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For Day Schools, Hard to Find Good Leaders — and Keep Them

October 18, 2006
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A dearth of leadership talent is affecting not only the likes of Yahoo! and Microsoft; it’s also wreaking havoc on the Jewish day school system, as schools find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified heads. Representatives from 11 Jewish educational organizations will meet next month at a “think tank” at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York with strategic planners and other Jewish and general education experts to look for solutions to what they describe as a crisis.

“As soon as you bring it up with those involved in Jewish education, it’s like bringing up the topic of in-laws with a group of married people — there are a lot of nodding heads,” said Nina Butler, an educational consultant at the Avi Chai Foundation. The foundation has a special focus on day school education, and is one of the think tank’s organizers.

To some extent, the day school system has too many jobs for too few qualified applicants because it’s the victim of its own success, said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE.

“This is basically a story about the phenomenally rapid growth of the day school system in North America,” he said. “For the last couple of decades, the addition of new schools and the expansion of schools has put a tremendous demand on the Jewish community to supply leaders and teachers. The growth has outstripped the capacity.”

There are roughly 800 North American day schools, and 60 new schools have opened since PEJE, a collaboration of major philanthropists to improve Jewish education, started in 1997, Elkin said. The number of children in day schools has increased by 100,000 since 1982 to more than 200,000 today, according to a 2003 Avi Chai census.

Frances Urman, director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, founded by Avi Chai and run out of JTS, said her office has seen a “tremendous” influx of calls from schools across the country looking to fill their top spots. Her office runs a 14-month fellowship to train prospective day school leaders.

Marvin Schick, a senior advisor to the Avi Chai Foundation, said finding heads of school isn’t the only issue; there’s also the problem of keeping them.

Schick recently completed research for a study into Jewish day school leadership. He sent out 500 questionnaires to Jewish heads of school and got 400 responses.

The study looked at career path, salary, job responsibilities, career satisfaction and other areas. The data won’t be ready for release for several months, but Schick said it shows that a “significant number” of Jewish heads of school are “new or fairly new” at their jobs.

Most started out as teachers without expecting to go into administrative work, he said, and one out of five continues to teach on top of other duties. Schick also found that job satisfaction is very high among heads of school, with 90 percent of those who returned the questionnaire reporting less than 1 percent job dissatisfaction.

Given those figures, Schick said it was “remarkable that there is so much movement in the field.”

PEJE’s Elkin said the average retention rate for heads of Jewish schools is three to six years, hardly enough time for an educator to leave a mark. For the schools to be successful, they have to figure out how to raise that rate to six to nine years, Elkin said.

When principals do switch jobs, it’s often because they find better opportunities, advancement or a preferable location, said Schick, who noted that “very few were fired.”

Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that schools are popping up in small Jewish communities, such as Kerry, N.C. and Asheville, N.C., said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, an umbrella organization for the country’s 90 Jewish community schools.

Getting qualified people to leave bigger Jewish communities in the Northeast is often a problem, and getting them to stay when a job in a larger city opens up is difficult, he said. But even five schools in Boston are looking for heads, Avi Chai’s Urman said.

A head of school functions like a CEO, maintaining curriculum and serving as liaison among the school’s board, faculty, parents and student body, while making sure that school finances are in check. Finding someone who is qualified to do all this — and who also has experience working at a Jewish school — is nearly impossible, Kramer said.

He added that about eight RAVSAK schools — about 10 percent of the schools in the system — look for new heads each year.

That’s why Debra Altshul-Stark, president of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, considers her school very lucky to have found a qualified applicant to take over as head of school this year. The founding headmaster of the 25-year-old school retired five years ago, and the school couldn’t find a qualified replacement.

The board decided to try a three-headed approach. That flopped, as did a model of two heads of school.

When the board decided to go back to a single-head model, Stark was wary because the first search had been so disappointing. This time, however, 25 candidates applied; one had the general educational and Jewish educational background — and wanted to move to Milwaukee.

In any case, Elkin said the JTS think tank won’t focus on griping about talent retention, because those involved already know the problem. Instead it will focus on finding a solution, because that’s something that affects schools of all religious stripes, as evidenced by the participation of leaders of RAVSAK, the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association, the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools and Yeshiva High Schools, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools and even a few Chasidic schools.

“For those of us who work in the field, it’s a perennial topic,” Elkin said. “The common reality is that we have some catching up to do to meet demand.”

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