Must-Read Comment: Do We Ask Jewish Schools To Do The Impossible?
07/29/2013 - 13:47
A complicated question: Do Jewish communal values come into conflict at day schools? Fotolia
A complicated question: Do Jewish communal values come into conflict at day schools? Fotolia

Editor's Note: An anonymous commentor wrote this in response to Meredith Englander Polsky's piece, about how even she, the founder of an organization that fights for the right to a Jewish education for every child, had to pull her own daughter out of Jewish day school. Tomorrow, we'll post her answer to this comment.

As a parent with children in the Jewish day school Meredith is referring to, CESJDS, we have had a very positive experience, even though our kids are also not round pegs going into round holes either. Each parent knows their own child best and I have no doubt about that the frustrations many have expressed here are real.

But there is another aspect to this story that perhaps bears mentioning. Jewish parents today demand that Jewish day schools perform -- in the secular subjects -- at an academic level comparable to the best local private and public schools. Our academic expectations of kids, across the board, have risen dramatically since I grew up in the 70s and 80s. There is huge academic pressure on kids and Jewish day schools to excel. At the same time, Jewish day schools are also expected to cover Judaics and Hebrew, in no less stellar a manner.

Unfortunately, today, if a Jewish day school does not perform at the academic level of a Sidwell or Georgetown Prep -- moving through massive amounts of material at high speed - many Jewish parents are quite willing to walk out the door and do so all the time. They bring an "a la carte" attitude to their commitment to Jewish institutions. This is a very real, countervailing pressure that JDS feels and must address with limited resources.

In short, there is a tension between our demands that our Jewish day schools be able to compete with Sidwell Friends and Choate, while deeply covering Jewish subjects, as well as comprehensively addressing special needs. There is no way around it.

It is simply not true that non-Jewish schools do all these things excellently. That happy world does not exist. We have many friends at the McLean School and other schools that are more skilled at dealing with special needs, including MCPS. But most of these parents say the same thing: the academics are mediocre and not as good as at CESJDS. And, of course, there are no Judaics. The kids are happy and the school addresses their developmental needs well. But the academics are not top-flight or challenging because that is not their top priority. But parents are willing to give these special-needs-friendly schools a pass on the academics, because they are happy with the services.

Perhaps Jewish parents would be well-advised to give JDS and other day schools a similar benefit of the doubt. In our experience, JDS teachers and administrators do try very hard and in most cases get it right. As a community, we need to frankly admit that Jewish day schools can't do it all perfectly. If the priority most parents demand of JDS is going to be pressure-cooker secular academics, with Jewish education as a somewhat secondary consideration, it is going to be hard to reconcile this demand with special needs in many cases.

When I was a kid, and went to Jewish day school, my parents made a major financial sacrifice, and accepted that they were not going to get 100 percent of what they wanted from one school. I got a decent Jewish education if not the best secular education (I did supplemental work with my parents and a tutor out of school) but on balance am grateful for the experience. It was compromise, and a lot of my education -- Jewish and otherwise -- but the goal was to imbibe the mesorah and to participate in the construction of the next generation of the Jewish community.

I for one am grateful that a professional, committed, and engaged school like CESJDS exists in my community. Most Jewish communities around the country would do anything to have such an institution. While there are no doubt real shortcomings at JDS when it comes to special education, it is time for parents in our community to look in the mirror and ask whether they are being fair in leveling the kind of withering criticism that is being directed at the school here.

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Special-needs children present a challenge even for the best, and best-funded, public schools. The "No Child Left Behind" legislation mandated that every child must receive a free and appropriate education, but sadly enough in the real world there is not enough funding for that mandate. So that leads to education law attorneys who sue school districts to pay the annual tuition of special schools located outside their districts (or even out of their state) which happen to be the only provider of the appropriate education for that particular child. A friend of mine sent her severely autistic child to a placement at a school in another state, and the tuition had to be paid by the state where the child's family lived. Of course the problem of "Who pays?" leads to a lot of grief for everyone concerned, and a lot of battles, both in the courts and in principals' offices, for the special services that a child needs. Our Jewish schools are perennially cash-strapped and are struggling just to meet payroll and utility bills every month. The battle with the State Education Department to obtain a "shadow" or occupational therapy for a child who needs it may be beyond the resources of the Jewish day school, so it falls upon the already much-beset parents of the special child to demand and fight for the services that a child needs. Most of the time it's just easier for the Jewish day school to tell the parents to take their child out, and easier for the parents to place the child in the local public school, supplementing the Jewish education at home.

I disagree with the premise that the academic pressure on Jewish Days schools is a relatively new phenomenon. As a product of several Jewish Days schools across the US and the son of a Jewish Day School Principle I know that I received an excellent Jewish and Secular education. I know that my father made sure that both sides of that coin were treated with equal importance and always stressed excellence in both from the faculty. The reason that Parents pull kids from Jewish Day schools, in my experience, is not because of the level of education, it is usually a combination of finances and a lack of commitment to Judaism. My parents and my wife and I chose to send our children to a Jewish Day School for the Jewish education 1st and foremost and the secular education 2nd, not the other way around. We continue to sacrifice so that our children are able to make informed decisions about the direction of their lives as adults. That is what commitment to Judaism is about, not just religious practice but passing that knowledge to the next generation and hoping that your children's commitment to Judaism is at least as strong as yours is. So yes CESJDS is expensive as both our children attend the school, one with learning differences, but in our estimation the return on investment cannot be measure in dollars as it is priceless. And no CESJDS is not perfect and does not try to be, as it knows it cannot be perfect. it does the best it can. I am thankful to Jonathan Cannon and Michael Kay for living up and keeping their promises to my family. I know that the expectation is that the next Administration is as attentive and caring as the outgoing administration was and I look forward to partnering with them just as I partnered with Jonathan Cannon and Michael Kay.