“Radical Candor” is Good for Schools, Parents & Children (Or “What I Learned This Week @ DSLTI)

In the bustling world of education, the role of a school leader is multifaceted.  Beyond the daily operations and academic management, there lies an essential task: the continual growth and development of leadership capacity.  Just as students benefit from ongoing learning and enrichment, school leaders too must invest time and effort into honing their skills and expanding their knowledge base.  While this may occasionally necessitate their absence from the school, it is a valuable investment that ultimately enhances the school’s overall effectiveness and long-term success.  So, while it may create temporary inconveniences, parents can rest assured that their school’s leader is actively working to strengthen the institution’s foundation for the benefit of every student and family.

I had the opportunity this week to facilitate a Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) Retreat with the theme of “Conversations.”  This retreat served as a valuable opportunity for me to enhance my leadership skills and gain insights into fostering meaningful dialogue within our school community.  The topic of “Conversations” resonated deeply with me, especially the work we did on Radical Candor—a concept that emphasizes open, honest, and empathetic communication.  Just as we strive to cultivate a culture of Radical Candor among our staff and faculty, we also recognize its significance in nurturing strong parent-school partnerships.

As we navigate another exciting admissions season at OJCS, I thought I would try to connect some dots through one of my favourite blogging formats…the good ol’ “Q& A”:

Q: What role does parent partnership play in enrollment retention at the Ottawa Jewish Community School?
A: Parent partnership is crucial for enrollment retention at our school.  By fostering strong relationships between parents and educators, we try to create a supportive community where families feel valued and engaged. We hope this leads to higher and higher retention rates as parents are more likely to continue choosing our school for their children’s education.

Q: Can you explain the concept of Radical Candor and its relevance to parent partnership?
A: Radical Candor, as described by Kim Scott, emphasizes the importance of open, honest, and empathetic communication. In the context of parent partnership, this means creating opportunities for transparent dialogue between parents and faculty.  By embracing Radical Candor principles, we can strengthen our relationships with parents and enhance their trust in the school community.

Q: How does the Ottawa Jewish Community School implement parent partnership strategies?
A: We implement various parent partnership strategies, including Goal-Setting Conferences, Parent-Teacher Conferences, a PTA, opportunities to volunteers, Town Halls, blogs and blogfolios, “office hours”, open doors and – when necessary – even exit interviews are a reflection of partnership.  These initiatives provide opportunities for parents to voice their opinions, share feedback, and actively participate in decision-making processes.  By involving parents in these initiatives, we demonstrate our commitment to partnership and collaboration, which ultimately contributes to enrollment retention.

Q: What are some benefits of parent partnership for both the school and the parents?
A: Parent partnership offers numerous benefits for both the school and the parents.  For the school, it leads to higher retention rates, improved parent satisfaction, and a stronger sense of community.  For parents, it provides opportunities to be actively involved in their children’s education, build relationships with teachers and staff, and contribute to the school’s growth and success.

Q: Can you provide an example of how Radical Candor principles are applied in, say, parent-teacher conferences?
A: During parent-teacher conferences, we encourage open and honest communication between parents and faculty. Teachers provide feedback on students’ progress, challenges, and areas for improvement, while parents have the opportunity to share their insights and concerns.  By embracing Radical Candor principles, we create a supportive environment where both parties feel heard, valued, and empowered to work together towards the best interests of the child.

Q: How does the Ottawa Jewish Community School ensure continuous improvement in parent partnership efforts?
A: We are committed to continuous improvement in our parent partnership efforts.  This includes seeking feedback from parents through surveys, conducting regular evaluations of our initiatives, and actively listening to concerns and suggestions from the community.  By staying responsive to the needs and preferences of our parents, we can adapt and refine our parent partnership strategies to better serve our school community.

Q: In what ways does the school demonstrate its commitment to learning and improvement, even when faced with challenges?
A: As stated, the Ottawa Jewish Community School conducts exit interviews as part of its commitment to learning and improvement.  These interviews provide valuable insights into the reasons behind a family’s decision to leave the school.  By listening to parents’ feedback, whether positive or negative, and taking actionable steps to address any concerns, the school demonstrates its dedication to continuous growth and enhancement of the educational experience.

As the calendar continues to steamroll forward, I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the many parents who have re-enrolled their children at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  Your continued support and partnership are invaluable to us, and we are grateful for the opportunity to work together in shaping the future of our students.  For those families who have not yet made the decision to re-enroll, I invite you to engage in open dialogue with us.  Let’s have conversations that inspire growth, foster collaboration, and strengthen our bonds as a community.  Together, we can achieve extraordinary things and create a learning environment where every child thrives.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results Part 3 (of 3)

Welcome to “Part III” of our analysis of this year’s CAT4 results!

In Part I, we provided a lot of background context and shared out the simple results of how we did this year.  In Part II, we began sharing comparative data, focusing on snapshots of the same cohort (the same children) over time.  Remember that it is complicated because of four factors:

  • We only began taking the CAT*4 at this window of time in 2019 in Grades 3-8.
  • We did NOT take the CAT*4 in 2020 due to COVID.
  • We only took the CAT*4 in Grades 5-8 in 2021.
  • We resumed taking the CAT*4 in Grades 3-8 in 2022.

