OJCS Announces $50,000 Gift to Strengthen the “J” in “OJCS”

We are thrilled to share with the community that an anonymous family has stepped forward to allow OJCS to continue to keep the promises it has made by making a new $50,000 gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS.  This gift feels extra special considering it has come during this liminal moment in the Jewish calendar between meaningful Jewish holidays.  As we reflect on what our People has experienced throughout its history, as we celebrate our collective triumphs and as we commit to securing the Jewish future of our children and our community – it is a blessing and a sacred responsibility for our school to receive a gift of this magnitude.  This will allow us to further strengthen and deepen our commitment to the Jewish studies and Jewish experiences that help make our school a laboratory for Jewish living and help ensure our community continues to have Jewishly literate and committed leaders into the next generation and beyond.

This now makes the third and final commitment that connects the dots between the three major areas we designated for attention in Year One, invested resources and made significant changes in Year Two and now stand ready to go deeper and farther in Year Three: the OJCS value proposition, French outcomes and Jewish mission/vision.

Each of these three has had its own cycle of candid honesty of what was, an exploration of what could be, an investment to clarify and move the work forward to what presently is and now set up for a new round of investment to continue to shape what will be, as we move together into a third year of an OJCS reimagined and revitalized.  In a nutshell…

In Year One, we identified the need to define what OJCS uniquely believes to be true about teaching and learning, we secured an anonymous gift (in partnership with Federation) that allowed us to begin a consultancy with NoTosh which led to our “North Stars”.  In Year Two, benefiting from a different anonymous gift (also with help from Federation) we were able to complete our work with NoTosh, begin our work with Silvia Tolisano and have launched a ton of innovative prototypes to transform teaching and learning at OJCS.  In Year Three, thanks to a grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Foundation we will open the first Makerspace in any school in Ottawa, among other new and returning prototypes that will help us live our North Stars.

In Year One, we identified the need to clarify our French outcomes.  We conducted research and held an initial Town Hall.  We made certain commitments to changes in the schedule and the program that we have been living in Year Two, while continuing to add to our research.  We reported back to our parents recently on our progress and then announced a huge investment in French Language PD to ensure that we take significant steps in Year Three to better address ongoing questions and to make long-term strategic planning decisions.  [We are finalizing contracts now and will share out very soon in greater detail as to the who we are partnering with and what the partnership will consist of…stay tuned.]

In Year One, we identified the need to better determine our Jewish mission and vision.  We formed a robust Rabbinic Advisory Committee with active participation from our entire, diverse rabbinic community.  We conducted research, did work, and held a Town Hall to declare our plans to strengthen our program for Year Two.  We have been living those commitments this year – daily minyanim in each grade with options in the Middle School to satisfy differing needs, increased contact time with Jewish Studies, increased rigor and immersiveness in Hebrew Language, introduction of a revised, text-based Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum, prototyping Torah Trop classes in Grades 5 & 6, and so much more.  And now, thanks to today’s gift, we know that we will go into Year Three with an amazing opportunity to build on our successes and introduce new and deeper Jewish engagement for our students and our families.

So.

What might this investment lead to in 2019-2020?

We have only begun to dream the new dreams, but we do have ideas!  As we prepare to say goodbye to our beloved Dean of Judaic Studies Rabbi Finkelstein, we will be revisiting our leadership team.  I will have more to say about this when it becomes concrete, but we are very excited about the possibilities we are exploring.  We also have – similar to French – opportunities to import second-language acquisition professional development so that our teachers of Hebrew will have the same resources available to them as our teachers of English and French do and will.  Updated curriculum, more Hebrew-language books and materials, and expanding our Jewish Studies Resource are all worthy to consider for investment.

This gift reminds us that it is important not only to count your blessings, but to make your blessings count.  We have a responsibility to steward these gifts with care and to ensure that they are being invested strategically.  We have to have clear expectations, measurables and deliverables to be sure that we are not only charting an exciting and innovative course towards the future, but actually finding our way there.

Spoiler alert.

We are.  And, yes, say it with me, that’s “The OJCS Difference”.

OJCS Parents: I emailed out the Annual Parent Survey this morning.  Please do fill it out!  Due back May 10th if you want your feedback included in reporting.

