Friday, December 26, 2008

Chanukkah greetings

What makes a successful school?

There have been academics working on this question for decades now, and none has come up with a satisfactory answer. Answers in the plural, yes, but not a single, all-encompassing, final answer. Why not? Because truthfully there is no single answer. A successful school is a combination of many fragments - and all those fragments have to be in place for a school to be truly successful. So maybe the question would be better phrased:

What are the many fragments that make a successful school (and do we have them all at Temple Sinai? Yes we do.)?

Teachers. Ask the general public what makes a successful school, and generally they'll say: the teachers. And it's true, up to a point. If you don't have good teachers, you won't have a good school; to be a great school, you need great teachers. But the teachers can't do it on their own.

Leadership. In our case, being a school that is part of a synagogue community, leadership too comes at many levels. The commitment of our Lay Leaders on both the Board of Trustees and the School Governance Committee, plus all those dozens of people who are regularly volunteering for a hundred different tasks and activities, means that the future is being taken care of, through Strategic Planning and Strategic Financial Planning, leaving the day-to-day running of the institution in the capable hands of the professionals.

Administrators. 'The Board runs the future, the Administrators run the present': the motto for any successful school. Temple Sinai has four schools, and four truly outstanding Principals, dedicated, caring, professional, committed to academic excellence for the students and professional development for the teachers.

Parents. Yes, the parents. The evidence is everywhere. Parents who try to run a school generally ruin it. Parents who believe they are paying fees and therefore the school is at their bidding, undermine that school, and their children's education. But parents who make a commitment to support their school, through fund-raising, through voluntary activity, by serving on committees, and most importantly by building a constructive dialogue between home and school in which both parties are working together for the best interests of the children, now there's a recipe that really works. And parents who role-model for their children the kind of behavior that both school and parents expect, who teach by example an enthusiasm for learning and culture, and who demonstrate through their own action a deep care for the needy in society, those are the parents whose children generally make it to the very top.

Students. Strangely, these are the least important ingredients in the cake - but also, of course, the most important. Why the least important? Because a great school should be able to teach any child, to the very best of that child's abilities, regardless of their gifts or learning difficulties, regardless of their starting point. Why the most important? Because a great school cares about each individual, and because the students are the proof. Want to know if it's a great school or not - ask the alumni.

Facilities. At the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was negotiating with General Titus for a school at Yavneh, Rabbi Chanina sent a note to the Sanhedrin. 'Why are we negotiating with the Romans? We don't need a school. Give me a single copy of the Torah, and a place to sit with my students. There is no subject I can't teach, sacred or secular, from that one book, and in that one place.' Today, we like to have our Torah on the computer, and sports halls and fields for some competitive-cooperative athletic relaxation, and an auditorium would be nice, why not a music room, a student lounge? Rabbi Chanina remains correct. The quality of a school's facilities do not determine whether it is a good school or not. They may be the pretty cover by which we judge the book, but they are not the book itself. A school with great facilities may still be an unsuccessful school.

Dedication. This goes without saying.