In the future, that part (“Part II”) of the analysis will only grow more robust and meaningful.  We also provided targeted analysis based on cohort data.

Here, in Part III, we will finish sharing comparative data, this time focusing on snapshots of the same grade (different groups of children).  Because it is really hard to identify trends while factoring in skipped years and seismic issues, unlike in Part II where we went back to 2019 for comparative purposes, we are only going focus on four grades that have multiyear comparative data post-COVID: Grades 5-8 from 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Here is a little analysis that will apply to all four snapshots:

  • Remember that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting a “6.9” for Grade 5.
  • Bear in mind, that the metric we are normally looking at when it comes to comparing a grade is either stability (if the baseline was appropriately high) or incremental growth (if the baseline was lower than desired and and the school responded with a program or intervention in response).
  • In 2023 we took it in the “.1” of the school year and in all prior years in the “.2”.  For the purposes of this analysis, I am to give or take “.1”.

Here are the grade snapshots:

What can we learn from Grade 5 over time?

  • Remember these are different children taking this test in Grade 5.  So even though, say, for “Writing Conventions” in 2022 they “only” scored at grade level and the other two years it maxxed out, you cannot necessarily conclude that something was amiss in Grade 5 in 2022.  [You could – and I did – confirm that by referring back to Part II and checking that cohort’s growth over time.]
  • What we are mostly seeing here is stability at the high end, which is exactly what we hope to see.
  • Now what might constitute a trend is what we see in “Computation & Estimation” where we began below grade level, have worked hard to institute changes to our program and find a trajectory upwards.

What can we learn from Grade 6 over time?

  • Again, because these are different children, we have to be careful, but it will be worth paying attention to “Writing Conventions” and “Spelling” to make sure that that this a cohort anomaly and not a grade trend.
  • We will also be looking for greater stability in “Computation & Estimation”.
  • Overall, however, high scores and stability for Grade 6.

What can we learn from Grade 7 over time?

  • Extremely high scores with reasonably high stability!
  • We’ll keep an eye on “Computation & Estimation” which, although high the last two years, is a bit all over the place by comparison.

What can we learn from Grade 8 over time?

  • Extremely high scores with high stability.
  • We’ll need a few more years of data to speak more authoritatively, but a snapshot of where all our students are by their last year at OJCS has to reassuring for our current parents and, hopefully, inspiring to all those who are considering how OJCS prepares its graduates for high school success.

Current Parents: CAT4 reports will be timed with report cards and Parent-Teacher Conferences.  Any parent for whom we believe a contextual conversation is a value add will be folded into conferences.

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, with all the qualifications and caveats, our CAT*4 scores continue to demonstrate excellence.  Excellence within the grades and between them.

Not a bad place to be as we enter the second week of the 2024-2025 enrollment season…with well over 50 families already enrolled.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results Part 2 (of 3)

Welcome to “Part II” of our analysis of this year’s CAT*4 results!

In last week’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, focusing on snapshots of the same cohort (the same children) over time.  It is complicated because of three factors:

  • We only began taking the CAT*4 at this window of time in 2019 in Grades 3-8.
  • We did NOT take the CAT*4 in 2020 due to COVID.
  • We only took the CAT*4 in Grades 5-8 in 2021.
  • We resumed taking the CAT*4 in Grades 3-8 in 2022.

This means that there are only five cohorts that have comparative data – this year’s Grades 4-8.  And only two of those cohorts have comparative data beyond two years – this year’s Grades 7-8.  It is hard to analyze trends with without multiple years of data, but we’ll share what we can.

Here is a little analysis that will apply to all five snapshots:

  • Remember that any score that is two grades above ending in “.9” represents the max score, like getting a “6.9” for Grade 5.
  • 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 factoring an expected two full year’s growth between 2019 and 2021.  [Feel free to refer to prior years’ results for specific analyses of both “COVID Gaps” and “COVID Catch-Ups”.]
  • In 2023 we took it in the “.1” of the school year and in all prior years in the “.2”.  If we are being technical, therefore, “.9” would actually be the truest measure of growth since the time frame is “.1” less.  For the purposes of this analysis, I am going round “.9” up and consider it a “year’s” worth of growth.

Here are the cohort snapshots:

What does this snapshot of current Grade 4s reveal?

  • Huge growth in Reading, Vocabulary and Writing Conventions.
  • Better context for Spelling.  Last week, we shared that Grade 4 Spelling (3.4) was one of only two instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level across the whole school.  Here we can see that despite that (relatively) “low” score that annual growth is intact.  That’s the positive.  On the other hand, in order for this score to fully catch up to our school’s expectations, it will have grow more than one year at a time over the next few years.
  • Better context for Math.  Although both of this year’s current scores are above grade-level expectation, we did not see the growth we would expect.  This is why we take the tests and provide our teachers with not only the results, but coaching on how to use the results.  Our Grade 4 Math Teacher now has the data she needs to help individual students fill gaps and best prepare students for math success in Grade 5.