This is my 300th blog post!  There are no words to express to Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez how much they have impacted my journey as an educator and as a professional.  I have tremendous appreciation to the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), the Schechter Network and Prizmah for letting me carry my blog from organization to organization and to use it as a platform for learning and connection.  Special thanks to my Mom, my Aunt Donna and Nancy Davis for ensuring that at least three people read it.

In all seriousness, to anyone who has ever read, commented, or shared my blog…thank you, thank you, thank you.

OJCS Announces $50,000 Investment in French Education

File this under “promises made; promises kept”.

We are thrilled to share that our school will be making a $50,000 investment to ensure an increasingly excellent French education, to grow the number of students who successfully transition into French immersion programs in Grade 9, and to increase the odds of their success once placed.  This comes directly from the hard work of our French Language Faculty, the changes we began this year as a result of beginning this conversation last year, the leadership of our Board and the generosity of our donors.  This is a great day for those who already know a Jewish day school education does not preclude an excellent French education; it is an even better day for those who want to believe it, but needed a little more than anecdotal evidence to go on.

If you are new to this conversation, I encourage you to read my blog post from last February which lays out a detailed history of French education in Ontario, how it impacts OJCS and what the state of affairs was like when we began this work last school year.

Here are a few reminders and updates:

We continue to acknowledge that small sample sizes make statistical analysis complicated.  We remain committed to annual surveys of our alumni and frequent check-ins with the high schools in our community.  We do know, for example, that 50% of the students who graduated OJCS last year from French Extended are currently in Grade 9 French Immersion in high school (the other 50% opted out).  They report being successful and having been adequately prepared.  It may not be statistically significant (this was not a large class), but it lines up with last year’s data and the ample anecdotal evidence we do have that OJCS students can and do successfully transition from “Extended” to “Immersion” in Grade 9.

Here is what we committed to for this school year:

  • Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time will begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  • 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.
  • We will increase the rigor and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.  This includes a philosophical shift in K-3 that raises the bar – rather than aim towards the middle and wait to see who rises up, we will aim towards immersion and stream those who struggle.
  • 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).

Here is how our French Language Faculty put it when we met with parents twice yesterday at our “French Q & A Sessions”:

Vivre en français à OJCS

  • 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 walked 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.

While we believe we are on a gradual path towards clarity around French outcomes and increased excellence in French education, we are also aware of how serious an issue this is for a meaningful percentage of our families.  We have also seen how the use of consultancy has jumpstarted innovation and growth at our school.  What we are announcing here is going to do for French what our other consultancies have done for OJCS – dramatically speed up the process of moving from good to great.

We have identified a few different consultancies that would provide OJCS with the following features:

  • One to two years of professional development for OJCS French Faculty from the same folk who train the Immersion and Francophone programs in the public boards, including multiple in-person observation and direct training.
  • Shareable tools for benchmarking and tracking individual students over time.
  • New and updated French curriculum.
  • Individualized paths forward for high achieving students from the OJCS “Extended” program to full Immersion programs at their next schools of choice.

The tools, the curriculum and the paths would be ours after the consultancy and would become part of the budget moving forward.

We are in the process of finalizing our consultancy and will share out additional information when confirmed.  Additionally (not part of the $50K), we are also committed to adding French Resource.  We feel this will bring much needed support not only for students who have IEPs, but for any student who struggles.  [Yes, we are committed to adding Hebrew Resource as well.]

We enjoyed the opportunity to share our progress and our plans with parents.  We appreciated the candor and the tough questions we were asked.  We are pleased to share it more widely here.  Interestingly, we heard similar feedback that we heard last year about three areas.  One we tried to do something about and couldn’t get it off the ground; two we need to pay even closer attention to…

  • There was a very positive response to the idea of OJCS offering French enrichment as part of an after school program and/or as part of a summer day camp experience.  We surveyed parents last year about it for this year and did not get a critical mass.  We will try again.
  • There was a strong feeling that using Grade 4 as our arbitrary split into “Core” and “Extended” is unnecessary and that we are missing an opportunity to increase the immersive exposure in Grades K-3 when it could potentially have even more value.  We addressed this issue this year with a philosophical shift (aiming higher), but we could also choose to address it structurally (actually streaming earlier).  This will be worth exploring through consultancy.
  • There remains a meaningful percentage of our families (particularly ones who are from and/or are familiar with the model in Montreal) who would like to see us offer a full immersion track, if not embrace a full immersion model.  Although our cultural context is different, we do have a responsibility to pay attention to these families.  We will continue to survey and assess this need; we will also try to better calculate the opportunity cost of not having it – who is not coming to OJCS (and, thus, not getting a Jewish day school education) because we can’t offer it.

