Noah S. Hartman, Head of School
It has been an incredible year. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. My hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons, won 3/4 of a Super Bowl. And Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School celebrated its 70th birthday. It’s been a year of firsts, a year of surprises, and a year of milestones.
I’m pleased to now reflect on some of our achievements from the last year, and to paint a picture of our future. After 70 years, our school is stronger and more vibrant than ever: we welcome over 540 students and 120 staff members every morning. We have the most advanced academic program with the greatest educational opportunity in our history. We have wildly popular athletics and music programs, an actively engaged PTC, our largest Nursery and 8th grade classes ever, and a clear, open, pluralistic Jewish identity fostered by our Jewish Studies teachers and our intentional environment. The mission articulated in 1946 by Rabbi Solomon Goldman, our school’s founder, is largely still the mission we fulfill today:
We are an independent Jewish day school for the 21st century where academic rigor and purpose, collaborative learning, and a deep commitment to humanity develop engaged, confident learners and compassionate leaders for a stronger, more vibrant community and world.
My vision for our school, in perfect alignment with the strategic priorities of our board, is to educate, nurture, and prepare exceptional students and empathic human beings guided by Jewish values to become leaders in their communities, and to ensure a strong, vibrant school today and for generations to come.
The three overarching areas to focus on in order to achieve this vision are academics, identity, and sustainability.
Academically, we offer the very best primary Jewish education available. Our program is rigorous, experiential, and dynamic. Our teachers are innovative, expert practitioners who model inclusiveness and lifelong learning. Just yesterday, the Harvard Business Review published a fascinating article titled, “Lifelong Learning is Good For Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life.” I highly recommend the article.
Our future is in cutting-edge, inspired teaching and learning that are increasingly personalized and that exceed all typical standards. It’s in classrooms and common areas that allow for a range of teaching and learning, where students develop their multiple intelligences, hone their strengths, and exercise new talents. And it’s in the context of what will prepare our students for the best private and public high schools in Chicago.
- Of Bernard Zell students who have gone on to public schools in the last 5 years, 99% have gone to one of top 15 high schools in Illinois, according to a 2016 U.S. News & World Report. These include Northside, Payton, Jones, Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Lincoln Park, and Evanston Township.
- Of Bernard Zell students who have gone on to independent schools in the last 5 years, 99% have gone to 5 of the most established and respected independent schools in the city: Beacon Academy, Francis W. Parker, The Latin School, Chicago Lab School, and the Wolcott School.
And now let’s rewind for a moment: Since I stood here before you one year ago, we have enjoyed renewed excitement and growth in Early Childhood under the leadership of Abby Aloni and her spectacular team of teachers and Associate Teachers. The Early Childhood faculty has engaged in rigorous and regular professional development coalescing around the Reggio Emilia-inspired approach we know to be best practice for our youngest children. Next month, Abby and two of our Early Childhood teachers (Hagit Lewis and Lindsey Elliott) will travel on a study tour to Reggio, Italy, with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education and the Erikson Institute.
By making Bernard Zell a philanthropic priority, you enabled the physical renovation of our Early Childhood space that has had a profound impact on educational practice and attitudes already. Your leadership from the front has created the conditions in which our teachers lead their students through all kinds of spectacular experiences.
Albert Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Experiential learning, which is a focus of our approach at Bernard Zell, adds complexity, relevance, and the potential for deeper understanding to a more traditional curriculum, and it demands an additional skill-set that students here develop young and will apply in other settings throughout their lives.
At Bernard Zell, we have successfully increased our integration of experiential, project-based learning across the curriculum, school-wide. Just one example of this is in 4th grade, where the students were charged with creating t-shirt factories and had to determine appropriate sizes, quantities, and other characteristics that demanded multiple kinds of learning: math, writing, collaboration, communication, and more.
Many excellent schools teach “what.” We teach the appropriate “what” with a lot more “how” and “why.” That’s what makes Bernard Zell different.
Last month, our science team was published in Science Scope, the middle school magazine for the National Science Teachers Association. The publication of their unit on engineering, titled, Call The Plumber!, has already resulted in two schools (one in the U.S. and one in the U.K.) asking our teachers how they can run the unit in their schools.
I believe the future of education will live within what Clayton Christensen calls a “modular architecture,” a system—in this case, a school—in which "components fit and work together in well-understood, crisply-codified ways.” Schools must offer flexibility and customization that allow them to meet the unique needs of each student without redesigning everything else. And we will.
Next year, we’ll be working to even better customize the support, enrichment, and general approaches we take to educating every student—and challenging him or her accordingly.
We’re grateful for the investment in our Student Services that will support a new Literacy Specialist and potentially some additional related services. It is this kind of specialized resources that support all of our students in their academic and social-emotional growth.