What does this snapshot of current 5s reveal?

  • That they are crushing it!  Max scores in all, but one category, along with appropriate growth.
  • Better context for Computation & Estimation.  Both scores are well above grade level, almost-appropriate growth from year to the next, and there is still room to grow.  Let’s go!

What does this snapshot of current Grade 6s reveal?

  • Again, overall really strong scores and mostly strong growth.
  • Better context for Writing Conventions.  It may not max out, but we showed more than a year’s worth of growth.
  • Better context for Spelling.  We already knew that Grade 6 Spelling (5.6) was the other of the two instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level across the whole school.  Now we know that it went down.  Hmmm…this could be an anomaly.  This is why we keep anecdotal records; maybe we’ll learn something about when Grade 6 took this section that helps explain the results.  Or maybe it is something.  Our Middle School Language Arts Teacher will be on it.
  • Better context for Computation & Estimation.  Again, it didn’t max out, but we can see huge growth from last year.

What does this snapshot of current Grade 7s reveal?

  • That they and their teachers are crushing it!
  • Better context for Computation & Estimation.  It shows that even though this score is lower than their other max scores, while still being above grade-level, it grew more than a year’s worth from last year.

No analysis of current Grade 8s needed, just appreciation for three years of near perfection.  Not a bad advertisement for OJCS Middle School.

To sum up this post, we have so much to be proud of in the standardized test scores of these particular cohorts over time.  The Math and Language Arts Teachers in Grades 3-8 have now begun meeting to go through their  CAT*4 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 cohorts); and how might we adapt our long-term planning to ensure we are best meeting needs.  Parents will be receiving their child(ren)’s score(s) soon and any contextualizing conversations will be folded into Parent-Teacher Conferences.

Stay tuned next week for the concluding “Part III” when we will look at the same grade (different students) over time, see what additional wisdom is to be gleaned from that slice of analysis, and conclude this series of posts with some final summarizing thoughts.

The Transparency Files: CAT*4 Results Part 1 (of 3)

[Note from Jon: If you have either read this post annually or simply want to jump to the results without my excessive background and contextualizing, just scroll straight to the graph.  Spoiler alert: These are the best results we have ever had!]

Each year I fret about how to best facilitate an appropriate conversation about why our school engages in standardized testing (which for us, like many independent schools in Canada, is the CAT*4, but next year will become the CAT*5), what the results mean (and what they don’t mean), how it impacts the way in which we think about “curriculum” and, ultimately, what the connection is between a student’s individual results and our school’s personalized learning plan for that student.  It is not news that education is a field in which pendulums tend to wildly swing back and forth as new research is brought to light.  We are always living in that moment and it has always been my preference to aim towards pragmatism.  Everything new isn’t always better and, yet, sometimes it is.  Sometimes you know right away and sometimes it takes years.

The last few years, I have taken a blog post that I used to push out in one giant sea of words, and broke it into two, and now three parts, because even I don’t want to read a 3,000 word post.  But, truthfully, it still doesn’t seem enough.  I continue to worry that I have not done a thorough enough job providing background, research and context to justify a public-facing sharing of standardized test scores.  Probably because I haven’t.

And yet.

With the forthcoming launch of Annual Grades 9 & 12 Alumni Surveys and the opening of the admissions season for the 2024-2025 school year, it feels fair and appropriate to be as transparent as we can about how well we are (or aren’t) succeeding academically against an external set of benchmarks, even as we are still facing extraordinary circumstances.  [We took the text just a couple of weeks after “October 7th”.]  That’s what “transparency” as a value and a verb looks like.  We commit to sharing the data and our analysis regardless of outcome.  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 annual litany of 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 fifth 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 2021’s testing to Grades 5-8.  So, this is the second year we have tested Grades 3 & 4 on this exam at this time of year.  When we shift in Parts 2 & 3 of this analysis to comparative data, this will impact who we can compare when analyze the grade (i.e. “Grade 5” over time) or the cohort (i.e. the same group of children over time).
  • Because of the shift next year to the CAT*5, it may be true that we have no choice, but to reset the baseline and (again) build out comparative data year to year.
  • The ultimate goal is to 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 last 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 in a bit on whatever device you are reading this on…)

A few tips on how to read this:

  • We normally take this exam in the “.2” of each grade-level year, but this year we took at at the “.1”.  [This will have a slight impact on the comparative data.]  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 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, etc.  For example, if you are looking at Grade 6, anything below 6.1 would constitute “below grade-level” and anything above 6.1 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 one-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, of course, 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 six different grades through six different dimensions there are only two instances out of thirty-six of scoring below grade-level: Grades 4 (3.4) and 6 (5.6) Spelling.  This is the best we have ever scored!  Every other grade and every other subject is either at or above or way above.
  • For those parents focused on high school readiness, our students in Grades 7 & 8 got the maximum score that can be recorded for each and every academic category except for Grade 7 Computation & Estimation (7.6).  Again, our Grade 8s maxxed out at 9.9 across the board and our Grades 7s maxxed out at 8.9 across the board save one.  Again, this is – by far – the best we have ever scored.

