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A Rabbi's Recap of Middle School Merger Discussions

November 10, 2012 By:
Rabbi Neil Cooper
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Rabbi Neil Cooper
In response to angst over the future of the city's two Jewish middle schools, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El Rabbi Neil Cooper convened a meeting at his Wynnewood congregation. The following is a letter he wrote detailing what they discussed. 
 
November 10, 2012 / 25 Heshvan 5773
Dear Day School Parents,
 
Nearly 100 people gathered Thursday night to listen and to consider carefully issues relating to our Saligman and Barrack middle schools. Discussions regarding the future of our schools are taking place formally, by way of a select group of leaders of each school, a group we shall call "the Committee of 6". In addition, informal conversations are being held throughout the community between middle school and parents and other concerned parties.
 
Our gathering Thursday night was intended to provide a forum and a format for those informal conversations so that those discussions could be shared.
Our gathering, held between 7:00 PM and 9:00 PM at our synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel - Beth El, gave those who attended an opportunity to listen to their peers, to understand the issues from different perspectives, and to see if there was, indeed, a sense of consensus between the parents.   Among those in attendance, parents and students, there seemed to be a high degree of consensus which suggests strong support for the general principle that the two middle schools should be unified in some way*.
 
Conspicuous in their absence were the parents Saligman Middle School students. For that reason, the viewpoints of those who believe that the Saligman Middle School should remain a separate and independent middle school, to be relocated to the campus of the Stern Center, were not represented. Although some parents who came to our meeting had children who attend/ed Saligman, those who spoke, did so in support of a merger. As a result, viewpoints expressed were supportive and complementary of each other.
 
Attending our gathering were members of the "Committee of 6". That committee, in addition to the leadership of each school, had been invited to attend in order to have the opportunity to listen to their constituents. They did not attend for the purpose of responding to or defending any particular viewpoint.
 
Our meeting began with the reading of a joint statement created by the "Committee of 6", a statement of important goals which both schools share. That statement expressed the desire to find ways to collaborate, to make day school more affordable, and to provide a values-based and strongly Jewish educational experience for their students. The statement concluded by stating that the hope of the committee is to arrive at their decision by the end of November.
 
Following the reading of that statement our meeting continued as 18 participants spoke in turn. Each person spoke in a spirit of cooperation and optimism. Statements were articulate and heartfelt. I take this opportunity to share with you the various themes which were discussed by those who spoke.
 
Division Vs. Unity 
 
Among the most frequent themes which speakers chose to address was the need for unity within our community. Many spoke of their perception that our community, by virtue of the fact that we have two middle schools, was being painfully and unnecessarily divided. The three students spoke as representatives of their classmates. Each described their experiences in creating deep and lasting friendships while at the Perelman Jewish Day School, only to have those friendships jeopardized after grade 5, as students were split between our two middle schools. In addition to the loss of friendships among our students, parents as well spoke of a sense of tension and even hostility engendered by the decisions of parents to send their children to one school or the other. Several speakers made passionate pleas for unity.
 
Related to this issue was the notion of competition between schools. Several speakers pointed out the fact that each school recruits its student body from the same pool of families. In addition to the fact that making such decisions are difficult for parents, as they consider the strengths and weaknesses of each school, the competition between the schools and the pressure exerted by parents on each side makes decision-making more difficult and more emotional, while creating rifts in friendships and social networks. More than one speaker described the effect created by this competition as a "wedge" which has been dividing the community. Again, comments regarding the inherent competition between schools were followed by expressions of desire to see a unified school.
 
Collaboration
 
Of all the comments made during the course of the evening, the one which was repeated most often was a call for coordination, reciprocity and collaboration. As speakers supported the ideas related to a unified middle school, each expressed that a new school would need to reflect the unique values and features cherished by the parents and children of each school. Each understood that a high degree of ongoing collaboration would be required in order for there to be a successful outcome to these deliberations.  In recognizing the unique features and strengths of each school, there was a strong consensus that any solution resulting in a unified school should be built on the strengths of each school. There was great excitement in the possibility that these strengths could be combined for the benefit of all.
 
Statistics
 
To bolster the viewpoint that our schools should merge, one presenter brought statistics gleaned from studies conducted by the Avichai Foundation. Those statistics spoke of national trends in non- Orthodox day schools over the past 15 years.   Day schools of Broward Co., FL, Washington DC, West Orange, NJ, Westchester, NY, the Heschel School in NYC, PJDS/Saligman and others were studied.
  1. With respect to attrition from Conservative day schools when students enter middle school or high school, from 1996 through 2011, our middle and high schools have seen precipitous drops in student populations, drops far greater in numbers and percentages than one finds nationally in communal, pluralistic day schools.
  2. When considering attrition rates of students leaving day schools after 5th or 6th grades, in areas and cities with numbers of Jewish families comparable to Philadelphia, statistics seem to suggest that communal day schools which offer the continuity of a single, continuous day school (often K - 12), have far less attrition at the natural "break points" at which children might be taken out of day schools. In our schools, the attrition rate after grade 5 is around 30%, 50% after grade 8.
Finances
 
There seemed to be general agreement regarding the financial benefits of a single, unified school. Among the comments frequently heard in these and other contexts is that the costs of day school are becoming increasingly more difficult to afford. The possibility of combining programs, cutting costs and tuition while increasing financial support for scholarships was something that was extremely important to those at our meeting.
 
