In 1997, The AVI CHAI Foundation began sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two week-long summer institutes at The Principals Center, a division of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Many of the 566 participants who have attended since then found the institute to be among the most transformative professional development experiences of their careers.

Beginning in 2013, the Foundation built upon the Harvard experience with a specific focus on helping leaders enhance their schools’ Jewish mission.  This involved adding several components to the program, including evening sessions at Harvard, coaching, check-ins throughout the following year, and networking with one’s cohort.  As part of the application process that begins today, we are featuring various alumni who will share their own stories and how this program helped them achieve their goals.  Hopefully, this will give those considering applying a taste of what’s possible within the context of this incredibly catalytic program. Applications for Harvard Summer 2019 are now open, deadline March 15! See here for more details.

This week, we hear from Lisa Schopf, Middle School Director, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C.

Lisa Schopf
Middle School Director, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C.
AOL 2016
The Secret to Making Professional Development Stick

How often has this happened to you?  You attend an amazing professional development experience, and get all inspired to apply the new ideas and practical advice in your own school.  You get back, climb on to the fast-paced treadmill of school, and those great new approaches remain in your mind or in your notes.  No serious change follows, and those great new programs you had wanted to start never take root.  A few months later, we remember our initial passion and regret the lack of follow-through.  If only we had had just a little more time or more support to make those best intentions the new reality.

AVI CHAI’s Harvard program for day school leaders gets that.  It helped transform and elevate my participation at the Harvard School of Education’s Art of Leadership (AOL) program, so that the seven days of learning and inspiration in Cambridge had an enduring impact on its participants well past that one week at the end of June. Being part of a day school cohort that met regularly, and then having the benefit of a year-long structure with access to solid, experienced mentors, made all the difference.

I took part in AOL in the summer of 2016.  I was in the midst of creating a new middle school at our school, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, and was very eager to learn from the experience and insights of others.  Certainly, Harvard offered a rich program of diverse classes and seminars. Each session provided practical lessons and inspirational messages, encouraging us to formulate a clearer understanding of our leadership style and to develop important skills.

However, what really helped this week stand apart from other professional development opportunities was that it had a built-in system for making sure that the learning and the inspiration would endure. First, the day school cohort members met each night to reflect on the learning, discuss how they could “bring it home” to their own schools, and share ideas. I learned so much from the experiences and insights of other day school administrators in my cohort.  Second, we each came into the program with an idea for a specific innovative program or approach that we wanted to develop further. I had a plan in mind for a weekly Scholars Forum in which our students would engage in a study of a contemporary issue, enriching their learning through working with experts in a variety of fields and by delving into Jewish texts to connect our sacred texts with contemporary contexts.  Meeting with Jonathan Cannon, our day school cohort’s facilitator, over the course of the week helped me further concretize the plan as he encouraged me to explore logistical issues in schools and contemplate big picture considerations.

We left the week-long program with a commitment to pursue the initiative we designed and with a structure to ensure it happened in focused and realistic ways.  We were encouraged to calendar the programs we planned and to produce write-ups of our programs, in what turned out to be an iterative process.  Acknowledging that our initial plans would likely need refinement from the early blueprints we had, Jonathan Cannon and his colleague Alana Kotler met with us regularly by phone to support the implementation of our plans. This is essential. Having this ongoing support and multiple opportunities to express my plans in writing and in consultations with them helped me clarify my thinking and adjust the plans for Scholars Forum.

The results have been amazing.  Our program has a clear structure, even as each year we take on a new subject of study. The four constants are:

  • engaging with a contemporary issue of relevance to our students;
  • delving deep into related Jewish texts which deepen our understanding of the subject;
  • involving experts to extend our learning and join with us in our studies;
  • and working on a student- directed and student-created project that helps us connect and contribute to others.

These elements have become the hallmarks of our program. Last year, the 6th grade students – our inaugural middle schoolers – created a documentary, complete with archival photos and footage, and interviews of past staff and alumni, for our school’s thirtieth anniversary.  It was so well done, we rented out a local theater and premiered it for the entire community!   This year, the students are creating a scavenger hunt of civil rights in DC to share with schools visiting the DC area for a middle school or high school trip.

All this came from a vague idea I had going to Harvard three years ago.  Through this remarkable program for day school leaders, that idea was transformed into concrete action that established a template that I expect to endure for years to come.  I encourage you to seek out and make the most of this exemplary summer program. And when you’re done, please write me at about what you learned and what you will bring back to your own schools – I’m always eager to learn!

Sixth graders at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School.

This article was originally published on the Avi Chai Foundation blog. Click here to view the original.