It does not require a sophisticated analysis to see 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 a very encouraging set of data points.

Stay tuned next week when we begin to dive into the comparative data.  “Part II” will look at the same cohort (the same group of students) over time.  “Part III” will look at the same grade over time and conclude this series of posts with some additional summarizing thoughts.

Exam Evolution

Once upon a time all the high schools in our community – both public and private – gave formal exams in Grade 9.  And so it was not only natural, it was an advantage for students at OJCS to take a series of exams during the Grades 7 and 8 years.  It checked (at least) three meaningful boxes:

  1. Our students learned valuable note-taking, study and organizational skills by going through the process of preparing for an exam.
  2. Our school learned valuable information about what our students did (or didn’t) learn as they were preparing to exit OJCS.  Exams that were able to stretch back across grades allowed OJCS to know not just what students learned that trimester or year, but what they learned while at OJCS.
  3. Our students gained real-world experience that they could utilize in service of the exams they would be taking in Grade 9 (and beyond).

And then…say it with me…COVID.

And ever since, the public high schools have not offered exams in Grades 9 & 10 and do not seem to be on a path towards doing so again.  Private schools in our community do offer exams in Grade 9.   And to the degree that context matters, we did some digging and it is additionally true that other independent schools in our community do offer exams in Grade 8 (or even earlier) and so if that is the water we are swimming in, perhaps it is that simple.  But part of being “independent” is that we get to make the decision for ourselves, and so it begs the question about what ought we do at OJCS if one of our three boxes no longer applies?  Do the other two warrant the energy (and for some students the anxiety) for OJCS to continue to offer exams, and if so, in which grades and subjects?

Zooming out, there are lots of skills and experiences we teach and provide at OJCS that are not necessarily formally carried forward to high school.  I have learned this firsthand as a parent of two OJCS graduates, one now in university and one still in high school.  Those skills – whether they be technological, organizational, public speaking, self-advocacy and many others – may not have had direct application to this (high school) class or another, but have definitely served them well as students.  If we were deciding whether or not to use iPads, or host hackathons, or a million other things based on what will be true in public school in grade nine, we might as well be public school ourselves.  So we feel very comfortable suggesting that whether or not our graduates going on to public schools do or don’t have formal exams in grade nine, it ought not determine what we do.  So much for “Box #3”.

Boxes #1 & 2 still feel very valuable.  While always managing and paying attention to student anxiety and their version of “school/life balance” – and always honouring IEPs and Support Plans – we definitely believe that the process of preparing, studying and taking formal exams is a value add for our students as they prepare for the added rigours of high school.  Grit and resiliency can only come about through authentic experience; sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable, suffer a little adversity, be a little anxious.  So there’s “Box #1”.

Box #2 is interesting and at least for this year (and likely next) determinative.  We have lots of opportunities to utilize external benchmarks and standardized testing to provide data on what students who are graduating OJCS have (and haven’t) learned.  We have the most data on Math and Language Arts by virtue of the CAT-4, Amplify, IXL, etc.  If we wanted to gather similar results for Social Studies and/or Science we could decide if and when to add those modules to our CAT-4.  The two places where we could benefit from better knowledge is in Jewish Studies and French.  We have made significant progress in knowing what is true in French with last year’s introduction of the DELF Exam, but it only targeted the highest achieving students.  No such external standard exists for Hebrew / Jewish Studies.

And so for all of the above reasons, here is what will be true this Spring at OJCS.  Students in Grade 8 will take two exams.  They will all take a Jewish Studies Final (which is completely consistent with past and present practice) and they will take either a French Final or the DELF (the “French Final” being an in-house exam offered at both the Core and Extended (if needed) levels).  We’ll see how that goes, check results, solicit feedback and make any adjustments if needed for future years.

And with this totally normal little blog post in the middle of what is still a very complicated world and time…Winter Break.  See you 2024.

A Carnival of Blogs

What a wonderful evening last Tuesday night was at OJCS!  A FULL Gym and even-fuller hearts from a Chanukah Family Program for the (Rock of) Ages!  And that candle-lighting ceremony…I am still choked up.  Thanks to our teachers, our students and – of course – our families and friends for filling the darkness of these troubled times with the light of our spirit and ruach.  You can check out all the beautiful images and videos (Flashmob says what?) on our various OJCS social media.

Somehow we had a whole rest of the week to navigate after that…

I spent ten minutes of actual time trying to find out what the analogy is from a gaggle of geese or a flock of seagulls is to a bunch of (mini) blog posts and, indeed, it is a “carnival of blogs”.  (For real.)  And so, with Winter Break Itch starting to spread, I thought it might be useful to swap out my usual way-too-long blog post this week for a small series of mini-mini-posts, updating and reminding you of things to know.

