Partnering with Parents: It’s All About Mission
The relationship between a school’s families and its mission is the foundation for a successful, unified program. Day schools need to present their programs to prospective families with clear and compelling statements. A school’s mission statement should frame the organization’s purpose throughout a parent’s experience at a chosen school. A Jewish day school setting needs to create a strong definition of the educational objectives, both secular and Judaic, for families to envision goals and aspirations for their children. Day schools thrive on visions that convey the aspiration of building a central gathering place of Jewish values. They build a kesher, or connection, between parents and staff, thereby providing opportunities for future generations to take an important role in the school’s endeavors.
In Jewish tradition, parents play a significant spiritual role. Parents are obligated to teach their children through mitzvot and derech eretz, or how to behave in the world. Parents are the first to show their child a code of behavior which connects all people. The Torah reminds us that passing Jewish knowledge to our children is part of God’s holy plan:
You shall teach them diligently unto your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way and when you lay down and when you rise up.
Early teaching at home becomes the daily routine; using manners, keeping traditions, and celebrating holidays all can be part of an enriched Jewish childhood. Tradition’s role in a familial experience is to build and strengthen a Jewish foundation that children then bring to their first days of their formal Jewish education. Recognizing family tradition in the day school setting helps maintain respect for the child’s background while expanding their educational horizons.
Parents who see that the school can embrace the values that have been so carefully nurtured at home can then choose a program which parallels that familial image. Through the years children will develop a love for learning and understand that Judaism in the home has strong ties to the greater community of learning. The role of Jewish schools is to support the parents to fulfill their obligation. Parents seek schools with mission statements and visions that align with their own vision for their children’s lives.
The parents’ connection with the school and its mission begins well before the student crosses the school threshold and is welcomed onto the campus. By discussing expectations and concerns with parents during the admissions stage, a healthy relationship and standard of communication can be built between the parents and the staff. It is at this time that the mission of the program should be conveyed clearly and that inclusion of parents in the educational process should be emphasized.
It is important to develop an awareness among the staff of the school of the admissions process as a means to inspire future parents to see the whole program and to build strong relationships between the school and home. The initial meeting at school allows the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship addressing the goals of both the parents and the Jewish day school. A welcoming tour where parents are greeted by early childhood, lower, middle and high school staff, depending on the age range at the school, can give parents a powerful sense of the school’s ethos and forge a sense of understanding and connection that can help parents feel right at home.
Once a family has enrolled in a school, it is then the school’s responsibility to actively engage parents in a way that their child’s education follows them out of the classroom and into their home. The connection between parents and educators should be one of deliberate collaboration to instill integrity and Jewish values while focusing on the uniqueness of each child. Parents attracted to programs that are engaging for the whole family energize the school community. The creation of programs that allow parents to learn about and take a leadership role in their child’s education paves a new path toward renewed parent-educator relationships. With the use of Torah passages and other Jewish resources, community leaders, families and school leaders can strengthen their commitment to educational environments that both respect previously established Jewish identities and pushes the boundaries of learning. These programs strive to build a community of learners where success can be measured in non-traditional ways. Engaging parents in the process of learning can mirror the same objectives set forth in the mission of the school and broaden the vision of an active Jewish day school.
Parents should be encouraged to take a dynamic part in their child’s education. Simply reaching out to parents to help plan holiday-related activities, such as making hamentashen, allows parents to learn more about rules of kashrut and how to alter recipes to accommodate food concerns; parents may begin to ask about observances, sparking further learning and connection with the school. Educators may nurture commitment to Jewish values by cultivating the spiritual lives of their students, a process where parents must also be involved. A school’s Israel trip provides a chance for Torah study and learning about Israel in way parents may have not considered. The parents are aware that the curriculum has engaged the students in speaking Hebrew as a living language and that students have participated in projects which showcase the land they will now visit.
A prepared and informed staff may open up a valuable dialogue where Jewish learning is just as much an additional benefit for the parent as it is for the student. The school should set standards of communication that can be fostered and augmented by sending notes home, social events, and meetings with parents, educators, and school leaders to address the continuation of the school’s mission and vision in the classroom. This gathering of leaders and learners who seek understanding in an informal setting creates a comfortable space to share Jewish information.
As students move into middle and high school, parents may not feel as immersed in the school environment as they once were. Their children’s ideas, beliefs and values continue to evolve, and parents often seek a role in this development. This is a vital time for schools to remind parents that the program’s mission is centered around mitzvot and derech eretz, that every facet of students’ lives can impact the school community in bigger and better ways. Schools need to recognize that parents might plateau with their comfort level of participation, which may see peaks and valleys, and that they need encouragement to persevere in the relationship. The joys that parents found in early childhood participation need to be continually nurtured in differing ways as their children mature. Just as parents were welcomed and courted during the admissions process, they need to continue to receive attention, guidance and learning opportunities throughout their children’s career in the school. Every grade presents fresh opportunities for parental engagement. By continuing this vital relationship, schools both overtly and subconsciously continue to remind parents of the school’s mission and preserve the parents’ embrace of it.
A school that values communication and connection is a program which recognizes the need to maintain open and honest relationships. Schools can provide a safe space to challenge the ever-changing world children are encouraged to partake in and change. Students of these programs understand mitzvot and derech eretz; they seek the opportunities to become active members of their local communities and the Jewish community throughout the world. Even the most controversial topics need to be addressed to support parents who seek comfort; staff need to be well prepared, well informed and consistent in their mission as they listen to parental concerns and suggestions. Reinforcing the vision of the school through the eyes of parents will only deepen the Jewish experience for their children.♦
Alli Debrow is early childhood and kindergarten Jewish studies lead teacher at the Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, South Carolina. firstname.lastname@example.org