transparency Files” post.  I will simply state here my pleasure in seeing my numbers holding strong, with the weakest one – providing learning opportunities for parents and caregivers with some health post-COVID room to grow.
  • The one metric that I am very pleased to see holding strong is the last one, which essentially serves as a proxy for school-wide behavior management.  Three years ago we scored a 6.69 and I stated 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.”  Well, two years ago it came in at 7.65, last year it climbed up to 8.19, and it remains high at 7.85 this year.

Last data point:

 

Remember this question was scaled 1-5.   Our score remains consistent from 4.44 to 4.34 to 4.34 (again).  I have said that I truthfully don’t know how much more there reasonably is to grow here, but we’ll keep doing our best to find out!

So there you have it for 2021-2022!

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 written 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.  (This includes a full set of unedited and unredacted results which goes to the Head Support and Evaluation Committee of our Board of Trustees.)  As you can see, we really do use this data to make enhancements and improvements each year.

We very much wish to continue into next year, this year’s trend in maintaining and increasing positive outcomes and satisfaction.  To mix school metaphors, each year simply becomes the higher “floor” we stand upon to reach towards our North Stars.  With no ceiling, we aim to reach a little closer each time.

Les Fichiers de Transparence

Yes, you read that correctly…even if I needed help to write it!

🙂

This will be a short (if and only if, you skip the entire middle section which is all background information!), but sweet announcement that we imagine will put smiles on the faces of all those who have advocated for greater contact time with French language at OJCS.

First – thank you to everyone who took the time to fill out an Annual Parent Survey this year!  My sharing and analysis will, hopefully, be the subject of next week’s “Transparency Files” blog post.

Second – let me walk you oh so “briefly” through the conversation and work we have put into amplifying, expanding and improving French language outcomes at OJCS over these last few years.

In November of 2017, we laid out the big questions we had about French outcomes at OJCS and what our plans were for beginning to answer them.

In February of 2018, we shared back (in person by way of a “Town Hall” and through a blog post) the first set of answers to those big questions and made our first set of commitments in response.  That included:

  1. Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time need to begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  2. The selection process in Grade 3 will be more rigorous, begin earlier, come with more parental engagement, etc., so that students who do continue into “Extended” for Grades 4 and higher are even better prepared for Grade 9.
  3. We will increase the rigour and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.
  4. We will provide additional extracurricular contact time with French through clubs, lunch, etc.
  5. We believe we will be able to adjust our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Stay tuned!

In April of 2019, we announced a $50,000 donation to strengthen French language learning at OJCS, and shared the following set of updates to our families and community:

  • We adjusted our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Students in OJCS have more contact time with French in each grade (except K which was already frontloaded).
  • At OJCS, the FSL (French as a Second Language) faculty has made a commitment to speak French with their students everywhere in the school, so if you were to walk through our hallways, you would hear us speaking French to our students, increasing the interaction and contact time with our students.
  • Our enhanced FSL program with its consolidated class time (blocks of periods), all within a trilingual school where the francophone culture is alive and regularly celebrated, produces students capable of successfully communicating and learning in French.
  • Students practice their language skills in various environments, such as on the playground, and during coaching on our various OJCS sports teams.
  • Our FSL faculty is committed to offering authentic OJCS learning experiences.

In May of 2019, we announced that the Ottawa Jewish Community School would be the first private school in Ontario to partner with the Centre Franco-Ontarien de Ressources Pédagogiques (Franco-Ontarian Centre for Educational Resources) or CFORP to implement the TACLEF program.  (Please know that our work with TACLEF was generously supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.)

Over a two-year period (give or take due to many COVID “pivots”) CFORP introduced TACLEF, La Trousse D’acquisition de Compétences Langagières en Français (loosely translated as a “French language acquisition ‘kit'”) to the French teaching staff at the Ottawa Jewish Community School and offered individual mentoring in its use.  This approach strengthened team building and permitted a better understanding of a skills-based teaching/learning approach as it develops language proficiency in French language learners.

In January of 2020, I provided the community with an update on the consultancy, including…

…the greatest impact is ensuring that all three strands (reading, writing and oral communication) are built into almost every activity and evaluation.  It has also given us new resources and strategies for delivery of instruction, classwork, and homework (in addition to evaluation).