Let the carnival begin…

Each year, I typically dedicate 3-5 blog posts to “touring the OJCS Blogosphere” as a way of helping you see how much amazing content our students and teachers create as part of our normal way of operating.  It is also with the hope that our students (and teachers) can see that the work they do matters; that by putting authentic and meaningful work into the universe, and that by the universe commenting back with feedback, that it will inspire our students (and teachers) to do their best work and to fulfil the “moral imperative of sharing”.  YOU are the “U” in “Universe”.  Momentum begets momentum.  A snowball grows as it moves.  So please, whether you are a parent or a grandparent in our school or not.  Whether you are a fellow-traveller in Jewish education or not.  Whatever brings you to this blog, please click out of it to the OJCS Blogosphere, read any blog or blogfolio and make a quality comment.  Not to put it on too thick, but it is yet one additional way to help our community feel seen and not-so-isolated.  Just a few unexpected positive comments from a few unexpected locations causes such enthusiasm…

Remember at the end of last year and the beginning of this year when we said we would be leaning farther into the Science of Reading?  Well, that is well underway with our investment into Amplify Reading.

Why did we choose Amplify? 

It is the platform that most closely aligns with the evidence-based body of research referred to as the ‘Science of Reading’. The Science of Reading research shows the need for students to have word recognition skills (such as phonemic awareness, decoding skills through phonics, and reading fluency) and language comprehension (including knowledge of vocabulary, morphology, and syntax) in order to read and comprehend text. 

Teachers have been rolling it out and you can check (Guess where!) Classroom Blogs for more information.  Like this one from our Middle School Language Arts Teacher, Jess Mender.

What about this renovation we’ve been hearing about?

That is a thing that is going to happen!  After having to share the sad news of our postponement last year, we are back on track.  We will be confirming the project and the schedule in the weeks ahead and with that comes the contingency plans for the end of this school year when we fully expect to be under construction so that we are “move-in ready” for the start of the 2024-2025 school year.  This is tremendously exciting and I cannot wait to share updated renderings with all the magic coming our way.  We know that the true value of what happens in a school is in the people and the activities, but we do know that the physical space matters.  Our children and teachers deserve a space as innovative and creative as they are and we are looking forward to this first phase of renovation launching the transformation from past to future.

Like the renovation – oft-discussed, but not-quite-yet tangible – is our school’s 75th Anniversary.  And like the renovation, which has slowly been ramping up quietly and is going to be ready for take off near the end of this school year, so, too will be the series of events celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Ottawa Jewish Community School (founded as Hillel Academy).  There are (I checked) fewer than 15 Jewish Day Schools in North America older than the Ottawa Jewish Community School, and most of those are in communities with much larger Jewish populations.  This is an incredible achievement and an extraordinary validation for those with the vision and the courage to create and sustain our special school.  An anniversary year is an opportunity to celebrate and to appreciate – and yes, to fundraise.  The past and the present of Jewish Ottawa is entwined with our school; securing the future of OJCS is how we help secure the future of Jewish Ottawa.

Now more than ever.

The Question That Broke My Heart

“Dr. Mitzmacher…what if Israel is destroyed?  What happens to the Jewish People?  What happens to us?”

This is a real question that a child – multiple children – asked me at a Middle School Town Hall on Tuesday morning.  In 2023.  Seventy-five years after the modern State of Israel came into existence.  And I have been gutted ever since…

I can tell you what I said, hoping and believing it to be true.  I said that he should not be trying to carry the weight of such a thing right now.  That as awful as it all is, and still may be, that he doesn’t have to worry that there won’t be an Israel.  And then I paused.  And then I said that it is also true that for thousands of years there was a Jewish People without an Israel and that the true lesson of Jewish History is that we survive, we carry forward, we rebuild, and we thrive.  No matter what.  Always and forever.  Am Yisrael Chai.  That’s what I said.  And at no point in my life did I ever believe for a nanosecond that it might not be true.  And in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe it now.  But my belief is wrapped in fear and doubt.

This is not a blog post where I share resources.

I have been overwhelmed with requests from Jewish teachers in public and private schools, from Jewish parents from the larger Ottawa Jewish Community, and from public and private schools themselves – all looking for resources, for ideas, and in some cases for direct help in teaching, in facilitating experiences, talking with kids and families, etc.  And it is my pleasure to be of service.  I’d like to think the “Community” in the Ottawa Jewish Community School is more than just an adjective describing who is in our school, but for who we serve as a school.  I will continue to do whatever I can in support of larger Jewish Ottawa.

This is not a blog post where I make you feel better.

I have a GoogleDoc whose entire purpose is keeping track of who in our OJCS Extended Family has been called into duty, kidnapped or murdered.  How is that possible?  The only thing worse than having to create the document is to have to keep editing it, and not for the better.  Because of our school’s significant number of Israeli families and faculty, there is not one child or adult at OJCS who does not personally know someone who is directly impacted by the ongoing tragedy in Israel.  Not one.  Consciously or not; known or not – these last days have been a delicate dance between the need to provide our students with a sense of normalcy and safety and joy, and the reality that many of our students – and parents and teachers – are struggling with sadness and trauma.  I don’t know that we are getting it right, but we are doing our best.

