After a long, and at times, arduous three-year process, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County became an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for the Middle Years Programme. As the first Jewish day school in this Metropolitan area to become an IB school, we join a short list of three Jewish schools in North America to have achieved this prestigious accreditation (with the others in Toronto, Mexico City, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) and six secular schools in New Jersey. Our Schechter school now ranks among 1,500 IB Middle Years Programme schools around the world. What's more, we are proud to lay claim as the first Jewish day school to tailor this gold-standard educational framework to our Judaic studies curriculum. This means we are creating a uniquely Jewish experience for our students to connect their Jewish learning to the world around them and to turn their learning into action. We chose the IB because it offers a powerful lens through which we can better integrate and teach general studies and Jewish text, traditions and Hebrew language. The journey has been demanding and has called for the support of our teachers, students, parents, and board; it has paid off.
We have achieved the first big milestone in this process of school change; however, we recognize we are still at the beginning of a journey. Our success will depend on our continued commitment to full implementation of all aspects of this program. Below are a few key lessons we have learned along the way that we believe would help any school embark on a similar school-change initiative:
- Identify your strengths (or resources to draw upon), and know the challenge or problem you are trying to solve. This may seem obvious, but change for change’s sake is not a strong-enough reason for change. What is the challenge you want to address? If your enrollment is going down, you first need to figure out why. You have to reach beyond, “We always have room for growth” to a specific set of questions you are trying to answer, such as, “How can we make the Middle School experience more cohesive?” or “How can we make students’ learning more relevant to their lives?”
- Devote significant resources (i.e. time and money), and determine whether your budget can accommodate what you are hoping to achieve. Do you have someone with the time and support to shepherd the school through a change process? You must have the support of your board, and it is likely you also will need to secure donors to help fund your new initiative. Are you willing and able to adjust teaching schedules to allow for common planning time among faculty? Are you prepared to change the student schedule, if needed, to accommodate changes you hope to make to the student experience?
- Keep a singular focus. Once you decide on your plan, do not plunge simultaneously into other new initiatives. You simply cannot take on more than one change project at a time -- even if one seems smaller or less significant in scope. Even if you know your writing curriculum needs a little tweaking, put that on hold for one to two years until you have your big initiative well under way. Your staff will not have the bandwidth to manage more than one change effort and will lose faith in you if your message or priorities become muddled.
- Set realistic, reasonable goals and hold yourself accountable. Use a backwards planning approach, and identify how many years you will need to achieve the first major milestone. Yes, you read that correctly… years. Significant change happens over time. Once you have the big goal in place, continue to work backwards with monthly goals and then weekly goals. Share this document with your faculty because people need to see where they are heading and to feel they are accomplishing things along the way when measurable results are not yet evident.
- Listen. Engage your faculty, students, parents, and board members in an honest process allowing them space to reflect throughout the process. Change is hard in so many ways, and people need to express what they fear they will lose, what they hope they will gain, and what they need in order to be successful. They want to feel heard and know that their input matters. You will get their “buy-in” only if you treat them as the significant stakeholders they are.
- Keep track of the big picture and the small details, and regularly come back to WHY you are doing this and HOW you will do it. For example, you may start with a big conversation about assessment from a theoretical place (e.g. What is assessment? Why do we assess?) and then move to the nitty-gritty of how to build the types of assessments for which you are striving.
- Create a network of people outside your school who can help you. We were blessed to receive a JEIC Grant, and this allowed us to benefit from Rabbi Shmuel Feld’s periodic visits to provide feedback. We also sought out advice from people in the IB world. It is so easy to lose perspective when you are in the process of change. Having people come in from the outside to see your school through an unbiased lens is tremendously helpful. Don’t be afraid to open your doors and make your practices visible. Be ready and open to receive feedback.
- Say thank you often and in many ways. Thank everyone involved in the process -- from faculty to students to parents to board members to donors and others. Make no mistake about it… your teachers need to be thanked the most. People need to know you appreciate and value them. Change is hard work. Thank them publicly; thank them privately. Thank them specifically with your words and generally with celebrations (e.g. breakfasts, lunches, gift cards etc.).
- Clearly communicate your vision with all your constituencies and update all stakeholders along the way to keep everyone included and “buying in.” Keep the messaging on your initiative as singular as your focus. No one should wonder what you are doing or why. Your messaging should be clear and consistent throughout the process.
- Be patient. Remind yourself every day that lasting results take a long time to put into place. There are no quick fixes. A weight loss analogy works well here. Typically, when people go on crash diets to lose weight quickly, they put that weight back on. Sustained weight loss is the result of small changes over time when weight comes off slowly. This is true with change initiatives. When you rush to make change, such as handing a new curriculum to teachers without the proper support and training, it won’t stick. Teachers won’t buy-in or be able to achieve the desired results if they don’t understand what is being asked of them. Systemic change takes a lot of work and time. You won’t see significant outcomes right away. Don’t give up. There will be moments when it doesn’t feel worth all of the effort and resources you are devoting to the project, and the temptation to abandon ship will be great. Continue to devote the necessary resources, and remind your staff of each incremental accomplishment so everyone can feel successful.