Crafting Effective Mission and Vision Statements

When we evaluate or market one of our programs, how do we identify its value? Given a myriad of new curricular options, how do we decide which are right for our school? In a period of tight finances, what guides our commitment to socioeconomic diversity? In seeking answers to these questions, we have long been guided by our mission and vision statements. Pondered and carefully crafted by our boards, they reflect the collective wisdom of multiple constituencies and are designed to position us uniquely in our markets. Our budget can be a reflection of the values articulated. Our admission office can seek “mission-appropriate” families. Our tefillah practices can be guided by our definitions of community.

I continue to see mission—the fundamental statement of who we are—and vision—the aspirational expression of our goals for our graduates—as the genuine foundation and grounding for each aspect of school life. But increasingly I wonder how much guidance our mission and vision offer.

Ten years ago, day school mission statements were often long and complex. School communities have since become diligent editors. Our process to be concise and precise has been honorable, often informed by data we’ve gathered from surveys. After all that editing and data-collecting, however, many of our mission statements became indistinguishable from one another. How many of our mission statements articulate our desire for academic excellence? Or speak of preparing our students to be leaders in the Jewish and American communities?

Nearby independent and public schools seek to achieve high levels of academic performance, and thus we embraced many of the phrases that would remind our community that we are indeed competitive. In Minnesota, where open-enrollment policies allow parents to sign up their children in public school districts outside their communities of residence, prestigious districts have actively recruited students, launching campaigns that mirror the language of the most selective independent schools. It is not hard for us to imagine how appealing those schools are to potential Jewish day school families, particularly if so many of their words and ours are indistinguishable.

I invite you engage in a bit of informal research. Visit the websites of some Jewish day schools and look at their mission and vision statements. If you substituted the name of your own school, might these be used in your school? You might even find considerable overlap with area independent schools. How do we find the balance between appearing mainstream and articulating unique qualities? How do we reflect contemporary trends while embracing enduring values?

There are resources available to us to capture the particularity of day schools more effectively. I have been intrigued by work that marketing firm writers who have assisted our schools’ marketing efforts have undertaken:

  • What are words that uniquely describe our communities?
  • Which resonate with different market segments?
  • What are words and phrases that are too time-bound and too trendy, might not be understood by our constituent groups because they reflect current educational jargon, or are simply overused?

By answering these questions, schools can develop a lexicon of words and phrases that resonate with the community and that can be integrated with all communications initiatives, and can serve as a foundation for revision of mission and vision statements. We might be simultaneously rigorous and nurturing. We might convey our affective goals as we seek to embrace joyous expressions of Judaism. We can talk of helping our students discover their passions. We can speak to the quality of relationships between teachers and students. It is often the unique juxtaposition of educational approaches that reflects the particular qualities that are our value-added. As I visit school websites, I often find the stronger, more descriptive words included in the testimonials of our alumni and parents and in philosophical statements.

You might visit the website of Cohen-Hillel Academy in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Their head’s blog and social media postings articulate distinctive features of their educational experience. Their statement of philosophy includes these statements of approaches to achieving their mission:

Offering a strong, progressive, and personalized general studies curriculum that is challenging, purposeful, and relevant

Facilitating intellectual conversation and respectful dialogue in the classroom, igniting the the spark of learning.

Similarly, the Akiba-Schechter School in Chicago focuses on the educational and social opportunities that their multiage classrooms offer:

Our school is unique in many ways. Students and teachers come from diverse Jewish observance and cultures, forming a family whose members respect one another because of their differences—not in spite of them. New students are integrated into the Akiba-Schechter family every year through all-school events and multi-class programs. We are especially proud of our multiage classrooms and high student-teacher ratio.

An interesting approach to a vision statement can be found at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis.

Shir Tikvah is a kehillah kedoshah (holy community) joyfully revealing the intersections of Talmud Torah (lifelong Torah study), tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (justice), and hachnasat orchim (radical hospitality). We creatively wrestle with tradition and innovation as we invigorate Jewish spiritual life and transform the world.

The two sentence-long vision statement sits at the center of a page laid out like a Talmudic text. The strength of commitment is embraced by the central vision, the nuance underscored by the surrounding commentary.

Ultimately, we have an opportunity. Our mission and vision statements can reflect sensitivity to the nuance of words that is often glossed over in the rapid-fire texts and tweets that characterize many of our communications. If they are to touch our communities, a few carefully chosen adjectives may help convey the passionate commitment that we bring to our sacred work.♦

Dr. Ray Levi is the director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).

Ray Levi
Mission & Vision
Knowledge Topics
Published: Fall 2014