And teachers…

The hardest thing we ask our teachers to do is to come to work with broken and heavy hearts and be present for our children.  For some the distraction of work is welcome, for some the smiles of children a salve, but for most the anxiety and the fear and the pain are right below the surface.  All through the week, teachers have had to pause, to take a break so they can break down, and to put themselves back together.  Spontaneous moments of solidarity, wordless hugs and tearful nods of mutual recognition dot the day.  I have never been more proud to work in a Jewish school.  For those of us who believe education is a calling, it is to this that we have been called.  And our teachers not only answer the call, they do so with love.

This is not a blog post about security.

Those conversations are internally focused for all the right reasons.  There is nothing more important than ensuring the physical and psychological wellbeing of our students.  Our entire concentric circle of community from school outwards to country is united in this effort and it makes me proud to be a Jew and a soon-to-be Canadian.

This is going to get harder…

And I don’t just mean the war effort on the ground in Israel, but yes.  Each day that goes on we have to calibrate the correct amount of space for this to occupy in school.  Too much space can be overwhelming.  Not enough space can be disrespectful and tone-deaf.  Different grades will require a different calibration; individual children will differ in their needs and wants.  “Standing With Israel” today feels like a clear call to action.  It will likely be less clear what it means day-to-day, the longer this tragedy unfolds.  All I can tell you is that we are paying attention and we are trying to get it right.

What can we do?

The impulse when faced with such overwhelming feelings is to do something.  But what?  Social media is presenting a dizzying, and sometimes conflicting, array of donation opportunities and drives.  As we try to move forward, our school will be paying attention to the following buckets of activities:

  • Providing accurate, age-and-stage appropriate information.
  • Creating space for reflection, questions and sharing of feelings.
  • Offering direct service to students, teachers and families who are coping with trauma.
  • Praying – using contemporary prayers and blessings for Israel, the IDF, the kidnapped and the missing, etc., and traditional modes, such as the chanting of Tehillim (Psalms) as is done during times of communal distress.
  • As appropriate, raising money, writing cards, and taking other hands-on measures in direct support of the local and international Israeli community.

But for now, on this day when hate has been called down upon us, I choose otherwise.  I choose this school – safe, open, and proudly Zionistic throughout its entire history, but never more than now.  I choose this community – standing in unambiguous solidarity with its Israeli and Jewish brothers and sisters.  I choose this country – whose political leadership of all parties have offered the strongest rebuke of terrorism and support for Israel that I can remember hearing.  I choose a life filled with Judaism and suffused with Israel.  And I choose love.  Tonight after we light the Shabbat candles, my wife and I will bless our daughter as we have done each Shabbat of her life.  We do this knowing how lucky we are to be able to do it, grateful for our blessings, devastated for those families no longer with parents to bless children, or children to be blessed.  That’s all I can do.  And I pray it is enough.

Am Yisrael Chai.

OJCS Faculty Pre-Planning 2023: Connecting the Dots

We’re back! 

This has been an amazing Faculty Pre-Planning Week that has us poised for our biggest and best year yet!  Our teachers consist of one group of amazing returning teachers, and another group of talented new teachers, and the combination is magical.  A school is only as good as its teachers, so…OJCS is in good hands, with all arrows pointing up.  Enrollment is still coming in, and I can safely say that we will be a larger school than the year before for the sixth consecutive school year.

Do you ever wonder how we spend this week of preparations while y’all are busy getting your last cottage days or summer trips or rays of sun in?  

I think there is value in our parents (and community) having a sense for the kinds of issues and ideas we explore and work on during our planning week because it foreshadows the year to come.  So as you enjoy those last days on the lake or on the couch, let me paint a little picture of how we are preparing to make 2023-2024 the best year yet.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The “Connecting the Dots”  Cafe

Each year (16 years, 7 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Café”.  It is a collaborative brainstorming activity centered on a key question.  Each year’s question is designed to encapsulate that year’s “big idea”.  This year’s big idea?  Connecting the Dots!

With a growing school with so many departments, languages, programs, etc., in order to make sure our students, teachers and parents are able to experience OJCS as holistic human beings and to benefit from all we have to offer, we will aim this year to forge the connections, break out of the silos, simplify and streamline where appropriate, facilitate the communication and do less even better.

Here’s what connected collaboration looks like…

Conscious Leadership

Get used to hearing your children locating themselves “above” or “below the line” as we introduced some key ideas from The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership – read this summer by the Admin – to our fuller faculty.  Every now and again we introduce new “frameworks” that provide a shorthand, a vocabulary, and culture that allows our teachers and our students to make sense of themselves and the world.  The big ideas of “Conscious Leadership” are completely anchored in our North Stars, what we believe to be true about children, the way we think and talk about “regulation”, and along with those other values and ideas, will continue to professionalize ourselves and upgrade our engagement with parents and students.  Do you want to learn along with us?  Check out the following and see if and how you might apply it to either your professional and/or parenting lives:

Next time you have to have a difficult conversation, just let us know if we are bringing you “below the line” and we can help make that positive “shift”.

