Mind the Children



It's back-to-school time, ushering in the predictable mix of anticipation and anxiety that fills the end-of-summer air once Labor Day approaches. But there's something else going on this year that threatens the normalcy of our kids' classrooms.

Educational institutions across the country will be ringing in the new academic year facing the duel challenge of economic shortfalls and medical pitfalls. Schools are susceptible to fears of a swine-flu epidemic and the fallout from tighter budgets.

The uncertainty of how these health threats and fiscal realities will play out makes us all a bit nervous. Dealing with these challenges will require nimble leadership, both to grapple with the immediate threats and to avoid future ones.

Those who head our schools must ensure that students do not bear the brunt of the fallout. Professional and lay leaders must use all of their pedagogical and management ingenuity to find ways to compensate for crowded classes and fewer resources.

They must abide by their stated policies to ensure as healthy an environment as possible by providing steady doses of hand sanitizers and by insisting that children steer clear of school if they have flu-like symptoms.

While hopefully, this health threat will pass, the economic picture is tougher to gauge.

As the Jewish Exponent reported this week and last, our community's day schools and synagogues are struggling with ways to maintain standards of excellence with fewer resources. The day-school community has been especially hard-hit. While overall enrollment at the area's six institutions remains constant, at least one school has lost nearly 5 percent of its student population.

The numbers, by all accounts, would have been lower around had it not been for generous tuition grants provided by the Kohelet and Barrack foundations, which gave families significant breaks.

Still, the schools are operating with reduced resources, fewer staff and larger classes.

The difficulties for day schools come as a recent survey highlights the need for school boards to step up their fundraising responsibilities and be more proactive in developing a strategy for the future.

The sponsor of the study, Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership, has designated Philadelphia one of three pilot cities, meaning it will consult with local day schools to help their boards improve governance practices.

Leadership will be key in determining the success of our schools this year as they go about their business of educating our children.

Education has always been and will continue to be a precious Jewish value. Even with the unpredictability this academic year, we all need to do what we can to ensure that the steps we take do not undermine the paramount goal — providing safe and sacred spaces where our children can learn and grow.


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