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 French mission and vision – next year and in the years ahead.

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.

Les Fichiers de Transparence: L’assemblée de Français

As promised, we held a “town hall” on Thursday, February 8th 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 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 for a more in-depth history of French education in Ottawa and at the OJCS.

Let’s restate the fundamental issue…

Unlike our Hebrew and Judaic standards, which are entirely our own to determine and whose outcomes are entirely ours to assess, our French standards come from the Ontario Ministry of Education and the schools our graduates attend perform assessments.  So why is this so confusing and chronically debated?

What does French currently look at OJCS?

K:   10/40 Periods in French

1-3:   6/40 Periods in French

4-5:   6/40 Periods in Core French & 8/40 Periods in Extended French

6-8:   6/45 Periods in Core French & 9/45 Periods in Extended French

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

  • Grade 9 Alumni Surveys
  • Grade 12 Alumni Surveys
  • Conversation with SRB & Ashbury
  • Conversation with Knoxdale
  • Anecdotal Testimonials
  • Exit Interviews (pending)

What did we learn from the Grade 9 Alumni Survey?

74% of Grade 9 students were enrolled in Core French with an additional five students in Immersion and one in Extended French. Of the children enrolled in Extended or Immersion French, no parent reported they needed an extra tutor or extra assistance.

At this point in time, we can see of the six students taking more advanced French, there is no issue with them keeping up.

What did we learn from the Grade 12 Alumni Survey?

Fourteen respondents are attending a public high school in Ottawa, with the vast majority at SRB. One student is attending Ottawa Torah Institute.

Four students indicated they were in Extended French and another two in French Immersion. (This was before SRB dropped “Extended”. Those four “Extended” students are now either in “Core” or “Immersion”.) There was one respondent who did indicate they hired a French tutor to help with Extended French.

The rest of the students (44%) were in Core French.

What did we learn from our conversations with Sir Robert Borden High School?

  • Students are placed in Grade 9 as recommended by OJCS.
  • Some students experience a temporary culture shock transitioning from “Extended” to “Immersion”.
  • Some students see a temporary dip in their grades in Grade 9, but typically recover by Grade 10.
  • Many students come in “super strong”.

What did we learn from our conversations with Ashbury College?

  • “Marks in French are strong.”
  • 1/3 of OJCS students who go to Ashbury graduate with one of their two bilingual diplomas. (Anecdotally, we believe the other 2/3 self-select out, but more data collection will be needed.)

What did we learn from our conversations with Knoxdale Public School?

  • OJCS students who transition into Grade 4 for “middle immersion entry point” are well-prepared for success.
  • Grade 4 is an arbitrary entry point, susceptible to changing public school norms.
  • Students can be accepted into Knoxdale at any point and placed into immersion upon parental request.

What additional/ongoing data collection will be necessary to better refine our understanding of true French outcomes?

It will take additional years of data collection before our sample sizes will allow for more definitive conclusions.  Additional data points that we will collect include exit interviews (families who transition out prior to graduation), testimonials from alumni and alumni parents (we have plenty of positive, anecdotal evidence, but we need a uniform protocol for collection), and adjusting our parent survey data to better determine how many families these issues impact.  We also need to do a deeper dive into the details.  For example, not only how many students earn a bilingual certificate, but do they score well enough to succeed at the next level?

What do we presently believe to be true about French at OJCS?

  • We believe there is a path from here (OJCS Extended French) to there (Grade 9 French Immersion).  We believe we need to better illuminate that path, as well as being open to creating additional paths.
  • We believe that we have passionate, talented, capable, and responsive French teachers who are part of the solution.
  • We believe we need to be more transparent about what needs to be true during the year of transition to set (more) students up to be successful.
  • 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 full immersion will be satisfactory and we will have to meaningfully address what that means – for those families and for OJCS.