Connecting the Dots: Behaviour Support @ OJCS


This will be big, the focus of attention at Back to School Night (9/19 @ 7:00 PM), and the subject of its own blog post in the weeks ahead, so please just consider this a “teaser”.  But you should also “connect the dots” between what I wrote near the end last year in my post sharing the results of the Annual Parent Survey:

The one metric that I am disappointed to see take a dip down after three straight positive years is the last one, which essentially serves as a proxy for school-wide behavior management.  Four 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, three years ago it came in at 7.65, two years it climbed up to 8.19, and it remained high at 7.85 last year.  6.73 puts at back at square one – even if it rounds into the acceptable range, and even with a small sample size.  Parents at OJCS can expect to see significant attention being paid to overall behavior management in 2023-2024.

“Significant attention” has been and is being paid.  You can see it reflected in staffing and you will see it reflected here.  For now, remember…

…and know that…

…thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, our new framework is poised to make this our best year yet.  Curious?  Want to know more?  Stay tuned!

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of the “Comfort & Community”?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Reichstein and Ms. Beswick lead a session on “Bringing the IEP to Life”?

Did Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Max, Mrs. Thompson and I provide differentiated instruction on best practices for Classroom Blogs & Student Blogfolios?  Yessiree!

Did the OJCS Makerspace Team facilitate a hands-on creative session for teachers in the Makerspace now that it is becoming a hub for innovation at OJCS?  (This work is a direct result of an Innovation Capacity Grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa!)  Yup!

Did Ms. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all in the know?  No doubt!

Did our teachers have lots of time to meet and prepare and collaborate and organize and do all the things needed to open up school on Tuesday?  And then some!

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  We are prepared to provide a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one of our precious students who we cannot wait to greet in person on the first day of school!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday weekend and a successful launch to the 2023-2024 school year…

BTW – want to hear from our own teachers about who they are and how excited they are for this year?  Introducing our first podcast of the year… Meet the OJCS faculty!  Give our podcast a listen and reply below to let us know what you are most excited about this year!

Coming Attractions

We are headed into the last two-action packed weeks of the 2022-2023 school year!  WHAT A YEAR!  The theme, coming out of COVID, was “getting our mojo back” and back our mojo has been.  A quick perusal of my weekly blog posts paint a picture of a year where pauses became unpaused, progress was made across a whole host of school systems and processes, and challenges made themselves clear.  That’s what school is all about.  Not everything is perfect, there is more work to do to be our best self, but each year we reach closer to our North Stars.  I am so proud of our teachers, our students and our families for all that we have done this year…and I am very excited for what the next year is scheduled to bring.

Speaking of…

This will likely be my third-to-last weekly blog post before moving into summer mode.  I will take next week off as it is my pleasure to accompany our Grade 8s on their GRAD Trip to NYC.  During our last week of school, I will share the content of my charge to our graduates and – as always – share what we know to be true about who our amazing 2023-2024 faculty and staff will be and what they will be doing (including any openings to be filled).  So what does that leave for this week?

This will be the third of my updates on all things next year.  Two weeks ago, I provided an important update on the building renovation.  Last week, I shared the news of our transition from trimester to semester and why.  This week, I will move into rapid-fire mode, with a bullet-pointed list of things to know or to keep an eye out towards as we head into summer.