…by providing us with a detailed roadmap, we can prepare all our students – particularly the ones who land in Extended French – as if they were going into French immersion.  It is too soon to be more specific, but over the remaining months of the consultancy we will have greater clarity about how to adapt our program (with what supporting curricular materials we will need) to prioritize that outcome.

There is no doubt that COVID has impacted our ability to fully implement all of the above, but progress continues to be made each year.  This year’s highlights include a significant investment in French curriculum with a focus on leveled readers in support of reading comprehension.

And now you are fully caught up!

Third – here is a little context to better understand the announcement.

When trying to make comparisons between our French program and that of the public board, let’s look at an “apples to apples” comparison.  It is our understanding that students in French immersion at Sir Robert Borden High School (public) in Grades 7 and up have 740 weekly minutes in French allocated as follows:

  • French 200 min
  • Physical Education / Dance 200
  • Health 40
  • Science 150
  • History / Geography 150

In comparison, currently students in “Extended French” at OJCS in Grades 7 and up have 400 minutes in French allocated as follows:

  • French 240 min
  • History / Geography 160

Clearly, 740 is more than 400, and no one is making an educational argument that when it comes to language acquisition that more isn’t better.   And we have stated in the past that adding more contact time in Science is complicated (both because we appear to offer more contact time in Science education than SRB in general and because it would require additional staffing/tracking), but knowing that it is essentially science vocabulary that our students are lacking to bridge the gap opens up solutions that don’t automatically require us to reinvent the school.

But there is something we can do – and are announcing that we will do – as soon as the 2022-2023 school year.  We are thrilled to share with you that beginning next year the OJCS will begin the process of transitioning our PE program to a French-language PE program!

We are not yet prepared to tell you the “who” – other than it will be legitimate French teachers (not simply PE teachers who may speak French) with background and experience (not simply French teachers who may know how to shoot a basketball) – and we are not yet prepared to tell you the full “what”.  There is a curriculum that needs to be adapted and/or created; a curriculum that adds value, not just time, to the current French program.  But we do believe that adding an additional 120-200 minutes per week in French language exposure/education/contact time in another subject found in French immersion is a really big deal that is going to make a really big difference in French outcomes at OJCS.  (And, yes, we will be fully prepared to support those students for whom French is a challenge to ensure their legitimate PE needs continue to be met.)

We have come a long way towards closing the gaps between “Extended French” and “French Immersion” over the last five years – we see it in our outcomes and in our graduates.  But whereas those gaps have begun to close in terms of content and quality, this gap really does start to close the gap in terms of time.

This is a big deal and a big step forward for French at OJCS.

And we aren’t done yet…not even close.

Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

Admissions seasons tend to bring up big-picture questions and spark big-picture conversations.  Which makes sense as parents – both new and returning – are making critical decisions about where, why and how they want their children to be educated.  Today, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on a question that bubbles up from time to time that I struggle to provide a clear answer to.  It gets asked in lots of different ways, but essentially boils down to the same idea: Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

Typically the question is specific to an incident of negative behavior, although it is just as fair to ask about positive behavior as well, and I intend to address both.

Jewish day schools are in the character-building business.  It is a significant motivation for parents to enroll their children in our schools.  We care at least as much about who our students are as we care about what they can accomplish.  We utilize Jewish value language across the curriculum to reinforce the idea that being a mensch is not something one does only in certain classes, but something one is all day long.  Our teachers work hard all day to ensure that our school lives up to the ideal of being a community of kindness.  And even during school we struggle to achieve our goal.  That’s precisely why we launched our new behavior management program anchored in the “7 Habits” in the first place.  [Click here for a recap.]  We recognized that in order to become that community it required all of us working together to build the safe, loving environment our children deserve. But even these new approaches emphasizes what happens under our watchful eye.

What about the text sent out at 9:00 PM?

What about the play-date on Sunday?  Or the ones some children are not invited to?

What about the hallways during Bar Mitzvah services?

Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.  If I witness or discover noteworthy behavior of my students when we are not technically in school, what exactly are my responsibilities to respond or react?  Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

The simple answer is “yes”.  I care deeply about who our students are when they are not in school because how they behave when no one is watching matters a whole lot more than how they behave under close supervision.  That’s the true measure of character. That’s derekh eretz.

OK, that part is simple.  I am proud when students behave well outside of school and disappointed when they don’t.  But do I share those feelings with them?  Do I share those feelings with their parents?  Is it my place to hold them accountable for those behaviors?  Those are the vexing questions I struggle to answer effectively – especially when the behaviors are grey.

The black-and-white ones are easy; they always are when the level of behavior is so significant it cannot be ignored.  We already engage parents when we discover social events where students are excluded. We already employ effective discipline when students bully outside school walls and times.  And on the positive end of the spectrum, we already celebrate students who are honored elsewhere.  We already praise students for their outside academic, artistic and athletic achievements.  We already highlight students who perform significant acts of lovingkindness outside of school.

The grey ones are more complicated; they always are when the level of behavior is insignificant enough that it can be, and often is, ignored. We don’t always engage parents to ensure all our students have access to frequent play-dates and smaller social opportunities.  We don’t always praise students for their random acts of lovingkindness outside of school. We often ignore disruptive behavior at Bar Mitzvahs and Jewish holidays because we are ostensibly “off-duty” and we rarely call those students to account for those behaviors when next back in school.

I am not comfortable simply standing on the sidelines.

With regard to being a “community of kindness” we say that we will know if the work we have done is taking hold if students on their own are willing to address their own behavior or that of their friends.  That children will be willing to say to themselves and to each other that “we do not behave like that here”.  To me this is no different.  We need to do a better job instilling pride of school and pride of self in our students so that they feel the responsibility of representation outside our direct reach.  An OJCS student simply does not behave like that.  An OJCS student behaves with derekh eretz whether they are in school, synagogue, the hockey rink, or the mall.

I have a role to play and I am working up the courage to empower myself to do it.  If I am made aware of discouraging behavior, I will share my disappointment regardless of when or where it took place.  If I am made aware of positive behavior, I will share my pride regardless of when or where it took place.  They will know that I have high expectations.   The older ones will know that I don’t issue a character reference or a principal recommendation lightly.  If you want me to recommend you to a high school, an honors society, or even to babysit, you will earn that recommendation by making for yourself a good name.

My students will know that I care who they are and that who they are matters.

Why Governance Matters

The 2021-2022 school year is shaping up to be a year where we have a rare opportunity to shine a light on one of the most important determinants of a successful Jewish day school…governance.

You may recall (and you may have even attended) the “Governance Town Hall” we held back in November.  That was an opportunity for parents in our school to better understand what governance at OJCS presently looks like, to be introduced/reminded of who our lay leaders are, and to ask questions.  I find it critical that parents and members of the community understand how private schools are best run and to provide regular opportunities to share how we are measuring up.  It was wonderful to share those thoughts with parents and to receive critical feedback.  It is something we plan to do on a regular basis.

This week, I had another opportunity to be reminded of the impact governance has on schools when I helped facilitate the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) “Governance Retreat” in Los Angeles.  [Yes, the timing with the first days of our school’s pivot to optional masking were way less than ideal.]  You may recall that I posted last July about my participation on the faculty of DSLTI and what I hoped it would contribute to my work here at OJCS.  I won’t repeat those ideas here, but needless to say, I returned to OJCS with both new ideas and a newfound appreciation for what our board and lay leaders have accomplished over the last four and a half years.

I know we tend to focus our energy on the most obvious stakeholders of schooling – students, parents and teachers.  When I describe the school’s stakeholders, I try to widen that circle to include volunteers, community and donors.  And technically the board checks many of those boxes – our board are, of course, all volunteers and all contribute materially to the school.  Many are or have been parents and many are or have been leaders in other Jewish community organizations, not to mention the wider Ottawa community.  But being on the board of a Jewish day school is quite the unique experience.  (I also think that because there is sometimes a little confusion and/or unnecessary mystery about how people find their way onto the school’s board that there is a bit of discomfort which renders the topic a bit of a “non-discussible”.)  What I can tell you from three headships, three years of working with over 50 Jewish day schools during my time heading up Schechter and working at Prizmah, and my current work with DSLTI, is that healthy governance matters and it matters now more than ever.

