Golda Och Academy’s 9th grade STEM class tests LEDs; photo courtesy.

By Adam Shapiro

[This is the third article in our “effective collaboration” series, written by alumni of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Davidson School recently launched the Leadership Commons, which is a project of The Davidson School dedicated to building educational leadership that works together to create a vibrant Jewish future.]

When faced with difficult questions, coupled with a desire to move our students and school forward, we must first start with a vision. But vision is never enough. We must also find and engage with partners and stakeholders to join the conversation. We must gather everyone around the same table – establishing a shared goal that will move the organization forward.

At Golda Och Academy, our goal is to inspire students and to fulfill Michael Steinhardt’s stated goal of making Jewish education relevant and exploring what it means to be “at the cutting edge of who the Jewish people truly are.” That calls on us, as a school, to be the architects of transformative change. Reading Steinhardt’s eJewish Philanthropy piece “The Future of Jewish Day Schools” (April 14, 2016), our collaborative undertakings were validated, as was our effort to more fully bring our mission to life in regards to “unlock[ing] the potential of our students by cultivating their critical thinking skills and nurturing their intellectual curiosity.”

Several years ago our school began a process of introspection and investigation. This led us to formalize our desire to grow and expand our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) offerings as a way of investing in our students’ future: preparing them to navigate life in the rapidly changing world. To create such transformative change, especially in a Jewish day school, we recognized the importance of involving all of the institution’s key stakeholders – teachers, students, administrators, and supporters.

Each has valuable ideas and assets to contribute, and each may feel disengaged or become contrary if not involved in a major change process. We made the decision to fund and grow our STEM offerings with great care to involve these many different constituents, despite the reality that deep collaboration can often have its challenges.

We brought together our Lower and Upper School science teachers, experiential educators and administrators, our director of development, chief financial officer, and head of school, a supportive and dedicated donor (and school grandparent) – Dr. Lynne B Harrison – and the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education all to the same table. We engaged in site visits to other institutions, and many discussions led us to create a distinctive STEM track for high school students who choose this field.

What is the result? We now have a beautiful (and fully funded) 4,500-square-foot STEM center addition that has given our students the space to grow and put the financial resources in place to allow our students and teachers to dream big and bring their ideas to life. Our students can now study in an environment that encourages them to think creatively, problem solve with their classmates, and attempt to tackle real-world situations.

They can learn the same skills of collaboration that were critical to the formation and completion of this project. Our students in this program spend the first part of each school year in a more formal classroom setting; the second semester is dedicated to the creation of Capstone projects where students are challenged to face real-world conflicts/problems and propose viable solutions. This hands-on learning and problem-solving experience is vital when it comes to preparing our students for life outside the classroom walls and the professional work they will be engaged with in the future.

Through our collaborative efforts, our STEM program has expanded its reach to other departments in our school. It has been thrilling to see the intersection between Judaic Studies and STEM over these last few years. Our students have programmed circuit boards to let our community know when the lemon and lime trees planted for Tu B’Shvat needed water, have designed and printed mezuzot for the doorposts in our school, and will have the opportunity to interact with scientists at the Weizmann Institute when they are in Israel as 12th-grade students living, learning, and developing an even closer bond to the land and people of Israel.

Over the last two years, one of the members of our Judaic Studies faculty worked closely with both our art teacher and our STEM coordinator to design, create, and print a detailed sephira chart to count the Omer – using a STEM approach to address the Jewish mystical thinking of the 49 steps to personal refinement that one takes between Passover and Shavuot. Recognizing that the period when we count the Omer requires us to strive to improve, mature, and think about ourselves and our own spiritual state, this additional layer of creative thinking and expression for our students provides them with additional opportunities to grow and develop as individuals. None of this synergy would have come to life without tremendous thought, a desire for collaboration, and a need to address the ever-changing world around us.

With the type of thinking Steinhardt suggests in mind, the Jewish day school field will grow and modern occupations will be filled with our well-prepared and well-positioned graduates – thanks to the virtues and the dedication to collaboration of all involved.

Adam Shapiro is Head of School of Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is an alumnus of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) and earned an MA in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

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