Beyond Academic Excellence: Establishing the Competitive Advantage for Day Schools in a Challenging Market

Screenshot: Solomon Schechter of Westchester website.

By Michael A. Kay, PhD

Over the past 10 years, the market for North American Jewish day schools, particularly those that are not strictly Orthodox, has shifted dramatically. Affiliation with religious institutions in general has declined, and day school enrollment has been affected by this trend. Financial pressures have increased tremendously, as school tuition has risen faster than disposable income. And the very notion of parochialism in American society has been called into question, challenging schools to make the case for a type of educational community that is often perceived to be insufficiently heterogeneous.

In the corporate world, companies react to evolving market demand in different ways. Some make the bold decision to completely re-envision their products and services in order to meet shifting needs – think AT&T and IBM. Others, such as Chevrolet and Domino’s Pizza, publicly commit themselves to dramatically improving their existing products in order to attract customers to try them anew.

Neither of these approaches is an ideal strategy for Jewish day schools. We are committed to an ancient, sacred mission and to the enactment of a particular vision for the world, rather than to long-term survival for its own sake, and are therefore appropriately reluctant to pursue dramatic redefinition of our basic product. And while it is crucially important for our schools to offer a top-tier general academic program, even dramatic improvement in this area is simply not enough to differentiate ourselves sufficiently. Families have many educational options, and nearly all of them claim academic excellence as a primary selling point – it is therefore unrealistic to expect to attract attention to our schools with a marketing message that sounds like merely another voice in this chorus.

Ultimately, many non-Orthodox day schools face the unenviable situation of a dwindling core target population, strong competition at all price points (including free), and considerable financial and psychological obstacles to attracting the attention of new populations, even if the central educational product is top-notch. Must we therefore resign ourselves to a path of retrenchment?

Not so fast. The key to successfully turning the heads of mission-appropriate prospects who might not have seen themselves as “day school families” may lie in a tripartite strategy: placing our programmatic and marketing emphasis on building character, establishing an educational “Hedgehog Concept,” and promoting our schools as models for the pluralistic Jewish and American societies of the future.

Building Character

When I speak with families about the factors driving their decision to enroll their children in our school, the concept of Jewish schools as “guaranteed mensch factories” is cited more than any other. This focus on character, values, and kindness is not only a moral imperative, but a strategic opportunity as well. In a world dominated by news of childhood anxiety, bullying, and exclusion, schools that develop reputations as genuine bastions of respect and inclusivity and as incubators of ethical conscience can truly distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. Should our schools be able to accomplish this successfully – a difficult task not to be taken for granted, as our communities face the same at-times-insidious social pressures as others – we should be unabashed about promoting it as a selling point. Increasing the likelihood of nurturing a human being of strong character matters significantly to families, even in places where academic rigor reigns.

Educational Hedgehog Concept

Jim Collins introduced the Hedgehog Concept in his landmark 2001 book Good to Great, based upon the work of philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Collins argues that every organization should focus its attention on an activity that 1) inspires passion in the organization, 2) is something at which the organization can be the best in the world, and 3) drives the generation of sufficient resources (in the case of schools, students, and funds) to enable the organization to thrive.

Jewish day schools have the capability to draw attention to themselves by establishing a Hedgehog program – something of widespread appeal but outside the traditional core of academic subjects and sufficiently splashy to attract broad attention. At Schechter Westchester, our Engineering and Entrepreneurship (E2) program seeks to fulfill this function. In this four-year sequence, students learn advanced principles of coding, electronics, and physical computing, and they work collaboratively in our three maker spaces to design products, fabricate working prototypes, and pitch their companies to real-life entrepreneurs. Each new product is designed to address a social problem in the world, in pursuit of what we call Tech-un Olam. Parents rave about the technical engineering competencies that the students develop, as well as the creativity, collaboration, empathy, and public-speaking skills that are crucial to success in the program. The number of Schechter Westchester graduates accepted to university programs in engineering and computer science has skyrocketed, and one team has a US patent pending. The program has attracted media attention, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding, and several students who reported that E2 was a decisive factor in their choosing us over public school.

Modeling the Jewish/American Future

Jewish day schools prepare students more effectively than any other type of institution for engaging with diversity. This seemingly counterintuitive statement may in fact be our most valuable selling point in the 21st century. Jewish tradition has long been characterized by the interplay of multiple perspectives and the imperative to craft community among individuals and groups whose systems of belief and practice differ from one another. Our schools are uniquely suited to inculcate students with strong, individualized identities while preparing them to engage actively with difference in their adult lives. We hear repeatedly from our graduates that on their college campuses, they feel empowered to establish substantive relationships with people whose worldviews and backgrounds differ markedly from their own, because they had spent so much time in their Judaic studies classes learning to articulate their own perspectives and interacting meaningfully and respectfully with people with different viewpoints. By emphasizing our unique ability to train young people of divergent views to build community with one another without seeking homogeneity, Jewish day schools may be able to overcome damaging misconceptions and position ourselves as a highly progressive educational option that is closely aligned with the demands of the modern world.

The fundamental challenge facing our field is ensuring that we can differentiate our schools’ core educational product from that of other outstanding institutions, particularly as our unique brand of Jewish life and learning is proactively sought out by a shrinking core constituency. Once the baseline expectation of fundamental academic excellence – crucial to have, but probably not enough to be truly differentiating – has been ensured, perhaps the most promising path may be to focus our leadership attention on the prioritization of three areas:

  • Cultivating a culture of radical menshlechkeit within the school and – importantly – a public reputation to match;
  • Establishing a buzzworthy, Hedgehog Concept program that is related to an academic discipline but sufficiently distinctive; and
  • Emphasizing the critical role that Jewish day schools have to play in modeling the pluralistic world of the future by nurturing the now-indispensable skills of developing an individualized identity, articulating it eloquently, and engaging constructively with people who think and act differently.

This combination may present a key to attracting an ever-broader array of families and enabling our schools to thrive though the uncertainty of a changing market.

Dr. Michael Kay is head of school of Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. He holds a PhD in educational leadership and Jewish studies from New York University and a BA in Religion and History from Harvard University. He is an alumnus of the Day School Leadership Training Institute and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

Cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.com

This is the sixth article in our series on day school leadership from the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. In this series, alumni of our leadership institutes share their visions of effective day school leadership, reflecting on their aspirations for the field and describing paths toward those goals. This article previous appeared in Gleanings, the ejournal of The Davidson School.

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