Friday, October 19, 2018

Sometimes it feels like a war. Every school administrator is familiar with the competing interests and desires of various constituencies that lobby, argue and plead their respective cases. The battlefield is the school calendar.

The traditional school calendar, which provides a summer vacation spanning over two months, has been the norm in this country for over a century. The Jewish day school calendar follows the general contours of the traditional school calendar, making modifications for Jewish holidays. We tend to give serious consideration to two primary groups of stakeholders when determining calendar questions. I present each in its own voice:

Parent: I can’t believe that there is no school today. We are a dual income family who both work very hard so that we can make ends meet and pay tuition for our children. I work long hours, get very little vacation and still need to find time in the evening to prepare for shabbatot and yamim tovim. Don’t they understand the hardship placed on me when my children are home and I have to take a day off work or pay for childcare?

Teacher: I can’t believe that the school is making us come into work on this day. We have chosen to work in a Jewish day school even though we could make more money teaching in the public school system because working here aligns more closely with our values. Yet we view one of the benefits of working here being the calendar year following the practicalities of the Jewish calendar.

Administrators generally attempt to balance the very real tension between the needs of parents and teachers when developing the calendar. I believe that this premise is flawed.

The most important stakeholder is often left out of the discussion, mainly because they have no voice and carry no political currency. That stakeholder is our student. After all, our entire educational endeavor is designed to ensure their success. This student-centric philosophy has guided my calendar decisions. Parents and teachers are both valuable stakeholders and have needs that must be considered when establishing the calendar, but our students should be our primary focus. This premise guides my philosophy of calendar setting.

Our students attend school to learn. Therefore, student learning should be a top priority when setting the calendar. Student learning is affected by both quantity and quality. By quantity I mean the number of calendar days. New Jersey state law requires that public schools hold 180 instructional days. Private schools are not obligated to follow this requirement, and as a result, Jewish day schools tend to have between 171 and 175 days of school a year. Our schools offer a dual curriculum, which means that we expect students to learn much more in far less time. Thus, the closer we can move the needle to 180 days the better. There are days, however, where quality of learning is low, such as when a high number of students are absent. In those cases, student morale is low, teacher morale is low and topics covered will need to be revisited when the absent students return. It is generally not helpful to have school on these days. There are also days where the desired educational goals, while important, can be achieved outside of school. Let me illustrate with some practical examples.

Pesach: Pesach is a holiday that has a unique amount of preparatory work. There are also many families who travel for Pesach to family or hotels. So there is an understanding that time off is required before the holiday begins. What is the optimal number of days off? If a high percentage of students do not attend the final day of school before Pesach, I see this as a sign that the school has made the wrong decision and probably should have given one more day off. Student and faculty morale is very low on that day, and students who miss school will need to make up the work and inevitably slow everyone else down.

Sukkot: This is often seen as a classical parents vs. teachers issue. Parents find it convenient to have school on Chol Hamoed Sukkot, as they have to work. Teachers are bothered by having school on Sukkot, which should be a time for families to enjoy simchat yom tov. I don’t believe that this is a productive time to have school. Chol Hamoed Sukkot is a difficult time to teach. A large number of students are out of school, and since it is Chol Hamoed, the expectation is that students will have a fun experience during those days. While I have no objection to fun experiences during school, I feel that the educational goal of making Chol HaMoed feel special and different can be easily accomplished in other milieus. Shuls sponsor multiple experiential programs over Sukkot, and families should be encouraged to make these days feel unique by celebrating in the home, whether during the day, or if parents have to work, then at night. After all, the home should be seen as the primary experiential educator of children vis a vis religious holidays. The result for many schools that do have school on Chol Hamoed is that teachers, and many parents, see school on those days as primarily filling a day care need. School as day care is not a productive endeavor and belittles the educational system. (This is not to say that day care is not a real issue. The community should find ways to provide affordable day care programming on Chol HaMoed Sukkot. Maybe this is an opportune time for shul youth programs to run mini camps.)

Chanukah: A parent’s work schedule does not change for Chanukah. Teachers feel that Chanukah is a Jewish holiday that can be made special by having a short Chanukah vacation. The norm in our community to give a vacation during Chanukah is one that I oppose. Real learning can and should happen on Chanukah. Students who have a vacation day on Chanukah while their parents are working will likely spend most of their day on TV and computers.
I prefer that they spend the day learning and growing. I believe that we should abolish the Chanukah vacation and have done so at Moriah.

December 25th: Is it appropriate to have school on December 25?

Parents have off from work on December 25. This leads to high levels of absenteeism and also means that parents do not have to scramble to find childcare if their children are home. It is important to be considerate of all our staff members, and non-Jewish teachers, maintenance workers, office staff and others will not be present, impacting the quality of education on this day. My preference is to cancel school on this day so that parents can treat it as a family day. We have run very successful optional family learning programs on this day so that families can spend the day together in a spiritually uplifting fashion.

I have only described some of the factors involved in setting the calendar. I recognize that every school will make calendar decisions based on its own local, philosophical and pragmatic considerations. Similar to all school decisions, calendar decisions should be made based on an overall philosophy and perspective and then communicated to the faculty and parent body in a transparent fashion.

By Rabbi Daniel Alter

 Rabbi Daniel Alter is the head of school at  The Moriah School.