When I was hired at OJCS just about five years ago, I knew who my first two board chairs were going to be and had a strong sense of who the third was going to be – which in my experience was highly unusual and welcome first foreshadowings of stability.  These three extraordinary leaders – Michael Polowin, Leila Ages and Lorne Segal – have been my partners on each and every step we have taken together to move our school from fragility to stability.  Being a head of school is a lonely occupation (partially why programs like DSLTI exist) and the relationship between head and chair is arguably the single most important one in the entire school ecosystem.  The chair is there to support, to advise, to thought-partner, to hold accountable, to supervise and so much more.  Whether I need a hug or a kick in the pants, my board chair is there.  They spend untold hours on their board responsibilities, frequently on top of full days of work and other volunteerism.  However often I thank them, it is surely not enough.

Chairs and boards are the third leg of a stool without which a school would collapse.  The board shapes mission, provides resources, performs fiscal oversight and supervises the head of school.  There is no school administration, no teachers, no curriculum, no program – there is no what to do, and no one to teach our students without the work of the board.  To put it most simply, the school concerns itself with today and the board ensures that there will be a tomorrow.  There has never been a more important and challenging time to serve on the board of a Jewish school.  I am grateful to our current board for all they have done and all they will do to secure the future of OJCS and, through it, contribute to securing the future of Jewish Ottawa.

Serving on a board is a kind of calling…if you hear that call and feel moved to respond, I hope you let us know.  Our children can never have too much support.

The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results (Yes, Even During COVID) Part II

Welcome to “Part II” of our analysis of this year’s CAT4 results!  In Tuesday’s post, we provided a lot of background context and shared out the simple results of how we did this year.  Here in our second post, we are now able to begin sharing comparative data, however patchy.  It will take at least one more non-COVID year before we can accurately compare the same grade and the same cohort year after year.  But we can get a taste of it with Grades 5-8.  What you have below are snapshots of the same cohort (the same group of children) from 2019 to 2021 (with bonus data from 2018’s Grade 3):

What are the key takeaways from this comparison (remembering that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting an “8.9” for Grade 7)?

Now bear in mind, that the metric we are normally looking at when it comes to comparing a cohort over time is whether or not we see at least one full year’s growth (on average) each year – here we are looking to see two full year’s growth since we last took the test in 2019.  This would be the place one might expect to see the full measure of COVID’s impact – these are the two years of COVID between the two tests.  However, for all four cohorts in all categories save two (2019 Grade 3 to 2021 Grade 5 “Computation & Estimation” and 2019 Grade 5 to 2021 Grade 7 “Spelling”) you see at least two full year’s growth (technically 2019 Grade 5 to 2021 Grade 7 “Computation & Estimation” was just shy) and in may cases you see more than two full year’s growth.

I’m going to say that again.

During the time of the pandemic, with all the pivots back and forth, all the many challenges of both hyflex and at-home learning, all the prolonged absences by many students (and teachers), with all the social and emotional stress and anxiety, with everything we know about what COVID has been doing to children and to families, in almost each category that we tested our students in Grades 5-8 – spending no time or energy preparing for the exams and with diverse and inclusive classes – in 22 of 24 domains we see at least the pre-COVID expected two-year gain, and in many cases we see more than two full year’s growth.

As was true with our overall scores, I was expecting to see a significant number of gaps for all the reasons I just described, but surprisingly and encouragingly, that is not what the data yields.

Let’s look at one more set data points.  We can also get a taste of how the same grade performs from one year to the next as well.  Again, we only have Grades 5-8 to look at with (with a bonus 2018 Grade 6):

Now, remember that these scores represent a completely different group of children, so it is not unusual or surprising to see variances. Teachers can only grow students from the place they received them and it is that annual growth that we are concerned with.  But over time you are looking for patterns.  Ideally each domain settles in at least a full grade above with slight fluctuations from year to year depending on that year’s particular constellation of students.  Even-better would be to see slight ticks up each year as a result of new ideas, new pedagogies, new programs, etc.  And that is actually where much of the story currently is.

