In her eight years leading the Perelman Jewish Day School, Judy Groner faced two major tests: presiding over a generational change in the teaching ranks and COVID-19.
And she passed both, according to Perelman teachers and parents.
Groner took over as head of school in the summer of 2014 and is retiring at the end of the 2021-’22 school year.
The Philadelphia resident has been a Jewish educator for four decades. She wants to step down while she still enjoys the work. She also wants to spend more time with her husband, four children, three step-children, one grandchild and five step-grandchildren.
“It’s just the right time for me,” Groner said.
Groner took the pre-K-5 Perelman job to be closer to her husband. In the decade leading to her decision, she worked in Greensboro, North Carolina, while he was in Philadelphia.
But for the longtime educator, the Perelman job was also a homecoming of sorts. She started her career as a teacher at the school, then the Solomon Schechter Day School, in the early 1980s.
At the same time, after spending 10 years as a head of school in North Carolina, Groner was no longer just a teacher. She knew how to run a building — and it showed — according to colleagues.
Several older teachers retired in Groner’s first two years back in Montgomery County. Groner replaced them with “a lot of really great staff members,” she said, many of whom were younger.
As the leader explained it, the young teachers were “digital natives who came in with fresh ideas.”
“They brought energy and a different type of training,” Groner said.
Those new teachers viewed themselves more as facilitators to learning than as lecturers.
Projects, real-life issues and current events became bigger parts of Perelman lessons.
Students also got more freedom to figure things out for themselves.
The other day, when Groner opened her office door, she had to do it slowly. Otherwise, she would have bumped into a student who was working on his iPad. Earlier this month, the head of school walked down the hall and asked a girl what she was working on. She told Groner that she was practicing a speech on the genealogy of her family.
“Just laying in the hallway, doing this,” Groner said. “The teacher in front of the classroom is not something one sees often at Perelman.”
An infrastructure has emerged around this new method, too.
In 2015, Perelman opened a “maker space,” as Groner described it, in which students could experiment on various projects. One class involved kids building code on their iPads to program miniature robots.
The point, according to Groner, was to allow kids to tinker. She didn’t want them to feel like they failed if they didn’t get the project right the first time.
“Knowing this is how far they got and I’m going to try again,” Groner said.
Two years later, the leader introduced a Hebrew immersion program, Ganon, for pre-K students.
Classes would have an English-speaking teacher and a Hebrew-speaking teacher. During the Hebrew educator’s lead time, the teacher and students would talk to each other in the native language.
By the end of the program, students could speak Hebrew as a second language. It was the action of speaking it, and not just learning it, that helped the language stick, Groner said.
“My son was in Ganon, and it was amazing,” said Mindy Civan, a Perelman teacher and parent. “The Hebrew he came home speaking, that was amazing.”
Perelman’s focus on immersive learning and its use of technology made the pandemic shock a little easier to manage. In the spring of 2020, the school was ready and able to pivot almost overnight to virtual, synchronous learning.
But it was what Groner did the following fall that impressed her staff. Unlike many schools, she reopened — and was able to keep her school open.
Groner has described her approach to COVID as slightly more conservative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Students mask inside and outside and eat lunch outside. Vaccinated community members who travel abroad must take a test to return to school. Unvaccinated community members who travel abroad must quarantine for 7-10 days upon returning.
The school’s relative success during COVID is a result of Groner’s willingness to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions, said Leah Lande, a former Perelman parent and current medical adviser. At certain points, Perelman’s quarantine policy for close contact students has been long.
But the school has not seen any COVID case transmissions.
“During a crisis, you get to see someone’s true colors,” Lande said. “Judy has been incredibly impressive.”
Perelman is now seeking Groner’s successor.
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