Pluralistic Day School Collaboration: Lessons Learned

Kim S. Hirsh

Four years ago, the MetroWest community began its first serious effort at collaboration. Here is what the situation looks like today:

  • Teachers from the three schools come together regularly for professional development sessions within their fields of study, whether Hebrew, language arts or social studies.
  • The schools’ development staffers share ideas and plan together on expanding alumni relations to build greater support and future leadership from among the schools’ graduates.
  • The community’s leading day school philanthropists, day school presidents, federation leadership and others join together three times a year to oversee collaborative grant-making for the schools and study common day school challenges, such as expanding affordability and teacher retention. Last school year, in the face of the economic crisis, this group was able to grant $100,000 in emergency scholarship funds to retain students whose parents had suffered job losses.
  • Top administrators are negotiating together for a day school-university partnership to improve science education in the three schools’ middle and high schools.

Most importantly, as a community, MetroWest has experienced a shift from “my day school” to “our day school community.”

Across the country today, communities are looking to collaboration as a way to help meet the growing challenge of maintaining quality day school education amid the need to cut costs. In MetroWest, we have found that collaboration can help our schools enhance excellence in a cost-efficient way, while simultaneously tackling the hard work of expanding affordability.

Thus, we are asked the following questions all of the time:

How did Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Community day schools learn to work together on common ground?

Most importantly, what are the critical ingredients for successful collaboration that other communities should look for?

While each community must tailor collaboration based on its own make-up and interests, certain key elements would be needed in almost any area. Here are six areas that helped us lay the foundation for success to date.

Common vision: Simply put, vision drives change.

The most critical step taken early on was to gather together leading philanthropists from the three schools as well as presidents and top administrators to discuss the common challenges facing the three schools. For the most part, lay and professional leaders from the schools had never met each other before, so it was energizing simply to be in the same room, acknowledging common problems and aspirations. Representatives of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest (UJC MetroWest), the local federation, as well as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) acted as the neutral moderators of these discussions.

At these parlor meetings and working sessions, the schools learned to share all of their critical data—enrollment histories, tuition assistance costs, annual fundraising, faculty salaries, and more. The schools found that they were more alike than different.

The walls were slowly coming down.

Together, we were able to articulate a common vision that “fired the engine” and continues to drive change today: High quality, affordable Jewish day school education is essential to ensuring a vibrant future of MetroWest and the broader American Jewish community. To achieve this, we must work together to greatly expand funding for affordability and excellence, investing today and building permanent funding for tomorrow.

Investment: If it is only professionals meeting together in a room, you won’t get very far with collaboration.

It takes more than ideas to create transformative change; it takes tachlis. Our vision laid the foundation of Metro West Day School Campaign, a community-wide $50 million endowment campaign to enhance affordability and secure academic excellence in the three schools, officially launched in April 2007. A dozen donors from the three schools—representing current parents, alumni parents, alumni and grandparents, as well as UJC MetroWest—came together to establish four sets of funds: a Community Day School Fund, supporting all three schools, as well as funds for each individual school. In this way, our community could help spur collaborative change while also meeting donor interest in targeting support for individual schools. Today, about 90 donors have committed nearly $22 million in current and future commitments (such as bequests) in all the funds combined.

Collaboration does not always require such a major investment. Over the past year, the Solomon Schechter day schools of New York and New Jersey have joined together in a marketing collaboration that required each school—or a private donor from that school—to put relatively modest contribution in a common “pot” to get things rolling. To date, these schools, coordinated by the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, have been able to hire a marketing consultant to help guide branding and use of electronic media for reaching an expanded audience.

Leadership: It is more than incidental that among 11 donor families who founded MetroWest’s collaboration were six former or current presidents of day school boards, as well as other board members and long-time volunteer leaders.

Change requires leadership—leaders who can see beyond petty differences and plan strategically for the future.

While the Community Fund drew the participants to the table initially, today the relationship among the professional leaders is also based on mutual respect and collegiality born of shared experiences, and the relationship among the philanthropic and community leaders is based on shared pride and a vision for the future.

Commitment and hard work: Lasting change does not happen overnight. From the beginning, our partners had to understand that it would take years of dedication and hard work—and a willingness continuously to crane our necks and steer around the inevitable roadblocks along the way.

Coordination from a central, neutral party: The UJC MetroWest and its partner agencies have played the critical role of coordination, providing a neutral, trusted partner to bring the three schools together. The fundraising piece is coordinated by the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, the Federation’s planned giving and endowment arm. Collaborative academic programming is coordinated by The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, UJC MetroWest’s Jewish identity agency. A part-time day school coordinator works with school administrators and keeps plans moving forward.

Leap of faith: Even the best-laid plans have an element of uncertainty. From the beginning, we really did not know where our collaboration would lead. We just knew it felt right, and that the old way of doing business in our community was no longer good enough.

Now, the spirit of working together has developed beyond anyone’s initial expectations.

“The Community Fund has really brought the schools together,” said Paula Gottesman, who, along with her husband, Jerry, are the leading benefactors and visionaries of MetroWest’s Day School Campaign and the resulting collaboration. A long-time supporter of day school education both locally and nationally, Paula now chairs the MetroWest Day School Advisory Council, the philanthropist-leadership group that oversees the Community Fund.

For the long term, the most important outcome is that the perspective on working together—from inside and outside the schools—has shifted. In all likelihood, there will never be a return to the old “our school alone” mentality.

“People are tied to individual schools, but their primary concern is Jewish education,” Paula Gottesman said. “The most important thing to me is that Jewish education thrives. It can only thrive if the groups cooperate. Collaboration is the only way to go.” ♦

Kim S. Hirsh is Development Officer with the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, the planned giving and endowment arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest. She can be reached at khirsh@UJCNJ.ORG.

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009