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School Size Isn't Everything
Becca Rosenthal, ISJL Education Fellow
At the ISJL Education Department, we visit lots of Religious Schools. They are all over the map, both literally and figuratively: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated; rural, suburban, and urban. The largest school we work with has over 500 students, and the smallest has just two. Regardless of how large or small a school is, each one has similar goals: to give their students a strong Jewish education through which students get opportunities to connect with other Jewish kids and have meaningful, positive Jewish experiences. And yet, the ways that big and small schools go about achieving these goals is different.
Schools of all sizes have strengths and face challenges, but some of those strengths and challenges are more size dependant than others.
Bigger Schools: Potential Strengths
Large schools can feel vibrant and alive in a unique way, especially in a room with hundreds of children singing together. Larger schools tend to have full-time staff and clergy, equipped with more resources to implement the ISJL’s program and special supplementary ones. They may have a dedicated building (although not always), which leads to more options for spaces when they want to run events and programs. Children can be “awed” by the synagogue as a special place when the sanctuary looks regal, full, and energetic.
Bigger Schools: Potential Challenges
Having many kids and families in the same place at the same time can lead to some challenges—sometimes even parking and pickup can be a frustrating experience. Larger schools can have a more difficult time building a united classroom and school community, especially when you might have multiple classes for a single grade. Bigger classes with more kids means more variables regarding of social dynamics amongst peers, and perhaps underdeveloped relationships between teachers and students. Additionally, there is often less flexibility and room for spontaneity at large congregations because (necessary) systems tend to be more structured.
Smaller Schools: Strengths
Small schools have a significant advantage when it comes to individually addressing needs of specific students. Small classes mean more one-on-one time. Because of the space and resource constraints, teachers and RS director's get very creative, regarding how to use space and technology. The structure of small schools can be more fluid, meaning the kids can have more unstructured time. This environment can lead to a playful experience—Jewish kids having fun during Jewish time in a Jewish space. For many parents, building relationships with other Jews is a big goal of their religious school, with content being icing on the cake.
Smaller Schools: Challenges
In smaller schools, there can be so few kids that grades must be combined. Sometimes the combinations work, and other times, they create situations that are difficult for volunteer or non-professional teachers to manage. Burnout is a real concern, since the same people running the religious school frequently pick up a host of other tasks for the congregation. Most of the time, these people are volunteers, doing a lot of thankless work on top of their full-time jobs and familial responsibilities. Delegating is difficult when there is no one to whom tasks can be assigned, and it is difficult to bring new people into the fold when the same people have been in charge of the same tasks for years upon years at a time.
Ultimately, large communities and small communities have a lot to learn from each other. Bigger is NOT always better, and smaller does not always mean “worse.” Imagine what your community looked like if you tried to take some of lessons of strengths and weaknesses from a congregation completely different than yours and tried to implement some of those strategies. We’re only limited by our imaginations as to what sort of learning environment we could create!