In the places where we aren’t quite where we want to be, we still have work to do.  If with additional data we come to believe that Spelling or Computation & Estimation are institutional weaknesses, we will want to know whether they are weakness in every grade or do they dip in certain grades.  Between COVID and gaps in testing, we simply have no way to conclude much more than we have already laid out.  But in another year or so, we will be able to plot the trajectory of both cohorts (the same students) and grades over time to see what additional stories they tell.

To try sum up both posts, we have a lot to be proud of in our standardized test scores.  We have two areas (Spelling and Computation & Estimation) to prioritize in two grades (Five & Seven).  With regard to Spelling, it is interesting to note that when we flagged it in 2019 as a more global concern, we began providing professional growth opportunities for language arts teachers in our school on Structured Word Inquiry.  The sample sizes are too small to make grand conclusions, but it is possible that those interventions help explain why Spelling is no longer a global concern, although we do need to pay attention to where and why it is lagging where it is.  With regard to Computation & Estimation, we will – like with Spelling – have an internal conversation which may lead to PD for Math Teachers.

This fits in with the work we began on our November PD Day which focused on “Data-Driven Decision Making”.  The Math and Language Arts Teachers in Grades 5-8 will be meeting to go through CAT4 results in greater detail, with an eye towards what kinds of interventions are needed now – in this year – to fill any gaps (both for individual students and for grades); and how might we adapt about our long-term planning to ensure we are best meeting needs.

The bottom line is that our graduates – year after year – successfully place into the high school programs of their choice.  Each one had a different ceiling – they are all different – but working with them, their families and their teachers, we successfully transitioned them all to the schools (private and public) and programs (IB, Gifted, French Immersion, Arts, etc.) that they qualified for.

And now again this year, despite all the qualifications and caveats, and in the face of the most challenging set of educational circumstances any generation of students and teachers have faced, our CAT4 scores continue to demonstrate excellence.  Excellence within the grades and between them.

Not a bad place to be as we prepare to open the 2022-2023 enrollment season…

The Transparency Files: CAT4 Results (Yes, Even During COVID) Part I

This may seem like a very odd time to be sharing out results from this year’s standardized testing, which in our school is the CAT4.  We are just finishing up our first days in this year’s most recent pivot back to distance learning and we are confident that everyone – students, parents and teachers – has more pressing concerns than a very long and detailed analysis of standardized tests that we managed to squeeze in during the in-person portion of our school year.  (The post is so long that I am splitting it into two parts, and each part is still a bit lengthy.)  But with our launch of Annual Grades 9 & 12 Alumni Surveys and the opening of the admissions season for the 2022-2023 school year, one might argue that there is not a better time to be more transparent about how well we are (or aren’t) succeeding academically against an external set of benchmarks while facing extraordinary circumstances.

There is a very real question about “COVID Gaps” and the obvious impacts on children and schools from the many pivots, hyflex, hybrid, masked and socially-distanced, in-person and at-home learning experiences we have all cycled through together since March of 2020.  (I wrote earlier in the year about some of the non-academic COVID gaps that we are very much experiencing, all of which I imagine growing proportionate to the length of this current pivot.)  And it seems logical that there should be and are academic gaps, at least at the individual student level.  One might ask why we even bothered taking the CAT4 at all this year; we didn’t take it last school year for example, so it will be really hard to make meaningful apples-to-apples comparisons.  So why take them?  And why share the results, whatever they may be?

We did it for a few reasons…

The first and primary reason is that we are curious.  Curiosity may not be a “North Star” at OJCS, but it is a value.  And we are very curious to see how our standardized test scores measure up pre-COVID and post-COVID, both by grade (2019 Grade 5 v. 2021 Grade 5) and by cohort (2019 Grade 5 v. 2021 Grade 7).  We would normally be looking for patterns and outliers anyway, but now we can also look for COVID impacts as well.

