In one of my favourite episodes of The West Wing, Josh Lyman, who’s in the midst of running a tight presidential campaign, is handed a piece of paper with new poll results. He reviews them at his desk, pops up and yells, “We’ve got The Big Mo!” (referring to a swing in the campaign’s momentum). He then jumps into action, reworking campaign stops, organizing rallies and contacting the media.
Momentum is key to his work. It’s also key to building a strong community. There’s momentum in Jewish education and we need to use it as a catalyst for taking more and more bold steps.
In the weeks following TanenbaumCHAT’s announcement of its affordability initiative, intended to drop tuition by nearly a third, Netivot HaTorah announced that next year’s tuition would remain the same as this year’s — the first time in memory that a school has kept its tuition stable — and Bnei Akvia Schools announced an unconditional subsidy that will allow families to reduce their tuition by over $4,000. This is the beginning of The Big Mo.
I first clued into the signs of this upswing in momentum when a father called me shortly after the announcements. He said that although it was something he had wanted for his kids, he had ruled out a day school education because of the cost. He was watching the announcements closely and, while his children would not be eligible for any of the programs announced, he was optimistic that the system could tackle the affordability challenge in big, strong ways, and was considering enrolling his kids. He explained that while he had seen small interventions in the past — the iCap pilots and other, smaller programs — the recent moves set a different tone.
That father wasn’t the only one to call. Grassroots groups of parents and students from York Region, north of Toronto, who are impacted by the merger of TanenbaumCHAT’s campuses and are mobilizing to strengthen the education system, are part of the momentum that’s needed to improve Jewish eduction.
New inquiries and applicants, increased activism, decreased attrition and increased philanthropic investments are signs of ‘The Big Mo’ in day school education.
Momentum, however, isn’t enough. Each initiative is a first step towards strengthening our education system, ensuring its accessibility to the full breadth of our community and further growing participation. No one initiative is enough and our community and institutions need to keep moving forward.
But the momentum has spurred new ideas and a sense of entrepreneurship in education. Schools are considering new tuition models, to ensure the accessibility of day school education to middle-income families. Parents and activists are drawing up ideas for specialized tracks, focused on entrepreneurship, engineering and the arts; others have come forward with ideas for partnerships with the public school system, to offer new Jewish educational models; initial plans for blended learning and other reduced-cost day schools have started to be developed; and philanthropists are raising their hands to help catalyse change through affordability and sustainability.
As in Lyman’s political campaign, momentum is critical for Jewish education. Kids want to participate in growing programs, parents want to enrol their children in dynamic activities and philanthropists want to invest in institutions that are vibrant and meeting the needs of today’s community. The responsibility falls upon us as a community – federations, institutions, educators, parents and other activists – to build on the momentum in new and exciting ways, and take the next step to ensure that the father who called me can, in fact, send his kids to day school.
There is still much to be done. Capitalizing on The Big Mo will require more people to step up, more innovation, more social entrepreneurship and greater investment in strengthening the system.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.