Inertia
 
Some respondents addressed an issue raised in other contexts regarding the advantages of providing continuity between PJDS and the middle school. One of the arguments for moving the Saligman School to the Stern campus is that such a move would provide continuity between the middle school and the younger grades, thus leading to fewer students leaving after 5th grade. Parents pointed out, however, that this sort of inertia, would result in less attrition only if the middle school to which our students transition was a unified school. Without some sort of a merger, the same factors for deciding which school is best, would continue to weigh on parents. Those who addressed this issue did not feel that a middle school at Stern would generate enough inertia to reduce significantly the attrition rates following grade 5.
 
Pluralistic vs Conservative Day School
 
Among the most substantive concerns of parents of PJDS students, as they consider middle school, is the continuity of traditional Jewish study, prayer and spirituality. Specifically, PJDS, as a Conservative day school, incorporates Jewish studies, prayer and traditional observance into its curriculum. How would a combined school deal with the desire of Perelman families to continue on their Jewish path after moving to a Barrack-style curriculum? In answer to this question, one parent offered his own experience. Concerned about the issue of continuity in Jewish experiences between the schools, he met with administrators and teachers at Barrack.  He reported to those at our gathering his surprise and pleasure at how receptive the school was, and how flexible they were in instituting and reinforcing aspects of traditional Jewish life into the Barrack model. The school has already instituted morning minyan for all students on Mondays and on Thursdays. In addition, conversations regarding theology, Jewish law, Bible and Talmud study were all handled with seriousness and sophistication.
 
Social network
 
Several speakers reemphasized their desire to see the two schools merged by sharing personal experiences regarding the detrimental social effects caused by maintaining separate schools. There was general consensus that stronger social bonds and friendships would be created as a result of a single middle school. This argument was voiced by both parents and students who spoke.
 
Size
 
The class sizes in our current middle schools continue to be a problem. Neither school seems to attract enough students for optimal class sizes. Comments on this issue suggested that a single school would create classes with many more children. This would be a benefit to students, to teachers and to the financial viability of our schools. In response to this point, others suggested that, while larger class sizes have advantages, there are disadvantages to be considered as well. Specifically, some children learn better in smaller class settings.
 
The point was also made that by increasing the number of students in classes, there would be more opportunity and greater flexibility in creating more specialized opportunities for study, in order to serve students who work at either a higher or lower level than others in the class. Moreover, in a single, unified school, younger students could be mentored by the older students. A number of parents commented on how this had already been a positive experience for their children.
 
Miscellaneous Comments
 
Other points were also addressed. One speaker suggested that, in speaking of community, his community of Elkins Park/Melrose Park/ Old York Road families felt as if talks on a merger, which would result in a middle school located somewhere off the Main Line, would leave them feeling disfranchised. Another speaker addressed the Israel trips of each school. Some felt that the current eighth-grade trip taken by students and the Saligman School provided and indispensable opportunity for students to build their Jewish identities and, perhaps, motivate them to continue with day school during their high school years. Others felt that the Barrack Israel trip, taken at the beginning of the 11th grade, was a superior experience. They felt that, if one trip needed to be canceled, it should be the eighth-grade trip rather than the 11th great trip.
 
Conclusion
 
Reflecting on last night's meeting, it seemed to me that several important goals had been fulfilled. First, our parents were able to come together in a welcoming and comfortable setting, to express their opinions and to find support among other parents. Moreover, I believe that those who took dissenting positions were careful with their words and felt as if their voice has been heard. I believe, as well, that those who had come to listen, specifically the members and representatives of the "Committee of 6" received a clear and unambiguous message regarding a variety of issues relating to any upcoming transition of the Saligman school to the Main Line area.
 
Not discussed were the details of how a single, unified school should be created. I believe that, those in attendance, understood and sympathized with those who would make proposals regarding just how that might be accomplished. On several occasions, speakers introduced their comments by expressing thanks and appreciation to those who are working so hard, in confidential settings, to emerge with a cohesive plan. There is great respect for that committee of leadership. There was, as well, a great sense of appreciation expressed for the opportunity to speak, to be heard and to listen.
 
Looking ahead, it is clear that there is still much work to be done. A number of people left our meeting feeling as if we had established appropriate guidelines, not only for the discussion which took place, but for future discussions as well. Once the decisions of the "Committee of 6" are made public, those decisions will require ratification by each school's constituents.  I hope that gatherings such as the one we had last night, will serve as a model for future discussions. I remain available and anxious to continue to facilitate these discussions as we work toward a more unified and collaborative school model.
 
Shavuah Tov,
Rabbi Neil Cooper
 
*Throughout this letter I am using the terms "merged", "unified" and "combined" interchangeably. Although each term has its own nuance, I do not intend in this letter to differentiate between them or to suggest the way in which some collaborative middle school might be created.

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