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Transparency & Collaboration.

[No, it’s not the name of the next buddy cop or lawyer series with a summer premiere on TNT, TBS or USA.  Although I’d probably watch it!  “Coming this summer on TNT, he’s a wisecracking lawyer looking for a second chance; she’s a divorced mother of three looking to get back in the game – together they are cleaning up this town one case at a time: ‘Transparency & Collaboration’.  Mondays at 9.”]

If I had to sum up our educational philosophy in just two words, it would be difficult to find two better words than those.  I have written at length about both concepts in prior posts (you can check here, here and here for good examples).  They encompass almost each facet of how we go about the business of teaching and learning.  Whether we are talking classroom pedagogy or stakeholder communication; professional development or parent partnerships; student motivation or governance – it is difficult to imagine any component of schooling not improving with greater transparency and collaboration.  We worked extremely hard last year to move down the path towards greater transparency and collaboration.  The data we collected (surveys, testing, etc.) indicate significantly positive results.  We took a step – we have many more steps to take.  We are spending our summer preparing those next steps and I will blog about the new initiatives and programs to be undertaken next school year in the 50th anniversary year of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  But let’s readjust our focus back a few degrees to the macro.  For transparency and collaboration cannot be hypocritically or artificially bound to the physical separation between school, shul and community.  In order to gain the maximum leverage of human, physical and financial resources to provide the highest degree of excellence, it is useful to begin thinking about an “academy” approach to Jewish education.  And we have.

Some background may prove useful to readers less familiar with our present model. (MJGDS stakeholders feel free to skip to the next paragraph!)  Our day school is in the minority of Solomon Schechter Day Schools owned and operated by Conservative synagogues.  (Fun fact: I’ve now headed two of them!)  Our school is owned and operated by the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  Like many synagogues, the Jacksonville Jewish Center operates a preschool (the JJC Preschool), a religious school (the Bernard & Alice Selevan Religious School), a [supplemental] high school (Makom), youth groups (USY) and even a summer day camp (Camp Ki Tov).  Add the day school to the mix and you can see the extraordinary size and scope of educational programming currently in operation at the synagogue!

Having spent a year, I can say that we operate with a high degree of collegiality.  The clergy,  professionals and staff who work at the Center interact with respect and, when circumstance dictates, work together well.  However, there is a big difference between collegiality and collaboration.  “Collegiality” is an attitude; “Collaboration” is an approach.  It is the difference between getting along with each other and realizing that you can’t get anywhere without each other.  It is the difference between separate schools, camps and programs and an academy.

Over the next year, the lay leaders, professionals and clergy of the Jacksonville Jewish Center will be working together as a task force to create a vision to bring our formal and informal educational programs together into what we are calling the “academy”.  It is a vision that calls for the tearing down of boundaries between our schools and programs in order to foster excellence in all.  It is a vision that acknowledges that the Preschool can learn from the Day School and the Day School can learn from the Religious School and the Religious School can learn from USY.  It is a vision that realizes that we are invested in each other’s success.  It is a vision that has the courage to acknowledge that there are many paths in Jewish education and that our task is not to decide for a family which the right one(s) are, but to provide excellence in each for the good of our children and our community.

I am honored to be the professional charged with the task of guiding the task force in its work during the upcoming 2011-2012 school year.  (I will be working with Mauri Mizrahi, the Center’s Vice President of Education, as the lay leader for the task force.)  Our ambitious goal is for the academy to launch in the 2012-2013 school year.  We are spending the summer reading books and articles on educational vision, team-building, Jewish education and the Jewish community so we can begin our work together with a shared vocabulary.  For the sake of transparency, we may create some kind of an “Academy Blog” as a means of communicating the work of the task force with greater detail to its stakeholders than I would choose to share to this blog’s audience…or not. We’ll have to see as we move forward.

It is a very exciting process.  Some of the advantages to operating in this mode are self-evident.  But there will surely be many fascinating questions raised.  You may be thinking about some of them right now.  In future blog posts (here or elsewhere), I will try to address them.  But let me address two right away:

1)  Our school took a wonderful step last year.  But it is just one step on a long journey. The work of the task force will not come on the back of my primary task, being Head of the Martin J. Gottleib Day School.  I will have to carve out the time somewhere else and I will.

2) Positioning the MJGDS within an “academy” at the Jacksonville Jewish Center does not impact its JJC-centricity.  The school has been owned and operated by the Center for 49 years – its ability to be a loving and welcoming place for all families regardless of affiliation has always been important and will continue to be important moving forward. Being part of an academy doesn’t make the school any more connected to the Center than it already is.  It simply (overly-simply) opens up the school to even more resources and excellence already in play.  As one example…if the Center’s USY chapter has excellence in team-building (and it does) we ought to employ those resources in our Middle School where team-building is paramount.  It really is no different than the value-added of having the Center’s clergy play the important role in our school that they already do.  We are simply extending the idea as far as it can fly for maximum benefit.

I look forward to sharing more with you as we begin our work.  There are some similar models already in existence (Pressman Academy in Los Angeles for one), but not many. I’d love to hear from someone in a community operating with something similar, so feel free and send me a comment or a tweet.  In the meanwhile, if you have any questions about the “academy”…please feel free and ask!