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.”

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.

The Transparency Files: The OJCS 2018-2019 Faculty

It is amazing to note that we have reached June and the final three weeks of school are in front of us!  It is hard to believe how much we have accomplished and how much we have planned for next year.  I can certainly understand that no one wants to wish their summer away – including me – but we are so excited about what next year has in store at OJCS that we really almost cannot wait to begin again!  Speaking of next year…

As you hopefully have already heard, we are saying goodbye to Marlène Colbourne and Rachel Kugler who will be retiring at the end of this school year after long and distinguished careers at OJCS.  [Hopefully you are planning on attending their “Retirement Tea” on Sunday, June 24th at 2:00 PM here at the school.  Email the office to RSVP.]  We are also saying goodbye to two additional longstanding teachers – Stacy Sargeant and Rabbi David Rotenberg – and we wish them all the best in their new endeavors.  These four faculty members have contributed much to our school and each will be missed.  The search process to fill existing and new positions has already begun and we will update you periodically as we make hires.

You will see below that we are looking to hire a significant number of positions – more than the four alluded to above.  Let’s talk about why that is true…

…the first reason is pretty simple: we are a growing school!  With attrition down and recruitment up, we will need more teachers.  With 26 students enrolled for Kindergarten (and more prospects expressing interest), we will have two Kindergartens next year, and they each require not only a lead teacher, but an assistant teacher in order for us to deliver on our promise of personalization.

…speaking of delivering on promises, the second reason is due to the increase in contact time for French next year.  We will need two additional French teachers to join our French Department to ensure that the commitment to increased rigor comes along with the increased time.

…the third reason is a direct response to both our own lived experience and the feedback we heard loud and clear from the Annual Parent Survey.  With all the transition that took place from last year to this, our ability to meet the needs of our current special needs population requires more support. We are actively looking for a Director of Special Education who will work under our Vice Principal and with our Resource Teachers to ensure that our communication will be as clear and proactive as our accommodations.  We are also looking for a part-time Music Teacher to help clarify and streamline music education at OJCS.

One more point to make before we make the big reveal…

You will note a few structural changes as well.  The first is the aforementioned creation of a Department of Special Education.  The second is the formation of an Education Leadership Team (ELT) that will bring together members of the faculty who have been given “Coordinator” portfolios, signifying additional quasi-administrative responsibilities, and members of the administration to help move the innovation agenda forward, preparing us to take that next great leap forward.  The third is that we will be sharing out soon a revamped Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum that may better explain the way we have described the positions below.

OK, I think I have given a lengthy enough preamble.  Let’s get excited about this gifted and loving group of teachers and administrators who will partner with our parents in the sacred work of educating our children.  I know I am!

The 2018-2019 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Kindergarten: Janet Darwish, a French Teacher & 2 Educational Assistants
  • Grade One: Ann-Lynn Rapoport, Lianna Krantzberg & a French Teacher
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport & a French Teacher
  • Grade Three: Julie Bennett & Aaron Polowin (French)
  • Grade Four: Julie Bennett, a French Teacher (Core) & Aaron Polowin (Extended)
  • Grade Five: Melissa Thompson, Aaron Polowin (Core) & a French Teacher (Extended)

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah Gan: Shira Waldman
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg & Lianna Krantzberg
  • Kitah Bet: Bethany Goldstein
  • Kitah Gimmel: A Jewish Studies Teacher
  • Kitah Dalet: Ada Aizenberg
  • Kitah Hay: Bethany Goldstein (Core) & Ruthie Lebovich (Extended)

[Please recall that this will be the last year of “Core” and “Extended” in Jewish Studies.]

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland
  • Language Arts: A Teacher
  • Social Studies: Deanna Bertrend
  • Extended French: Stéphane Cinanni
  • Core French: Aaron Polowin (Grade 6) & a French Teacher (Grades 7 & 8)
  • Hebrew: Noga Reiss  (Level I) & Ruthie Lebovich (Level II)
  • Bible: A Bible Teacher
  • Rabbinics: Rabbi Howard Finkelstein

Specialists

  • Art: Shira Waldman
  • Music: A Music Teacher
  • PE: Josh Ray & Shira Waldman (Girls 7 & 8)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Director of Special Needs
  • Linda Signer, Resource Teacher
  • Brian Kom, Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource

Education Leadership Team

  • Melissa Thompson, Teaching & Learning Coordinator
  • Deanna Bertrend, Student Life Coordinator

Administration

  • Josh Max – IT & Technology Support
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Rabbi Howard Finkelstein – Dean of Judaic Studies
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Keren Gordon – Vice-Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

We are moving full steam ahead with candidates for all the above positions and between our extraordinary returning teachers and the quality of the candidates we have met thus far for new teachers, we know that the future is bright at OJCS.

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?

Where Does Healthy Parent-School Communication Live? (Hint. Not in the parking lot or on WhatsApp.)

I recently described in a post an activity we did as a faculty which introduced Roland Barth’s concept of the “non-discussible” and the “discussible”.  A “non-discussible” is something that is discussed in all the wrong places and all the wrong times preventing the issue from being resolved in a healthy and constructive manner. In the context of faculty, it is about all the things teachers talk about in the lunchroom instead of with the administration (although the administration almost always knows the conversations are happening about them/without them).  In the context of parents, it is about all the things folks talk about in the parking lot or on social media instead of with the school (although the school almost always knows the conversations are happening about them/without them).  In both cases you gauge the health of the culture by the degree to which you move your “non-discussibles” into “discussibles”.  The more willing we are to discuss what matters most in a constructive, healthy, transparent manner with the people who have the ability to address those issues honestly and responsibly, the healthier our culture.  The healthier the culture – whether we are talking about teacher-administration or parent-school – the more successful the school.

I was inspired by one of my rabbi’s sermons over the holidays to revisit a powerful idea from Martin Buber which I think informs this conversation.  [Buber “was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.”]

The basic idea (and I realize that I am butchering it for the sake of brevity) is that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships.  Not merely as metaphor, but as an existential fact.

Now that takes a lot of energy.  So much so that it is perfectly natural to have “I-It” relationships or moments – sometimes I just want to pick up my allergy medication and go home; I am not seeking to have an “I-Thou” relationship with my pharmacist.  I do, however, want to have “I-Thou” relationships with my wife and children and it serves as a useful and sometimes painful reminder of how hard that can be when Jaimee and I (like many busy couples) are forced to use email or text to communicate because we are two ships passing in the night.  It is hard to invite God’s presence into an electronic communication…

Our success in building a culture which facilitates the transition from “non-discussible” to “discussible”, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not we see each other as “Thou’s” and not “It’s”.  Have we done the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our teachers?  With our students and their parents?  We’ll know if we are able to identify the good that comes with each student and share it with his or her parents.  We’ll know if we are able to share the difficult truths which are our responsibility to share and have them received in the spirit in which we will surely wish it to be received. We’ll know if we are able to hear difficult truths about ourselves in the spirit in which they will surely be given, the spirit of genuine partnership where only the wellbeing of the child is important. The spirit of seeing the best in each other, even when it takes a little more energy.  The spirit that exists when we see each other as a “Thou” and not an “It”.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

Finally, during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we engage in the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  Here, in the most public of forums, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.

Easy fasts for all who do so…meaningful reflections for all who feel the need.