September 23, 2019

Schools of thought: Two education organizations unite for a common goal

The Schechter Day School Network (SDSN) and Jewish Montessori Society (JMS) have partnered to provide Conservative educational institutions in the network with the opportunity to learn about different methods of teaching and broaden their matrix of Jewish educators.

“It brings the Jewish Montessoris into the family of Schechter schools as affiliate members,” said Jon Mitzmacher, the executive director of SDSN. “Montessoris will have access to certain membership benefits of the network. From Schechter’s perspective, it provides our schools with the Montessori expertise and approach, which is a great complement to the resources already available.”

SDSN, which was founded in 1965 to promote cooperation between Conservative Jewish day schools committed to tradition and modernity, is composed of 43 schools in North America across 17 states and two provinces in Canada. In the past decade, according to media reports, the number of schools associated with Schechter has decreased, with many either shutting down or changing their affiliation.

On the other hand, Jewish Montessori programs are flourishing. Twenty new ones have opened since 2004, either as full-fledged schools or as tracks within day schools. 

Mitzmacher said that the partnership was forged this past summer — it was announced in August — because SDSN is undergoing a makeover. 

“This is one new example of the reborn network we launched.” 

The network is diving into the preschool arena as well. 

“Although many Schechter schools had and have preschools, the focus of our work in addressing the needs of schools has focused on K-12 resources,” Mitzmacher said. “We are interested in extending that work to early childhood and extending our relationships to preschools not attached to Schechter schools who may be interested in what we can provide.”

It’s still in its early stages, and much of the partnership has taken place virtually, according to Mitzmacher. At the North American Jewish Day School Conference, which is taking place March 8-10 in Philadelphia, SDSN and JMS will meet face-to-face to try to further their relationship. 

In and around Los Angeles, SDSN schools include Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village, Kadima Day School in West Hills, Pressman Academy on La Cienega Boulevard, Sinai Akiba Academy in Westwood and Valley Beth Shalom Day School in Encino. 

“If and when Schechter or Conservative early childhood centers express an interest in exploring Montessori, then we are there to be a facilitator of these conversations,” Mitzmacher said. “For the schools who may have interest in exploring Montessori as an optional track, it allows the relationship to exist more constructively. There is some philosophical overlap between the way Montessori views educating a child and the way Schechter does.”

Mitzmacher said that SDSN and JMS are going to be effective partners because they both have a comparable philosophy when it comes to education. 

“The reason why Schechter and Jewish Montessori have entered into [a] relationship is because we have similar values with regard to how children learn best.”

Lana Marcus, head of school at Adat Ari El, said that on the ground level, the partnership wouldn’t necessarily affect hers and other Los Angeles-area schools — at least for now. 

“I’m not sure it’s going to impact schools in L.A. because they’re already connected to synagogues with childhood centers,” she said. “I think that it’s good for schools in smaller communities to make it possible for everyone to come together. But it’s great that Schechter is expanding.”

Sarah Shulkind, head of school at Sinai Akiba Academy, said she’d use the new partnership as a chance to network. 

“We’re on a listserv, so there are resources for us to talk to other educators nationwide. It’s a huge advantage for us [in terms of] joint professional development. I find it very valuable.”

Schechter and Montessori have their own individual approaches to learning. Montessori’s trademark is a multiage classroom, where younger children learn from and collaborate with older ones. Children get to explore their own passions with some guidance from the teachers, and learn at their own place. 

Unlike in a traditional classroom, there are no rows of desks. Instead, students work on the floor or on mats. A lot of emphasis is placed on the space itself, which is supposed to be uncluttered and contain a space where children can go for quiet alone time and self-reflection. Teachers are considered “guides” because they aren’t the focus of the classroom, and they will often be on the floor with the students, observing students’ work. 

In Schechter schools, students are encouraged to think creatively and combine their imagination with science and knowledge, according to its website. They’re told, “Academic excellence is a goal rather than a competition,” and learn to make the link between Jewish themes and real-world issues. To prepare students for the workforce, they are taught to embrace emerging technologies. 

There are similarities between the Schechter and Montessori philosophies, though. Like Montessori, Schechter fosters an environment where students can both challenge and support one another because, according to its website, “throughout their education, this approach enables them to replace scholastic stress with intellectual passion.” 

That said, Shulkind indicated she isn’t interested in instituting the Montessori program right now because it wouldn’t prepare her kids for their ongoing education at Sinai Akiba. 

“There is some real thinking in Montessori … that work is play. It helps children develop self-directed interest and passion. That works well for some kids but not for all kids.”

Despite their differences, she believes that the partnership is constructive overall.

“At this point it hasn’t affected us, but opportunities for collaboration are really wonderful,” she said. “I think there is some really good thinking that goes into Montessori preschools.

“You can learn a lot from schools that are different from you. The Montessori philosophy isn’t wildly different. It’s a good opportunity for us to learn from one another.”