How to start a school: 6 things you need to avoid in “Year Zero” to keep you on track for success
In the fall of 2014, Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael (YOY), opened its doors in Boston, MA. Now in its sixth year, it has almost 40 students, a beautiful property, strong community support, and year over year growth. To look at it today, you wouldn’t know that this vibrant Jewish high school began with a mere six students. One person didn’t start the school, a team did. From the beginning it was a collaborative process that started with a small group of respected community members, committed parents, and visionary educators. The road hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve gained many valuable insights along the way that can help other new schools launch and thrive.
Here are 6 things you need to avoid in “Year Zero” to keep you on track for success:
1) Making the school just about you
Schools are founded by visionaries, but to be successful, your vision needs input from many. Our first step was simply to listen. We reached out to parents in the community and asked what they were looking for in a school for their sons. We made day trips to other yeshivas to see their operations first hand. We also tapped into professional resources, talking to as many experienced people as possible – educational consultants, heads of school, and foundations for fundraising ideas. This listening phase enabled us to enter our own process in an informed, prepared way. I met with Joseph Jacobson, head of the Molecular Machines research group at MIT’s media lab, just to ask him, “what’s the most important skill kids need to graduate with?” When he told us to prioritize computer science, we took that as marching orders.” Take the time to find out what your community wants and needs in a school, and surround yourself with a network of professionals who can help guide you as you start a school.
2) Proceeding without a clearly defined mission
In order to move forward toward any goal, you must first clearly define what that goal is. For a new school, articulating and refining a mission and vision to guide the way forward is key. Our team worked intensely on defining exactly what YOY needed to be. We knew that if we were going to convince parents and donors that we had an organization worth supporting, we had to be crystal clear about what we were offering. Our work led to a focused philosophy of learning and teaching that is producing top-notch graduates. Your discussions will get heated. The decisions you make will have long term effects. Be diligent in defining the character and goals of your school; don’t start a school until you know who you are and what you have to offer.
3) Letting your nephew make your logo in Microsoft Paint
One of the elements critical to YOY’s success was branding. Early on in the development phase, we hired a designer to produce our logo, website and information packet. Having an arsenal of marketing collateral to hand to parents at YOY’s open house signaled that we knew what we were doing. We presented the plans for our yeshiva in a professional way, and that gave us credibility. Invest in professionally designed marketing collateral for your school. It will generate confidence in your institution even before it has its own proven track record.
4) Assuming that qualified teachers will be lining up…
Finding teachers to commit to a fledgling school can be a challenging task. With patience and persistence, it is possible to find those committed individuals who are excited to come on board your new initiative. We searched diligently for the right staff members, and by the time we opened, we had a strong roster of teachers across the subjects: English, history, gym, math, science, computer science, and religious studies. Some of the original teachers are still at the school to this day. We look for individuals who are believers in the mission, love what they teach, and genuinely care about the success of each student. Though the hiring process can be challenging, have confidence that your school will attract the right educators to lead the way through those first years.
5) Expecting a crowd
You have a mission, you look professional, and you recruited a lineup of quality teachers…but who is going to learn at your school? For our team, recruiting students was one of the most challenging parts of the process. And with good reason: asking families to commit to sending their children to a school that has not yet proven itself requires a big leap of faith on their part. We spent lots of time talking with families in the community to try to recruit the school’s minimum number of students needed to open. On the first day, we started with 6 boys. Now in the school’s fifth year, we have nearly 40 students. You may have to start small, but if you offer a quality product and meet community needs, the numbers will come.
6) Paying out of pocket
Donors need to know they’re investing in something solid. Even if you’re just in the planning stages, it needs to be presented in a way that’s tangible and easy to imagine becoming a reality. Early on, we developed a fact sheet with our vision and plan to present to potential donors. We shared this with the people who would become our “Founder’s Circle”, a group dedicated to helping fund this idea. Our passion for the school’s vision came through in our conversations, and a number of donors committed to step forward and support us. Share your excitement for and belief in your vision with others as a solid plan, and the people who share that vision will come alongside you.
Rabbi Uri Feldman is a graduate of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, Yeshivas HaGrach in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J, and the Kollel of Greater Boston. He completed his M.Ed. in Jewish education from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Leadership. With vision and passion, Rabbi Feldman currently leads Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael into its 6th year and is embarking on an ambitious school expansion project. He lives in Brighton, MA, with his wife, Dina, and their children.