Leadership from the “Outside”

A Conversation with Donald R. O’Quinn, Head of School, Yavneh Academy of Dallas

Of all of the journeys to headship we have ever heard, yours is certainly one of the most unusual. Tell us how you wound up at Yavneh Academy of Dallas.

In 1998, I came to Yavneh as a physics teacher. With degrees in physics and math, I had worked in Texas public education for 32 years as a teacher, football coach, bus driver, department chair, planetarium director, assistant principal, and principal. When I came to Yavneh, as a favor to a colleague, I was teaching physics at a local community college, and working as a consultant specializing in improvement of mathematics scores on state-mandated graduation tests, and in staff development.

I was in-place and available when the headmaster announced that he was departing and, in truth, there were few options for the board to consider in making a mid-year change. While there are approximately 60,000 Jews in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, and close to 50 rabbis in the area, few possess experience in high school education.

Approached by the president-elect of the board, we discussed the state of the school, and I suggested things that needed to be done in order for the school to grow. After interviews with president of the board, the director of the Education Committee, and a group of close to 30 people, committed to Jewish education but most too young or too old to be high school parents, there was a symbiosis of an educator, with little knowledge of the Jewish faith and a sincere Jewish group, with little comprehension of the world of educational administration.

I brought to Yavneh the knowledge and skills necessary to the daily operation of a high school, a network of education resources, and a reputation as a student-centered, teacher-supportive administrator, one that quickly helped me recruit experienced teachers. Completely absent from my education were the rules of Kashrut, modest dress, Shabbat, Torah Umada, and the ritualistic customs of weddings, funerals, and other traditions that were way of life for my students and teachers. It was here that I embarked on the greatest adventure of my lifetime.

What are the pitfalls of being a non-Jewish head of a Jewish day school? How are they manifest in day-to-day work?

Board members usually do not understand the role of the board, the role of the headmaster, and the relationship that must exist between the two entities. Thus, board retreats and instruction of new board members are both important. This usually manifests itself with board members assuming the powers of administration dealing with issues. The rationalization would be that the non-Jewish headmaster just doesn’t understand.

A culture which is based upon thousands of years of customs, practices, and rules, which wishes to maintain all of those, is difficult to understand and to work with in the short run. This manifests itself in a myriad of ways ranging from with whom you can and cannot shake hands to appropriate behavior at a funeral, a bris, a wedding, a Shabbat meal, when and how to wash your hands before a meal, what to say to a bride at her wedding, how to behave when you visit someone who is sitting shiva, and many more. The diversity of the culture, through, and even within the branches of Jewish observance, adds to this; I’ve never been to any two funerals, or weddings, that were identically performed.

The mistrust that some Jewish parents have of a non-Jew when dealing with issues of education or environment for their children manifests itself in the need to have one of our rabbis join the conversation. For most of our families though, as we’ve spent time together, they’ve come to trust me.

Once the community realized that I was working to achieve the goals of the community, a strong Jewish education paired with a rigorous college preparatory education, Jewish allies appeared from all directions. Yavneh’s curriculum was divided into secular and Judaics programs of study and a bright, young rabbi heading the Jewish school undertook my own Jewish education. He invited me for Shabbat meals, explaining the meaning and importance of each facet of the meal and it was there that I realized the Shabbat meal is one of the most beautiful and important aspects of the Jewish family, keenly feeling its absence from Christianity.

Are there any advantages to coming at the work of Jewish school leadership from an “outside” perspective?

The very fact that I’m from the “outside” brings a new vision for problem-solving because the expertise was developed in a different world. When I came from the “outside,” I brought a network of advisors, consultants, teachers, coaches, administrators who came to work with the school and who helped to build its reputation as a strong dynamic institution. Our success speaks to how “inside” the caring and respect of children can, and should be, regardless of religious affiliation.

Often, I serve as the cushion to intolerance of Jewish affiliations for each other and it seems that no one trusts me completely, everyone wishing that I was one of them. My parents do believe though that I will serve as a moderator and in my years at Yavneh, no student has changed affiliation. Over four years of attendance at Yavneh students tend to become stronger, more knowledgeable participants in their own synagogues and no student has changed affiliation. When they leave home for college, Yavneh students tend to hold to their faith and to their practices.

I don’t regularly attend synagogue services and other Jewish community events. On the occasion that a student or staff member must be disciplined or terminated, I’m able to make the hard decisions and take the difficult actions necessary to the operation of any school without having to live within a community that is displeased about something that I have done. This also saves the local rabbis from having discordance where I a member of their congregation.

What, if anything, should Jewish day schools do to be more welcoming and more supportive to teachers and administrators from other faith-cultures.

I believe that, while there is a natural tendency to segregate along religious lines, school communities need to accept the premise that the education of its youth to the highest quality possible is the most important function of the school. Administration must act in such a way as to produce an integrated faculty of colleagues while understanding that many activities need to be explained and that strong efforts need to be made to assimilate everyone into the school community.

To what degree, if any, does the presence of non-Jews in a Jewish day school (we’ll call this “interfaith”) inform positions about Jewish diversity (which we’ll call “intra-faith”)?

There is no such thing as a homogeneous group of anything living. A faculty made of completely of Orthodox rabbis still has diversity because of their own personalities, talents, skills, wisdom, and commitment. A faculty which has a mixture of Jewish affiliations has another degree of diversity and a faculty which includes different faiths has another level of diversity still. At Yavneh, only one faith is being taught, Judaism. English, however, is taught by highly trained, highly experienced, and highly successful teachers, none of whom are Jewish. This year, of the 17 students who took the Language and Composition AP test, fourteen scored either four or five. There are three perfect 800’s on the SAT for this year’s seniors and it is the third consecutive year that there has been a perfect 800 on the SAT. It is the best teacher for the position that I consider, not the religion of the person, which has resulted in performances that have put committed Jewish students from Texas into many of the major universities of the country.

In terms of another aspect about the concern for diversity, I would observe that people of the Jewish faith, by large numbers, place their students into private secular schools, send their students to public schools, send their students to Catholic and Episcopalian schools and donate large amounts of money to those institutions. None of the places that I have named have large numbers of Jewish faculty or administrators.

When you began as Head at Yavneh, the school was considering closing its doors. How are things today?

The enrollment is now 120, approximately 30 students per grade level, and I couldn’t be more proud. This year, three of our students recorded perfect 800’s on the SAT – the third consecutive year that a Yavneh student has scored an 800. We have students at Columbia, Barnard, Harvard, MIT, Penn, NYU, Brandeis, Maryland, University of Texas, Texas A&M, as well as many yeshivahs in Israel. The school is a recognized basketball power in the state, both boys and girls. Yavneh is a powerful secular school, yet all but three members of the senior class participated in the March of the Living, and over 50% of the senior class will spend a year of study in Israel before starting college. Our students are noted for taking the lead in Jewish activities wherever they go. ♦

Donald O’Quinn is Headmaster at Yavneh Academy in Dallas, TX. He can be reached at doquinn@yavnehdallas.org. This conversation was facilitated by Deb Silverthorn, Director of Communications at Yavneh Academy and Robin Feldman, Director of Member Services at RAVSAK.
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Fall 2007