We believe we can make significant improvements to our current program, and plan to, beginning as soon as next year.

What can we do next year?

  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 rigor 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.

We had in attendance that night our full administration, our French department and a good mix of parents who represented different age groups, different views on the ultimate value of French education, 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:

  • There was a strong feeling that using Grade 4 as our arbitrary split into “Core” and “Extended” is unnecessary and that we are missing an opportunity to increase the immersive exposure in Grades K-3 when it could potentially have even more value.
  • There was a very positive response to the idea of OJCS offering French enrichment as part of an after school program and/or as part of a summer day camp experience.  This seems like a no-brainer for us to jump on right away.
  • We have energized parents who bring a research background to the conversation and who are willing to help us craft better survey instruments and conduct more thorough analyses to address the issues raised above by way of data collection.
  • A Grade 4 OJCS “middle immersion entry point” may not be a crazy idea.

So.

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 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 French mission and vision – next year and the years ahead.

By the way…if you like town halls (and you know you do!)…

Stay tuned for a Town Hall after Passover where will share back the results and the plans we’ve been working on to clarify and enhance the “J” in OJCS!

Les Fichiers de Transparence: Parlons français à OJCS

OK, I cheated.  My French has barely made it past, “Bonjour,” but I wanted to set the right tone for this conversation and asked for a translation.  You’ll forgive me for conducting this conversation about French in English, but this will sadly be one aspect of the job where I cannot lead by example.  At least not yet…

This blog post marks the third in a series of “Transparency Files” posts designed to lay out the significant conversations we are engaging in this year in order to become the best OJCS we can be. The first was about “transparency” itself and the kind of culture we are creating.  The second was about reimagining and clarifying our Jewish mission and vision.  [Quick update: We held our first Rabbinic Advisory Committee meeting this week.  Pulpit rabbis from across the spectrum participated.  The meeting was serious, engaging and meaningful.  I look forward to offering a more substantial update, including how other stakeholder groups will begin to launch their conversations, soon.)  Here, I want to lay out the beginning of a conversation about French so we can finally put to bed what either is or is not true about French at OJCS, its outcomes, and what it prepares you for, or not, for Grade Nine.

What I find most interesting about this conversation is how frustratingly frequent it has taken place in recent years despite how incredibly knowable the outcomes actually are.  Unlike our Hebrew and Judaic standards, which are entirely our own to determine and whose outcomes are entirely ours to assess, our French standards come from the Ontario Ministry of Education and the schools our graduates attend perform assessments.  So why is this so confusing and chronically debated?

I have spent some time learning a lot more about French education in Ottawa than I ever would have imagined and still have much more to do in order to be as authoritative as I will need to be as the conversation evolves.  But here is what I (think I) know…

Our current French studies program is built upon a public school model that increasingly no longer exists.  The majority of public schools in Ottawa used to operate three tracks for French: Core, Extended and Immersion. OJCS, as a Jewish day school with an entire Jewish Studies curriculum to manage – including a third language – reasonably adopted Core and Extended into its program. Over time, however, as public schools continued to feature greater and greater immersion, the middle track – Extended – began to be dropped.  More and more public schools (writ large) now only offer both a Core and an Immersion track, and there are more public schools who specialize in French immersion. “Extended” is ceasing to function as a meaningful distinction, at least in terms of how French functions in any of the next schools of choice. Graduates of OJCS’ Extended French program may soon only have two choices in high school – Core or Immersion.

And this leaves us with the critical question for families who view French fluency as defined by the ability to pass the bilingual exams in Grade Twelve: Does OJCS’ Extended French program prepare students to successfully transition into a high school’s French immersion track in Grade Nine?

And the answer to that question leaves us with the critical question for OJCS, if meeting the need for French fluency is non-negotiable for a critical mass of Jewish parents: What should OJCS do about it?

Let’s pause for a moment to name some things that feel important.

This is an important issue for the families for whom it is an important issue.  Without current survey data, it is hard to know exactly where to peg the number, but let’s assume it is significant enough to represent an existential threat to the school’s long-term viability.