We are also excited about introducing a robotics program at Bernard Zell next year. Just yesterday, Mark Cuban, responding to a question from a 23-year-old asking what industry he’d target today if he were just getting started, tweeted that he spends 90% of his reading time learning about machine learning, neural networks, computer vision, artificial intelligence, etc. He said, “They will dwarf the last 30 years of technology.”
Under the leadership of our science specialists, Beth Sanzenbacher and Elizabeth Holland, and in collaboration with our technology and math teams, we’ll incorporate computational thinking, mathematics, programming, and more, into our curriculum. Imagine your child programming a robot to light Chanukah candles or to write in a foreign language.
Our academic goals are lofty, measurable, and achievable, and one significant challenge of fulfilling them is finding the time to do so. This year, we adopted a block-rotation schedule in the Middle School that enabled us to schedule some longer class periods and make appropriate changes more nimbly. We are considering the same rotation in Lower School next year for the same reasons, and we are also extending school on Fridays until 3:35 during the Daylight Savings months. This means 1,000 more academic minutes for your children next year. It’s also a basic gesture to working parents that should still allow everyone to get home in time to prepare for Shabbat, one of our core values at Bernard Zell and something we hope our students experience with their families.
Bernard Zell proudly affirms the unique identity of every student, teacher, and family in our school. We base our community norms on values such as empathy and kindness, and by living those values, we create a special and unique identity as a school. We are lucky to live in a city and at a time when many of the best educational institutions espouse similar values; none of us has a monopoly on them, but our Jewish identity is fundamentally defined by them. We are our values, and our values are us.
We are a Community of Kindness. We aren’t perfect, and as human beings we can always improve—think Growth Mindset!—but we must be accountable to each other to practice these norms. Every morning in every class, our students and teachers greet one another with eye contact and a different greeting. In combination with other strategies and elements of our social-emotional curriculum, this direct behavior instruction makes a difference. We teach our values explicitly through our Jewish heritage and tradition. For example, our 7th grade studied models of Jewish leadership from biblical characters including Joshua, Deborah, and others, and then created books using color and abstract shapes inspired by the work their teachers did with renowned Jewish artist David Moss.
This year, our new Associate Head of School, Michael Kahn, has established a behavior task force that is working to refine and articulate our philosophy and protocols related to discipline. Based on both anecdotal information and data from last spring’s Parent Survey, we know that many parents don’t know what our policies are or whether we implement them in a given situation. The task force is addressing these issues directly and will recommend where our protocols should be modified, and better ways to communicate information to parents. Bigger picture, behavioral norms are part of our overall educational philosophy, and our work is trained on helping students understand their relationship to each other.
In order to keep educating and nurturing the Jewish leaders of tomorrow, we need to ensure financial sustainability for the future. Our Board of Trustees is serious about its fiduciary responsibility and is committed to fiscal planning that provides the best education for students today and long into the future.
My vision for a sustainable future includes (1) a fair and rewarding compensation structure that helps us attract and retain the very best educators; (2) a facility that supports what we know about best-practice elementary & middle education today and into the future; and (3) an endowment that helps us fund these priorities without major tuition increases or fees. Plans for further fulfilling each of these priorities are well underway.
In order to bring this to fruition, we all need to continue leading from the front. The impact of this leadership will mean the fulfillment of our vision to provide the very best educational program, teachers, and environment for our kids, as well as the best preparation for wherever they go from here. With your support, we’ll remain sustainable while still being able to put so much into our children’s experience.
Thanks to your investment through the Annual Campaign, we have made significant improvements in the past few years and have been able to fuel growth beyond just the status quo. This year, over 100 students are receiving some degree of tuition assistance. Over 115 students are participating in athletics. 110 students are playing band instruments, and another 40 are playing guitar. We have increased and improved security, leading to praise by local law enforcement for being the most secure school they’ve seen in the city. We have renovated the Lower School science lab and the entire Early Childhood corridor in ways that have directly and instantaneously improved the student experience. We have received almost a dozen new endowment commitments. And all of this is thanks to you. Your investment matters, it has a profound impact on our children, and as always, we remain committed to responsible stewardship.
Thank you also for your trust and your partnership. There is nothing more important than our children, and it’s a privilege for us to play a central role in helping them become the successful, creative, independent, empathic global citizens and Jewish Americans who will be leading our community into the future. Bernard Zell is an exceptional school with almost 70 years of high-achieving alumni making a positive impact on the world. Everything we do and every decision we make are centered on their best interests and setting them up for success.
Thank you for joining us tonight, and thank you for allowing us to be a part of your family’s Jewish and educational journeys. You are our school’s best ambassadors. Please help us continue growing by carrying the flag and sharing your stories with friends. In partnership, the next 70 days, weeks, and years will be even stronger and more vibrant than the last.