Federation: A Source of Steadfast Support for Our Day Schools
Local federations, such as the Greater MetroWest, New Jersey Federation where I work, play an important role in supporting Jewish day schools. Traditionally, schools rely upon the annual allocations and supplementary educational content that federations provide. More recently, federations have worked to create new opportunities for partnership. In our community, the investments that our Federation had made in our four local day schools (Golda Och Academy, Gottesman RTW Academy, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, and the Jewish Educational Center) supported their efforts to quickly pivot to virtual learning. This article will outline the ways in which we have supported our day school community during the Covid-19 pandemic to date and lessons we have learned.
DOLLARS (AND OPPORTUNITIES) ARE PERISHABLE
As soon as the pandemic struck and students and teachers were forced from their classrooms to their living rooms, the federation was proactive to offer help. It became clear that the best way to help our schools in that moment was to help their families. Traditionally, the federation rarely issued grants to day school families directly. This was clearly one of those moments. A quick needs assessment combined with a sense of urgency that compelled our lay leadership to act allowed us to pool together $275,000 (a combination of federation emergency funding, gifts from generous private donors and dollars from our day school community fund endowment) to be used toward scholarships of up to $2,000 per family to directly offset the cost of tuition for families with significant income loss.
A key lay leader set the tone for the entire project by framing these dollars as “perishable.” Though money shared is always money appreciated, the very value of delivering these dollars quickly, and during the height of the shutdown when families were most fearful, allowed its use to be even more impactful. We awarded grants to 181 families in our community in the course of just five weeks from the beginning of April to mid-May toward remaining tuition balances in 2019-20. This alleviated pressure for both the schools and the families, just as fear and uncertainty due to shut down in the spring was at its height. The same $275,000 disseminated in this current school year as supplemental tuition assistance dollars would have surely been less impactful.
Sometimes, process and perfection are less important than speed. This was one of those moments when it helped to be nimble. The balance of speed and process is something we will continue to reflect upon and urge our colleagues to as well.
SUPPORT HEADS OF SCHOOL
Heads of school are the drivers steering the truck down the freeway of Jewish day school education, carrying teachers, students and, this year, PPE, HEPA filters, tents and more. Heads of School face headwinds and roadblocks in the form of well-meaning and legitimate input from the community, board of trustees, parents and more. Federations can play an important role in reducing the isolation that heads may feel in their own school communities. In Greater MetroWest, we have worked hard over time to bring local heads together for meaningful discussion and opportunities for trust-building. Pre- pandemic, we convened them regularly. The routine nature of these meetings allows for meaningful support for one another and more regular practice of sharing information.
In addition, as an outside, neutral entity, federations can play a role in publicly thanking and honoring heads of school. Throughout this experience, we have considered various ways to acknowledge our heads of school. Small tokens or gifts, heartfelt private and public thanks as well as creative and thoughtful accolades are some ways that we have recognized their outstanding work.
KNOW WHEN NOT TO COLLABORATE
Collaboration has been our guiding principle since the establishment of our Day School Council over 12 years ago. And yet, when working with the schools throughout the initial crisis period, we were certain that this was not the time to invoke the collaboration principle. As the schools rallied to reopen, there were times when joint purchasing, joint conversation and joint advocacy were valuable—and we did all that. But at other times, we needed to respect the fact that each day school community is its own unique system, with its own needs to fill.
Each of the four schools in our catchment area required its own model for school opening based on many differing factors.
We were there to support them in their efforts, advocate for funding and then defend their individual choices. Collaboration is not an on/off button, but rather a continuum. In some respects, competition is healthy and necessary; schools can collaborate by engaging in respectful recognition, conversation and convening. At the other end, through ongoing collaboration, schools can achieve full teamwork toward a joint goal, and even total integration in certain areas. Federations can help determine which of these levels of interaction to activate at the appropriate time, in many different scenarios.
INVEST IN YOUR TEACHERS
Prizmah’s August pulse survey indicated clearly that when budgets need to be cut as they do now, the first thing to go is usually professional development (PD) for teachers. In Greater MetroWest day schools, a survey of educators, parents and alumni confirmed that the single best community-wide investment we made to help us weather the remote learning and adapted learning of school years 2019-20 and 2020-21 was the targeted, deliberate PD of more than 450 teachers. During the past nine years, the Quest for Teaching Excellence program has funded a dean of instruction at each school, school- based PD and collaborative programming. A coordinator drives the goals of the program and oversees its many pieces. The culture of improving professional practice has served the schools well as they moved into uncharted waters. While by no means perfect, this investment allowed our schools to fare well during the initial shutdown.
As teachers continue to rise to the occasion, we are offering mental health training sessions for faculty from the schools, as well as 1:1 counseling opportunities for teachers through a local federation agency. We believe that every single dollar that we have invested in PD for our teachers has provided great return. We would suggest that federations even with modest day school budgets consider the ways that running multifaceted PD programs can benefit the community.
ACCEPT THAT NOT EVERYTHING WORKS
This summer, we tried an alumni grant to attract new families to Greater MetroWest. Based on a “Smart Move” grant that we have been offering to families who move to Greater MetroWest and enroll in day school, we bet that many more families would be flocking to the suburbs from New York City. We invested time and dollars in the enhanced program to entice alumni, but only one family took advantage. We are reworking this program. Some initiatives have been more successful than others, but the intention to work with the schools toward a common goal helped build community and trust.
GET OUT OF THE WAY!
In a typical school year, we touch base with our schools throughout the summer and then leave them to their work during the first two weeks of school as everyone settles in. This summer, we worked closely with each of our schools on the reopening plans and then stepped back earlier, two weeks leading up to school opening and the first two weeks of school.
One of the best ways that federations can support their schools is to learn their workflow and then veer around it. Normally, federations hold schools accountable through an appropriate feedback loop, grant reports and impact reports. However, since the start of the pandemic we have worked to request significant funding on behalf of the schools while requiring minimal “process” on their part. Federations often require a great deal of reporting but can be flexible when necessary through strategic effort and institutional knowledge, even while working with them on major projects.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, BE THEIR ADVOCATE
Building longstanding partnerships with our schools, knowing their strengths, honoring their achievements, and then promoting the schools and advocating on their behalf is one of the greatest values that federation professional and lay partners can bring in supporting local schools. Federations can often see the wide-angle view that schools themselves do not immediately recognize. Federation can then step in to identify opportunities as needed. In our community, as the schools were busy working tirelessly to safely reopen, I had the opportunity to represent schools to donors in an effort to obtain significant reopening reimbursements.
Throughout this phase of the Covid-19 crisis, the foundations and partnerships we have worked hard to build for decades have given us the strength to meet the most pressing needs of our community. We will look back at this time as one of great sadness and unease, but we will also look back with satisfaction at the way we have pulled together to strengthen our day school–federation relationship.