Monday, May 10, 2010

RJJ Newsletter - May 2010

Schools are small communities with, to borrow the term much in favor these days, lots of stakeholders. There are children and their parents, faculty and other staff, officers and directors, contributors and persons who live in the community that is being served. In public schools and more affluent nonpublic schools, the staff includes trained personnel who provide important non-educational services, such as guidance and counseling. In smaller and less affluent schools, a category that encompasses a large majority of yeshivas and day schools, these services are either not available or are provided on a part-time basis by an outside program that receives governmental funding.

There is heightened awareness in all educational settings of the obligation to deal with the special needs of children. The notion is that a school is not a sealed off facility into which the problems and pressures arising in the home or the street do not penetrate. Issues that arise elsewhere have a direct and critical bearing on whether children can be properly educated and prepared for future life.

For this reason, there are programs and professionals whose focus is on dealing with outside forces that in reality are powerful presences in the classroom. Some programs focus on early intervention, so that problems that are acknowledged may be addressed and therefore not blossom into more serious deficits or even pathologies. Other programs and professionals deal with behavioral or emotional issues that obviously can hamper educational progress.

It is evident that there now are far more children who are candidates for intervention and attention by school personnel. This may be the consequence of greater awareness of the obligation to address emotional and other needs and not of there being a significantly higher incidence of serious problems among school aged children. Likely, because of social change, there is now a higher proportion of children who require special attention. One contributory factor is the huge jump in the divorce rate. Popular media, with their powerful sexual messages and other unwelcome features, inevitably add to the toll.

Perhaps another factor contributing to the apparent growing incidence of serious emotional and behavioral problems among school children is the plethora of government-funded initiatives that have been established to deal with such situations. In an important sense, the availability of funding generates a search for children who are eligible to receive the services for which funding is being sought. Children are discovered to have deficiencies that no one previously was necessarily aware of, whether the deficiency is how they hold a pencil when they write or how they interact with other children or how they sit in the classroom, etc. These discoveries become the basis for funding requests. Forty years ago, I became aware of a Beth Jacob school that included in its application for funding the claim that a large number of its students engage in promiscuous behavior.

What is happening in certain schools echoes what is too familiar elsewhere in American life when the aim is to receive public funds, as groups make the claim that the constituencies they serve are beset with an avalanche of problems of the kind that make them eligible for public funding.

As noted, schools do face a daunting task in dealing with the emotional and behavioral problems that afflict many children. Exaggeration is not needed, yet the possibility of exaggeration should introduce a note of caution as certain claims are assessed.

There are additional reasons for caution. For all of the credentials of mental health professionals, as well as their dedication, the field that is their expertise is quite imprecise. I once asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, whether in a particular situation it was sufficient to rely on the assessment of a psychologist. He answered, of course in Yiddish, that it was not, adding as an explanation, “Because there is no boundary,” which I took to mean that the field is imprecise and not entirely reliable.

To put the issue in other terms: When a medical health situation is being evaluated, despite the availability of ever more sophisticated diagnostic tools, often there is no quick explanation for a condition or there is disagreement among those who examine the test results. We are familiar with the practice of asking for a second (at times third) opinion, as well as additional tests, before a determination is made about how to proceed. Why is it acceptable when mental health conditions are being evaluated to rely on the often quick assessment of a psychologist or social worker? Can they or we be certain about what transpires in that fragile and unseeable place called the psyche?

Without a doubt, mental health personnel belong in schools and most schools need more of them than are presently available. As noted further on in this Newsletter, our Girls School has benefitted from the caring services provided by a social worker named Paul Parsowith. However, the reality that mental health professionals are critically needed in schools is not a license to accept uncritically their evaluations and suggested treatments, especially when more than a few are not fully qualified and when what is at stake is the question of whether a child can remain in a school.

As it is, there is too much of a tendency for yeshivas and day schools to expel or not readmit students who are perceived as difficult or having a problem. There is a growing tendency in yeshivas and day schools to get rid of such children, as if they are like some food whose kashrut is in doubt and the formula is “if in doubt, throw it out.” I have protested over many years this tendency and the wrongful policy of allowing principals to have the sole authority to decide whether to expel a student. This tendency is an halachic and moral sin.

I have also written about self-esteem and how this little phrase is in large measure the key to the development of children into healthy adulthood and fruitful lives. Inherently and probably inevitably, schools have the capacity to undermine a child’s self-esteem. This is because central to the education program are tests, grades, report cards, and whatever else has the capacity to transmit the message to a child that he or she is not good at this or that. I am not advocating the abandonment of these measures of a child’s academic performance, although they should be employed in caring ways that least undermine self-esteem.

My concern here is with the expanding reliance by school officials on social workers, psychologists and experts on this or that subject to locate deficiencies among the children in their care. I am especially skeptical when additional funding is predicated on the claim that there are more and more students who need help. If these experts are stakeholders in a school, they are no more than minority stakeholders. Children and their families have a far greater stake and that is something that all of us who have responsibility for schools should never forget.

How Are We Doing?

This question refers to our financial situation. The response requires a bit of context, meaning the financial condition of the day school world generally. This is, by all accounts, the most difficult year in at least two decades. Contributions are sharply down in the aftermath of the severe economic crisis.

That’s only part of the problem. The other part is the tuition crisis. A recent long-delayed visit to my primary doctor for a routine checkup turned into a less than routine discussion of the tuition crisis. He is a talented and caring man whose children attend a Modern Orthodox day school. His income is certainly above that of a typical Orthodox Jewish breadwinner, yet his tuition bill is extremely high and it rises each year. In our conversation he wondered whether he should explore religious educational options outside of the conventional day school framework, saying that he knows parents who have transferred their children out of day school because of the high tuition.

Simply put, there is a dual financial crisis in day school education. One involves parents; the other involves the school. They are closely linked because when high tuition induces parents, rightly or wrongly, to remove their children, school finances take an additional hit. After years of constant growth, in certain day school sectors enrollment has declined. Some schools have closed and others are on the ropes. As I did this past September, I expect to conduct another brief enrollment survey early in the next school year and the likelihood is that there will be a further decline in Modern Orthodox schools and certainly in non-Orthodox schools. As for the crucial outreach and immigrant schools, their enrollment has nosedived.

RJJ as a whole continues to experience a significant downturn in contributions, as many who were faithful contributors for years have cut back entirely or partly. Were it not for the extraordinary generosity of several key donors, our situation would be far worse. Each of our four schools bears the burden of fundraising. How are they doing?

The answer is mixed. The Edison Mesivta has had a good year, certainly in its educational program and because of strong dinner results and hard work, its finances are in reasonably good shape, although it faces four tough months until contributions come in again early in the next school year. The Jewish Foundation School has had to make an extra effort to get by. It has been able to do so, thanks in large measure to the extraordinary efforts of Rabbi Richard Ehrlich, its dean.

Our crisis points are the two RJJ/Merkaz schools. They are behind in payroll and this is terribly unfair to their faculty and staff. We are making an effort in the last part of the school year to improve the situation and for this we urgently need the participation and help of parents, alumni and the larger Staten Island community.