Why share the results?  Because that’s what “transparency” as a value and a verb looks like.  We commit to sharing the data and our analysis regardless of outcome because we believe in the value of transparency.  We also do it because we know that for the overwhelming majority of our parents, excellence in secular academics is a non-negotiable, and that in a competitive marketplace with both well-regarded public schools and secular private schools, our parents deserve to see the school’s value proposition validated beyond anecdotes.

Now for the caveats and preemptive statements…

We have not yet shared out individual reports to our parents.  First our teachers have to have a chance to review the data to identify which test results fully resemble their children well enough to simply pass on, and which results require contextualization in private conversation.  Those contextualizing conversations will take place in the next few weeks and thereafter, we should be able to return all results.

There are a few things worth pointing out:

  • Because of COVID, this is now only our third year taking this assessment at this time of year.  We were in the process of expanding the range from Grades 3-8 in 2019, but we paused in 2020 and restricted this year’s testing to Grades 5-8.  This means that we can only compare at the grade level from 2019’s Grades 5-8 to 2021’s Grades 5-8, and we can only compare at the cohort level from 2019’s Grades 3-6 to 2021’s Grades 5-8.  And remember we have to take into account the missing year…this will make more sense in “Part II” (I hope).  Post-COVID, we will have tracking data across all grades which will allow us to see if…
    • The same grade scores as well or better each year.
    • The same cohort grows at least a year’s worth of growth.
  • The other issue is in the proper understanding of what a “grade equivalent score” really is.

Grade-equivalent scores attempt to show at what grade level and month your child is functioning.  However, grade-equivalent scores are not able to show this.  Let me use an example to illustrate this.  In reading comprehension, your son in Grade 5 scored a 7.3 grade equivalent on his Grade 5 test. The 7 represents the grade level while the 3 represents the month. 7.3 would represent the seventh grade, third month, which is December.  The reason it is the third month is because September is zero, October is one, etc.  It is not true though that your son is functioning at the seventh grade level since he was never tested on seventh grade material.  He was only tested on fifth grade material.  He performed like a seventh grader on fifth grade material.  That’s why the grade-equivalent scores should not be used to decide at what grade level a student is functioning.

Let me finish this section by being very clear: We do not believe that standardized test scores represent the only, nor surely the best, evidence for academic success.  Our goal continues to be providing each student with a “floor, but no ceiling” representing each student’s maximum success.  Our best outcome is still producing students who become lifelong learners.

But I also don’t want to undersell the objective evidence that shows that the work we are doing here does in fact lead to tangible success.  That’s the headline, but let’s look more closely at the story.  (You may wish to zoom (no pun intended!) in a bit on whatever device you are reading this on…)

A few tips on how to read this:

  • We take this exam in the “.2” of each grade-level year.  That means that “at grade level” [again, please refer above to a more precise definition of “grade equivalent scores”] for any grade we are looking at would be 5.2, 6.2, 7.2, etc.  For example, if you are looking at Grade 6, anything below 6.2 would constitute “below grade level” and anything above 6.2 would constitute “above grade level.”
  • The maximum score for any grade is “.9” of the next year’s grade.  If, for example, you are looking at Grade 8 and see a score of 9.9, on our forms it actually reads “9.9+” – the maximum score that can be recorded.
  • Because of when we take this test – approximately two months into the school year – it is reasonable to assume a significant responsibility for results is attributable to the prior year’s teachers and experiences.  But it is very hard to tease it out exactly, of course.

What are the key takeaways from these snapshots of the entire school?

  • Looking at four different grades through six different dimensions there are only three instances (out of twenty-four) of scoring below grade-level: Grade 5 in Computation & Estimation (4.4), and Grade 7 in Spelling (6.6) and Computation & Estimation (6.0).
  • Interestingly, compared to our 2019 results, those two dimensions – Spelling and Computation & Estimation are no longer globally lower as a school relative to the other dimensions.  In 2019, for example “Spelling” was a dimension where we scored lower as a school (even if when above grade level) relative to the other dimensions.  In 2021, we don’t see “Spelling” as scoring globally below.  (That’s a good thing!)  [We also have some anecdotal evidence that a fair number of students in Grade 7 may not have finished the Computation section, leaving a fair number of questions blank – in the case of this cohort, it might be more valuable to know how well they did on the questions they actually answered (which we will do).]