Here’s what to know in literally no particular order…

  • We have had so much success this year with launching the internationally recognized French DELF certification process for our Grade 8 Extended French students and look forward to extending it further to our whole Grade 8 cohort next school year.  Students who pass will enter high school with a confirmed level of irrefutable functioning and gain access to the programs they have their eyes set on.
  • We will restore the Middle School schedule on Fridays so that we are better able to run Jewish Studies as per normal on the weeks we don’t have an amazing “Mitzvah Trip” planned.  This will ensure that we are only sacrificing academic time when the activity is worthy, which will make the Mitzvah Trips more meaningful and minimize and mitigate loss from other Jewish Studies coursework.
  • Speaking of “Mitzvah Trips” we have a VERY EXCITING NAMING ANNOUNCEMENT coming this fall that will – FOR SURE – warm your heart and make you proud to be part of our special community.  Stay tuned!
  • Speaking of “Jewish Studies coursework”, as part of a long-term goal to increase the rigor and the opportunity to engage with rabbinic text, we will transition our Rabbinics Course from a three-day-a-week to a five-day-a-week course and transition our Jewish Ethics & Values Course in reverse.  This will be better aligned with the content and our priorities.
  • As shared by email, we have updated our Acceptable Use Policy for Technology to account for VPNs to ensure our students are only able to access safe and appropriate websites, apps and platforms while at school.
  • We will hire an additional resource teacher next year to make meaningful progress towards relieving the stress on our system.  This is the #1 issue raised by both parents and teachers and although this move may not fully resolve the issue, it is a significant step in the right direction.  We’ll have more to share on this as the Special Education Department finishes a needs assessment based on next year’s enrollment.
  • In order to be better aligned with the “Science of Reading” and with where Canadian schools are heading, we are moving away from STAR Reading as one of our primary assessment tools and will be training our teachers on Amplify.  Parents will definitely notice the difference and not just come progress report/report card/parent-teacher conference time.  In addition to the Amplify platform, our teachers will continue to use a Structured Word Inquiry approach also supported by the Science of Reading for reading and spelling instruction. Our primary teachers (K-2) will also be trained using the UFLI Foundations program to enhance and solidify phonemic awareness skills in our youngest students.
  • We are working through an entire reorganization of the systems in our school that deal with behavior management and classroom discipline.  It will include different roles for both the Principal and the Head of School, as well as a different allocation of responsibilities within and outside the Special Education Department.  It will continue to be anchored in our North Stars and aligned with the 7 Habits, and the continued work we are doing within the framework of Collaborative Problem Solving, but redesigned to be more clear, more streamlined and, most importantly, better set up our students and our classes for success.  This is the #2 issue raised by parents and by teachers and making significant progress next year is a necessity.
  • The Jewish Studies Faculty will continue to have access to a consultant from Hebrew at the Center so that we can progress on our goal of putting in writing a full set of benchmarks and standards for Jewish Studies at OJCS.  This is a multiyear project (to do it correctly) and this will be Year Two.  We are eager to put in parents’ hands more detail about what they can expect their children to be learning in Jewish Studies and welcome the accountability that such specificity invites.

Is there more than this?  Of course, but we can’t give away all the excitement and surprises here!  (Plus I could use a few topics for blog posts during the dog days of summer.)

Feel free to follow the fun on social when OJCS Takes Manhattan next week!

2>3: Moving from Trimester to Semester (and Why It Matters)

Why is the OJCS calendar organized into trimesters?  What difference does it make?

The answer to the first question is simple.  The answer to the second question is meaningful.

Why trimesters?

Well, when I arrived at OJCS, we were technically operating on a semester model, but when one looked at how and when teachers were reporting on academic progress to parents, it kinda looked like trimesters with the distinction failing to find meaning.  Technically, parents received a “progress report” about a third of the way into the school year and then had two report cards and two rounds of parent-teacher conferences.  The “progress report” and the “report cards” were not entirely the same, but they were not different enough to warrant the difference.  So…if we were offering feedback three times a year anyway…why not simply divide the year into thirds and keep it simple?  And so we did.

Is there anything educationally more significant for a JK-8 to operate by trimester?  Does it matter how you divide up the year?  Why not operate by semesters?

Good questions!

Let’s begin with the end in mind.  Beginning in 2023-2024, OJCS will operate by semester.  Partly why we haven’t (yet) given out the full calendar is that we are working with the teachers to clarify what that will or won’t exactly mean by way of parent engagement.  But even as we work to clarify and disseminate by the end of the school year, let’s name what will and won’t be true next year.

If you think of the year with a narrative arc for parent engagement, it would look like this…

  • PTA Back to School BBQ
  • Back to School Night (September)
  • Goal-Setting Meeting (October-November)
  • First Semester Report Cards & Parent-Teacher Conferences (January-February)
  • Second Semester Report Cards (June)

On the one hand, this represents the same quantity of opportunity, even if distributed differently.  However, there are four things to pay attention to with this proposed shift:

  1. We love the idea of bringing parents (and possibly students) together in late October-early November to share the goal-setting that we have done with our students.  It is a great opportunity to strengthen and clarify the school-family partnership, to personalize the learning, to build in student accountability and to set students up for success.
  2. Moving to a semester model increases the odds of our successfully making the switch in (some) grades from traditional Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences.  More time to prepare, more artifacts to collect and an easier connection to goal-setting, all lend themselves to our students better “owning their own learning” (North Star Alert!) by playing a more active role in giving and receiving feedback.
  3. We may need to build in an engagement point between late January-early February and June.  Whether that comes in the form of (true) “progress reports” or updates from “goal-setting” or something entirely new, it may be true that we cannot reasonably go that long without formal parent engagement.
  4. We have not yet clarified the timing/structure of either the “goal-setting” or the Parent-Teacher (or Student-Led) Conferences.  We are actively working with the teachers on doing so since we need to provide parents with all partial and/or full school closures with proper notice.  But with more students than ever and a greater desire for engagement, the way we have allocated time for these conversations may shift if they are going to be meaningful.

We are looking forward to using the process to clarify the quantity of parent engagement to amplify the quality of parent engagement.  We will share out soon (this June) the calendar implications.  We will share out later (August?) the additional educational implications once decisions have been made.  We look forward to strengthening our partnership with parents and setting up our students for success through better engagement.

Consider this the second brief (for me!) blog post (last week’s update on the building being the first) in a small series attempting to name and clarify important updates and changes as we begin the gentle pivot towards next year.  More to come in the weeks ahead…