I am thrilled to share this interview with amazing innovator Tammy Keces, founding head of Irvine Hebrew Day School.

Tammy Keces

Before opening the school Tammy was an educational consultant who provided professional development for administrators, school counselors, teachers, and staff. Her areas of specialty included implementation of Common Core and a comprehensive social-emotional learning curriculum for grades K-12. As a certified Positive Discipline Trainer, Tammy also led Positive Discipline trainings for educators and parents.

Irvine Hebrew Day School: A Story of Successful Growth and Community Building
The Irvine Hebrew Day School opened in 2014 with six Kindergarten students. Each year enrollment has grown, and one additional grade has been added. This year the school is K-4 with 38 students. Next year will be K-5 with a full Kindergarten class and 54 students already enrolled. 

Tammy describes the school as “very diverse Jewishly. More than half the families identify as Reform, with about 30% Orthodox. Many of the families were not looking for a Jewish education for their child(ren). They chose the school for its innovative best practices, strong social emotional curriculum, gold standards in excellence and meaningful character education. They might have chosen a public school, but they saw our school as an opportunity. Discovering the Jewish piece added something meaningful to their family life, and now they are building their Jewish practices and becoming part of a Jewish community. The Reform families meet the Orthodox families at the park on Shabbat so that their children can play together.” 

What is innovation?
Innovation is taking new ideas, bringing them to the forefront and adding them to what exists. At the same time, it’s not just improving on something; it’s creating something new…coming up with new solutions that have not been tried before. Innovation involves taking big risks, because there’s no model to follow, and using whatever you can to move forward. Our school embodies this definition because there was no model for our school before; it didn’t exist. Innovation has to add a new element or layer that has not previously been in place.

Our school embodies this definition (of innovation) because there was no model for our school before; it didn’t exist. 

Describe the innovative work you’re doing at your school.
The most innovative aspect of our school is our emphasis on social-emotional learning and cognitive-academic learning as a dual focus for success. The foundation of everything we do is Torah education. The goal is to create an inclusive environment with respect and Jewish knowledge. We ask, “How is this making us stronger as  Jewish individuals and connecting us as a Jewish community; and how can we move that into the wider world?” It starts with making sure that our students have strong interpersonal skills, communication skills, stress-coping abilities, and collaboration skills; and that makes them strong academically as well. We use a project-based STEAM/Israel curriculum and a unique Hebrew program inspired by Hebrew at the Center. All of the learning is interdisciplinary; our Jewish and general studies classes are connected and integrated in every aspect.

What is most exciting for you about your school’s innovative work?
Children that came to us lacking confidence or without strong social skills are thriving both socially and academically here. We look at children with challenges as our best success stories.

In my years as an educational consultant, I worked with many schools. I noticed that there were schools implementing project-based learning, social-emotional learning, growth mindset…but no one school was doing it all. I had a checklist in mind of the elements of what it would take to be successful, and when I was asked to open the school, I said, “We’re going to do it all. All the elements that support educational theory, Jewish practice, neuroscience, experiential hands-on learning including Jewish education….everything that we’re doing in one area, is also happening in the other areas. All of the teachers are implementing all of the practices across all the curriculum.”

I had a checklist in mind of the elements of what it would take to be successful, and when I was asked to open the school, I said, “We’re going to do it all.
All the elements that support educational theory, Jewish practice, neuroscience, experiential hands-on learning including Jewish education….everything that we’re doing in one area, is also happening in the other areas. All of the teachers are implementing all of the practices across all the curriculum.”

What is challenging about being an innovator?
Our biggest challenge is that we don’t yet have the language or definition to describe what we’re doing. We’re trying to articulate to our community who we are and what we’re doing, but it’s so different, so new, that it’s hard to capture in a word or phrase. For example, calling us a “community school” brings a certain image to mind, but that doesn’t really create a full picture of our school. 

What do you need to be successful as an innovator?
You have to be able to gather a lot of information, and have some design thinking in place to see the possibilities. You must be a risk-taker, able to be fluid and quick to make adjustments to what is not working.  Hopefully innovators are efficient because time and money are big factors, and we don’t want to use children as our test cases. We want to see impact quickly.

You have to have a pioneering spirit. I consider the parents that started with us our co-innovators because they were pioneers with us.

How do you continue learning?
I access resources in every field of study. I read a lot of books, and I’m going to start pursuing my EdD. I am a passionate lover of learning and have always sought out professional development.  Prizmah has been a great resource for me. The people are experts in their fields, and I feel very comfortable accessing those people directly. I heard Aryeh Ben David of Ayeka speak at the Prizmah conference and what he said really resonated with me, so I’ve started to have ongoing conversations with him. I look for experts, and I communicate with them. 

Where do you reflect on and share your learning process?
Writing and teaching others are big areas of sharing for me. I write regular monthly articles for our Orange County Jewish Life magazine. I wrote the forward to Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers, and I’m going to write a new book on positive discipline in the Jewish home and school. I also travel to other schools to work with them on positive discipline, and I worked with Alanna Kotler of the JDS Collaborative who started a positive discipline cohort.

What inspires you in your work?
Seeing the children thriving and wanting them to develop into their best selves…seeing them gain confidence and skills, that’s what drives me, seeing their joy and their love. They love being at school. They don’t want to leave. I’m inspired by parents sending me pictures and messages showing their children’s love of learning and how it is moving beyond the classroom.

I’m inspired by the joyful atmosphere in our school. Every Friday we have a lunch party with Kiddush and a Shabbos feast. At the end of the meal we dance, and on birthdays we lift the birthday child up in a chair. It’s a celebration of what we do all week, and it is so genuine and loving.

What book has inspired you?
The Positive Discipline book by Jane Nelsen is a foundational book. The Soulful Educator by Aryeh Ben David, made a big impact on me. And The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller.

What inspiration can you share with other innovators? 

You can do it all. Don’t be afraid of trying new things. Be strong and true to your ideals, and believe in what you’re doing. Surround yourself with like-minded people who share your passion.