What stands out the most is how exceedingly well each and every grade has done in just about each and every section.  In almost all cases, each and every grade is performing significantly above grade-level.  This is NOT what I was expecting considering the impacts of COVID over the last two years – I was fully expecting to see at least .5 (a half-year) gap globally across the grades and subjects.  This is a surprising and very encouraging set of data points.

Stay tuned for “Part II” in which we will dive into the comparative data – of both the same grade and the same cohort (the same group of students) over time – and offer some additional summarizing thoughts.

OJCS Announces $1.5 Million Gift to Transform Classrooms & Learning Spaces

With the utmost humility and the sincerest of gratitude, it is my great honour and pleasure to announce what may be the largest single gift our school has ever received.  An anonymous donor in our community has decided to invest $1,500,000 to help ensure that our classrooms and learning spaces are as innovative as our teaching and programming.

This represents an extraordinary moment for our school – its students, parents, teachers, supporters and community – on our journey towards long-term sustainability.  Yes, of course, what happens inside the classrooms is more important than the rooms themselves.  But there’s no question that more innovative learning spaces allow for more innovative learning experiences.  This generous gift and the opportunity it presents will make a huge difference in the lives of OJCS students and teachers for a generation to come.

It is also worth saying that this new commitment to our school not only validates the hard work our teachers and board have put in over these past few years, but raises the bar for what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.  We hope that it also puts a smile on the faces of our current and prior set of major donors, including the Jewish Federation of Ottawa,  without whose contributions would never have made this gift possible.  We accept this gift not as a celebration of what we have done, but as a charge for what we now must do.

So…what happens next?

A lot!  Especially if we are going to try to start the work over the summer so that at least some of our newly upgraded classrooms and spaces will be ready for use at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year!  There will be lots of behind-the-scenes work with architect firms, general contractors, construction firms and vendors as we work to design our “classrooms of the future”.  As we did with the construction of our OJCS Makerspace – funded by a generous grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund – we will soon be convening groups of teachers and students for visioning sessions to ensure that “teacher voice” and “student voice” are appropriately included in the design.

It will be our pleasure to share designs as they come in and it will be our pleasure to show any current or prospective families the spaces we are discussing as it becomes more clear.  We are so proud at OJCS to have this opportunity to do such important and transformational work.  It is just another example of how OJCS is becoming an educational leader in our community.

Actions Speak Louder Than Candles: A Chanukah Pedagogy

I guess if the High Holidays came early this year that all the other ones probably will as well?  So I guess I can’t be surprised that Chanukah begins this Sunday evening!  As part of my blog post last year, I wrote:

Instead of a public reading, we communicate the story of Chanukah silently, with the act of lighting candles at the window so that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize our celebration of the miracles that occurred.

I found a pedagogical “a-ha moment” in my re-reading and it isn’t so much in the “silence” as it is the “act”.  Why?  Well, in the case of candles, it is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgeable amongst us can perform it. It is an action performed publicly and in the home.  And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing.  It is truly an act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.

This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah.  The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma“, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”.  Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator.  I think there are two major implications from this:  One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people.  Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work.  [This is precisely why in our search for a new “Head of Jewish Studies” we have expanded the position to include “Jewish Life” – our ideal person will have an informal and/or camping background in addition to their formal education and experiences.]  Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential.  It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our middle school students to go out into the world each Friday and in lieu of their Jewish Studies Curriculum make the world a better place by doing social action.  That’s why we are working so hard to launch our new “Mitzvah Trip” program this spring, COVID challenges notwithstanding.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.  That’s why we are exploring how to one day transition our GRAD Trip in Grade 8 from Toronto or NYC to Eretz Yisrael.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a menorah in the window, surrounded by family.  Hopefully, your family is planning on joining our OJCS Family in this year’s Annual (Virtual) Chanukah Family Program on Thursday, December 7th at 7:00 PM!

Finally, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to local healthcare or other essential workers whose light of courage amplifies and enhances this Holiday of Lights.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

BTW – if you like a playlist and a signature cocktail for your celebrations, why don’t you go ahead and make yourself a Chanukah Gelt Martini and vibe to this playlist: