On November 6, Associate Principal Rachel Haron and I traveled to Washington D.C., where we had the extraordinary privilege of accepting on behalf of Bi-Cultural Day School the 2017 National Blue Ribbon School award, at a reception hosted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and presented by the Department of Education.
To be sure, earning the designation of 2017 National Blue Ribbon School is a great honor. After all, it is an honor shared by only 342 schools in the United States—only one of them a Jewish day school—and only five of which are in Connecticut.
But when colleagues and community leaders ask us, as many have, what makes for an award-winning school, our answer is: We really don’t know—because we never set out to become an award-winning school. What we did set out to become is a school of excellence. The award is simply a consequence of having achieved—and continuing to achieve—that goal.
So the question remains: What makes for a school of excellence?
Of course, elements of excellence may vary somewhat from school to school. But I believe it is possible to zero in on several characteristics that are common in all exceptional successful Jewish day schools and I welcome the opportunity to share it with other educators and school communities.
Create and nurture a school culture rooted in Jewish values, such as chesed.
Recruit, retain and reward the best and the brightest faculty and administrators. Make a substantial commitment to professional development for faculty so that they continue to master their teaching skills and stay abreast of the latest techniques for classroom success.
As educators, continually seek meaningful ways to evolve and change. Take chances and don’t be afraid to fail. We don’t have to be perfect—we just have to be brave.
“Globalize” the school community. That is, the school’s borders should extend beyond your campus. Make the school an integral part of the broader community; involve the broader community in the school. Create opportunities for students to become involved in community projects. Teach students that they play an important role in the growth and well-being of the community they live in.
Involve parents and families in the school. Create volunteer opportunities that give family members a stake in the success of the school as a community. Parental participation also sends the message to students that their parents believe in the importance of education and are willing to make time to support students’ educational experiences and efforts.
Keep a keen eye on both today and tomorrow. Build your endowment and ensure that the school has a financially sustainable future so that tomorrow’s generation of families is as well served by the school as the current generation.
Track student outcomes over time to learn where your school’s strengths and especially weaknesses may lie. How well is your school preparing its students for the next leg of their life journey?
Provide strong leadership. Effective leaders are visible, able to successfully convey the school’s goals and visions, collaborate with teachers to enhance their skills and are involved in the discovery of and solutions to problems.
Create goals and direction. Administration should actively construct goals and then effectively communicate them to students and/or teachers. Student performance improves when the school community works toward common goals that are clearly communicated and shared by all.
Don’t be shy! Celebrate your school’s achievements with your school community—it will increase pride among your students, faculty and families. And take every opportunity to share your best practices with other schools—what strengthens one strengthens us all.
By Jacqueline Herman
Jacqueline Herman is the head of school at Bi-Cultural Day School.