Our current Core French program is exactly the same (at least in time allocated and curricular benchmarks) as all other schools, with the same outcomes, tracked in the same ways all the way through Grade Twelve.  Families for whom Core French is sufficient are presently having their needs met.

Our current Extended French program isn’t something to sneeze at! It is not an immersion program, but it is an immersive experience. Families for whom Extended French is sufficient are presently having their needs met.

The connection between Grade Four and French fluency is a function of the evolution of French immersion in Ottawa public schools. There are currently programs offering a “Middle Immersion” entry point at Grade Four.  [The other entry points are “Early” (Grade One) and “Late” (Grade Nine).]  There are no guarantees as educational pendulums continue to swing that those will continue to be the (only) entry points.  The fact that for some number of parents the Grade Four entry point has become their critical decision-making window is absolutely important, but not necessarily determinative.  Our responsibility is to be clear about our Grade Eight French outcomes to ensure our current and prospective families have all the options available for Grade Nine, including French immersion.

Our graduates begin their next schools of choice in the French program that we recommend them for.  If we recommend a student graduating out of our Extended French program for French immersion in Grade Nine, that student is in French immersion if they choose to.  That’s a fact.

Let’s return to our two critical questions.

Does OJCS’ Extended French program prepare students to successfully transition into a high school’s French Immersion track in Grade Nine?

Here is where data counts.  There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that the answer to this question is “yes”.  I have read years’ worth of testimonials from graduates and have spoken with numerous parents whose kids did, in fact, successfully transition from our Extended French program to high school’s French immersion, stuck with it through Grade Twelve, and earned their bilingual certificate.  And yet, there is a persistent narrative that this cannot be true.  I have spoken with many current parents who share this belief.  They genuinely believe that if we don’t offer an apples-to-apples French immersion program, then you cannot, by definition, successfully function in a high school French immersion program.

So how can we find out?

By doing some research – both quantitative and qualitative.  We are going to survey our graduates in both Grades Nine and Twelve to see how many of the students we recommend for French immersion…

…opt to stay in French immersion.

…feel prepared to be successful in French immersion.

…are successful in French immersion.

…earn their bilingual certificate in Grade Twelve.

We are going to explore whether there are other key variables which may impact a successful path from here to there such as…

…coming from a French-speaking home.

…participation in French-langauge extracurricular activities.

…use of a French tutor either during their time at OJCS or in high school.

We have also begun direct conversations with high schools.  I have met with the heads of Sir Robert Borden High School and Ashbury College (to begin with) and they are providing us with data about our French outcomes.  I have meetings scheduled with a variety of other schools as well.

The bottom line is that this question is eminently answerable.  Our graduates are either capable (with or without conditions) of transitioning into French immersion in high school or they are not. They are either successfully prepared or they are not.  We can and will answer the question.

If it turns out that the answer is, “yes,” then we have a serious responsibility to improve our marketing.  Schools are only as good as the stories they tell and the stories told about them.  And right now the story of OJCS is that it lacks adequate French to achieve fluency with all that that means in Ottawa.  If that isn’t the story, then we better start telling the true story as loudly and as often as possible.

If it turns out the answer is, “no,” then we have a serious responsibility to revisit our school’s mission and vision.  There are French immersion Jewish day schools in Montreal, I’ve been to see a few.  If it turns out that we actually cannot provide adequate French to achieve fluency, then we better figure out what that means so we can be transparent with families about what you can and cannot expect from your OJCS education.  And we’ll have to decide what kinds of French programs we need to have in order to remain viable.

This is an urgent issue and we are addressing it with due urgency.

The research is ongoing and the deliverable is intended to be shared out in writing when complete and discussed in a Town Hall setting that we are looking to schedule in January/February for current Grades Two-Three families and any Francophone family for whom this is an important discussion.  Stay tuned.

In the meanwhile, we have an incredibly talented French department who pour their hearts and souls into our Core and Extended French programs.  They take great pride in their work and in the accomplishments of their graduates, as should we all.

Can OJCS answer the critical questions about its French outcomes? Will OJCS effectively share the answers to those questions with all its stakeholders?  Are current, former and prospective families invited to share their feedback with us as we do our work?

As they say…J’en mettrai ma main au feu!