I spend hours in strategy meetings and conference calls, mediate between different people, plan events, review budgets and draft documents and spreadsheets. You might guess that I am a high-powered attorney; in reality, I am a parent leader at my children’s Jewish day school.
I gain tremendous satisfaction from volunteering for our day school. I believe in the importance of a quality Jewish day school education, and I also believe that parents are too often an untapped resource that can make a real impact in Jewish day school education.
It started for me in September 2008. As a stay-at-home mom, I walked into the elementary school at Schechter School of Long Island with two babies in tow, excited for my oldest child to begin kindergarten. My parents, who were Holocaust survivors, sent me to a Jewish girls high school, and I wanted to similarly instill a Jewish identity in my own children.
At Schechter, my daughter was welcomed into a loving educational environment where hugs and smiles from the principal are common and where parents come together to create special programs for the children. Very quickly I knew that I wanted to be a part of that community, working with other parents who wanted the same thing for their children — meaningful school experiences that would enhance their Jewish pride, self-esteem and identity.
Over time, I have gone from “cookie mommy” to parent association co-president, and I have become a proactive partner with the school administration. One advantage that I have found at Schechter over public school is the accessibility of the administration, something that has enabled me to have an impact.
Part of what has made our parents’ association successful is that we encourage parents to, instead of assuming the role of “upset customer,” become active “problem solvers.” With an open and willing partner in the senior leadership, the parent association now articulates concerns, offers possible solutions and presents a plan of action. Using this new approach, we recently collaborated with the elementary school administration to revitalize the school library: replacing outdated books, installing software that digitized the holdings and formulated a plan to build a media center with online access to some subscription services. Our success was rooted in our new vision of parent leadership — where we assumed the position as strategic partners within the school, not merely customers demanding to be served.
Seeing how this approach was effective in making a difference in my school, I now aspire to take my leadership to another level — to impact not only on my school but the larger field of Jewish day school education. That’s why I joined the Jewish Day School Parent Leadership Network at The Jewish Education Project.
Through this network, I am developing peer support for this idea and encouraging other parents to become proactive leaders and co-creators of their children’s education. The potential impact this could have on the parent/day school relationship is enormous as we grow the network of parents in schools across New York.
As Irene Lehrer Sandalow, director of the Parent to Parent Initiative, which oversees the parent leadership network, explains, “through the parent leadership network, we can promote systemic and strategic leadership of parents across day schools and on an ongoing basis. We will increase the number and enhance the role of parent leaders in Jewish day schools, empowering and preparing them to offer strategic leadership. Parent Leadership in the network will impact the quality of schools by partnering with professionals to advance the mission and strategic goals.”
As parents, we have a unique opportunity — not only to enhance the quality of individual day schools but also to promote day school education in the larger community. After all, we experience its impact on our children on a daily basis. Our schools need our leadership — but parents must take the right approach in order to achieve success:
Timing is everything. Present your concerns and plan with your administration under the right circumstances, showing sensitivity to your school’s calendar. Meet with the administration when they have time to evaluate your issues and ideas effectively. Recap a meeting or call after a program — also consider scheduling an end-of-year review.
Brainstorm ideas. Demonstrate that you want to work with administration on the solution, propose suggestions and ask for their thoughts and feedback. Successful brainstorming takes place when participants feel comfortable with one another. The higher the comfort level among the group members, the less defensive each participant will be.
Present a plan of action. Ideas are a wonderful basis for a detailed plan, creating positive momentum that advances the mission of the school.
Be open to compromise, listen to others’ needs to understand their perspective, and then work together for what’s most important — the educational, emotional and social development of our children who represent the future of our Jewish community.
Deborah Gubin is the co-president of the Schechter School of Long Island Parent Association and a participant in the Parent to Parent initiative of The Jewish Education Project.