Deep Roots, Strong Branches

This month’s Ha’Ikar comes from Amy’s address at the June 2020 Annual Meeting. You can read her words below, or click here for the video clip.

It’s hard to believe that I am finishing my fifth year as Head of School. A lot has happened in those five years. Five year anniversaries are typically celebrated with gifts made from wood – a natural byproduct of trees which have developed strength and durability from their strong roots having weathered storms. Those of us who work day in and day out at Epstein Hillel know that Hillel is like a tree, strong with deep roots. But you don’t have to take our word for it. You could read the 130 page report we produced for our 10 year independent school re-accreditation visit this fall.  In November, we hosted a five member visiting accreditation team which included objective administrators and educators from other Massachusetts independent schools.  The four-day visit was extremely thorough and went far beyond classroom observations. Members of the visiting team conducted in-depth interviews with board members, all faculty and staff members, current parents, and even students. There were many notable findings in the team’s report. I’d like to share a few and I quote:

* the exceptional level of consistency between the school’s curriculum and teaching methods in keeping with the school’s mission to provide a challenging interdisciplinary curriculum that fosters critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning. 

* The faculty’s exemplary skill in teaching students to their individual abilities, learning styles, and developmental needs;

* the evidence of strong leadership, passion, and commitment of the Head of School, Board of Directors, administrators, and faculty.  

Finally, the report commended the unparalleled passion for and success with fulfilling the school’s mission. The successful completion of this process was an 18 month journey that was co-chaired with me by our middle school math teacher, Jessie Winkler. She was an amazing partner who deserves recognition. So yes, EHS is strong, and to quote one of my favorite fictional TV characters, Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights,  we have “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” We are incredibly proud of what our community stands for, provides, and instills. We are poised for success.

Five years ago, I couldn’t have said that. Our school was in a delicate state. In my first year, I talked a lot about the 4 C’s. They were CULTURE, CURRICULUM, CONDITIONS, and COMMUNITY. I promised that I would build a positive faculty and student culture so that everyone was deeply and happily engaged. I promised that we would build community amongst our students, families, alumni, and donors. I promised that our curriculum would be dynamic, creative, and inspiring of curiosity and critical thinking. I promised that we would assess our physical space and ensure that it enhanced students’ educational experience. The 4 C’s are alive and well today even in the face of the most unprecedented and unimaginable storm – COVID19. 

Let me start with CULTURE: 

Dr. Ebony Bridwell Mitchell, professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, posits: Culture is the shared pattern of beliefs and assumptions held by organization members. It is their characteristic way of perceiving and producing the organization’s values, norms, behaviors, artifacts, and environment.  The best way to describe how far EHS has come in this area is to quote the AISNE report I referred to earlier. In response to a question of how the school demonstrates congruence between its mission and philosophy and its operations and culture, the  Visiting team wrote:  “The mission of Epstein Hillel School is palpable throughout the entire community. The Visiting Team consistently witnessed all constituencies demonstrating a strong belief that the school teaches children through the values outlined in the mission and the six attributes of philosophy: potential, identity, curiosity, intellect, compassion, and community.”

As I move on to CURRICULUM, I could tell you about projects like having our seventh graders build roller coasters as part of a physics unit final assessment. Or, I could describe how first graders learned about geography and American history through a talking dog who travelled across the United States. I could explain how fifth graders made music videos for the famous Israeli song I Like to be at Home as part of their quarantine Hebrew homework. But rather than take my word for it, I’d like to read the words of a parent who described a second grade project assigned this spring while we were at home. I have redacted this letter for privacy, but it was written to the teacher and to me. 

I just wanted to tell you what an amazing project this has been and how it has brought out something so special in my child. They worked on Scratch Jr scenes all day Friday when there was no school. I never once asked them to or even brought it up. They were just so excited about it and they loved learning about their famous person so much that they did not want to stop and they finished it. But it didn’t stop there, when they finished their scratch jr, they decided to start making a movie about their famous person using iMovie. They worked on it in all their free time yesterday and this morning. I didn’t even know they had done that until they asked me tonight if I wanted to watch their famous person movie. They are now editing it again and adding more to it as I write this. I just want to say thank you for being such an awesome teacher and coming up with a project, particularly for my child, that has made learning so much fun and brought out their creative side in such a cool way. I love seeing them be so passionate about a topic and so excited to create something special & creative for school that they didn’t even realize how much they are learning! That’s what school at this age should be all about and you’ve nailed it.”  Yes, you heard that right, we nailed it, and that happened when we weren’t in our building. 

If we were gathered at school tonight, you would see all the changes to our building’s CONDITIONS: Our classrooms are bright, neat, and inviting with a uniform color palette throughout the school. We have a remodeled entry which showcases student artwork and pays tribute to our schools’ benefactors, Eli and Bessie Cohen and Arthur Epstein. Our new state-of- the-art innovation center eagerly awaits the return of students. This project, made possible by trustee and veteran CHA teacher, Rose Jane Sulman, is a one-of-a-kind learning space which elegantly unites a new library with a media center, STEM maker space and art room. No other school on the North Shore has anything that comes close to what we’ve designed and built. It will truly come to life when our students are researching, collaborating, designing, creating and building next year. 

And lastly, COMMUNITY: The world-wide pandemic presented incredible challenges in terms of community. If you had asked me to talk about community back in January, I would have told you about the relationships fostered between our big and little student buddies, or first graders and their grandfriends. I would have listed all the ways in which volunteers participate in our school on a weekly basis as well as how parents and faculty and staff describe our school as one big family. But today, June 9th I am going to tell you about how we created community while being shuttered in our homes. On March 18th, we launched EHSBabayit – EHS at home – and for three months we created opportunities for our students, faculty, and parents to stay connected and feel supported by our community. Weekly, we offered parent coffees with the Head of School and School counselor, bedtime stories hours for our youngest students, weekly kabbalat shabbat gatherings, morning meetings, organizational skills classes and social lessons with our school counselor. We had one-time special events like creating a love video for our students, self-care packages for our faculty, birthday car parades, and a community-wide challah bake. The EHS community may have been a part – but we certainly were in this together, and we were sustained by all the opportunities created to belong and feel our community’s strength and unity.

I don’t know what the 2020-2021 school year will bring. I am working on multiple scenarios for our return to school. I can’t promise that we will be back in our building on 6 Community Road in September. But what I can promise is that our students will continue learning new content. We will foster relationships, and social emotional learning. We will continue to provide excellent instruction and maintain our high academic standards.  We will continue to nurture our Jewish souls with communal learning, ritual, and celebrations. In the words of Pat Summitt, the most winning coach in basketball, ever – “It is what it is, But, it will be what you make it.”  EHSBabyit will continue to meet and exceed expectations because our faculty and staff are an outstanding group of people who are passionate, loyal, innovative, and incredibly dedicated to Epstein Hillel and the children and families who make up our joyful community. I’d have them all stand if we were together. I am incredibly proud to lead this school and know that what we make of any and every situation will always reflect our shared values, commitment and strength.  Etz chayim hi l’machazikim ba- EHS is a tree with her roots deep and strong for all who hold fast – v’tomecheha me’ushar – all those who support it are happy. May we continue to grow and spread our branches.