MONTREAL — Jewish day schools in Montreal that want money from Federation CJA to subsidize students who don’t pay full tuition will in the coming years have to be accredited by a non-governmental Canadian organization that sets standards for independent schools.
By 2012, any school, including even the most Orthodox, seeking community assistance must at least have begun the process of applying for accreditation from the Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI).
Currently, two Montreal Jewish schools are accredited with CESI: Akiva School and Hebrew Academy, and Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools/Bialik High School is a candidate.
The federation has for a few years tried to persuade day schools to seek CESI accreditation voluntarily. But the decision to tie federation support to adherence to standards set by an outside body is a major recommendation of a review of the Jewish schools by the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre (BJEC), a federation agency.
The federation allocates close to $3 million annually toward tuition assistance.
Many of Montreal’s prestigious anglophone private schools are CESI-accredited, including Lower Canada College, Selwyn House and The Study.
CESI, based in St. Catharines, Ont., is a voluntary organization dedicated to improving private schools and helping its members maintain excellence. It evaluates both teaching practices and management, and is especially vigilant about a school’s ability to plan for the future and sustain quality.
In 2002, it began reviewing schools according to a 12-point guideline. Schools are to be reassessed every seven years.
New BJEC president Paul Levine and executive director Danyael Cantor said the goal of CESI is to set the highest standards without seeking to homogenize schools into one model. There is no threat to a school’s autonomy or Jewish character, they said.
“But it will help them become the best they can be,” Levine said.
The BJEC says five other schools have indicated they will enter the CESI process: Solomon Schechter Academy, Beth Rivkah Academy, UTT/Herzliah, Hebrew Foundation School and Ecole Maïmonide
Such accreditation should assure parents that their children will get at least as high a quality of education at a Jewish school as at a private one, Levine said. Private schools are competition for the mainstream Jewish schools, especially at the high school level. The BJEC estimates that about 40 per cent of Jewish teens attend a Jewish day school.
“Parents are demanding quality. They want excellence in the secular component of the curriculum, and we do not want students to leave the day school system,” Levine said. “Our schools have to change. They have to re-invigorate and re-invent themselves.”
The federation will cover the cost to the school of the 18-month CESI accreditation process. The BJEC will assist schools in “first getting up to speed” to be ready for that rigorous review.
According to information from CESI, it recognizes “the independence, integrity and uniqueness” of each school and evaluates them “in terms of their own mission, vision and values.”
Levine and Cantor are confident that even chassidic schools can benefit from accreditation. They point out that the two Montreal Jewish schools already accredited differ in their philosophies. Hebrew Academy is modern Orthodox, while Akiva embraces all Jewish religious expressions.
The accreditation process begins with an internal evaluation by the school of all its programs and operations. The school is then visited by a CESI committee, which spends four days in the school meeting with all parties involved. The committee will recommend changes it feels are necessary.
Although Solomon Schechter Academy will undertake the CESI process, its principal, Shimshon Hamerman, said he’s doing so with reservations.
“It’s very controversial,” he said, not because CESI isn’t respected in the educational field or because he doesn’t think his school could benefit from its expertise.
Cost is a big factor. Although the federation has said it will subsidize the initial process, Hamerman notes that accredited schools must pay an annual fee based on the number of students in the order of $17 each, and that may be difficult for some schools.
The CESI standard for governance will mean a major shift for Solomon Schechter. Traditionally, the board of directors, whose members are parents, has been the final authority at Solomon Schechter, an elementary school with 650 students. Other administrative committees are also composed of parents.
The CESI model emphasizes the power of the professional “head of school,” a position that’s uncommon among Montreal Jewish schools, with volunteer boards concerning themselves more with strategic thinking than day-to-day operations.
Hamerman thinks that kind of restructuring will make it harder to keep parents engaged in schools. He’s also concerned that professional administrators’ jobs will be less secure.
But Hamerman affirmed that evaluation and accreditation by a respected body such as CESI is “a very good thing” for education. Just the process of self-evaluation is beneficial because it forces schools to rethink their practices and policies, he said.
“You get into your way of doing things, and you think it is the best in the world. Only when you verify yourself against a standard can you become better… But only in five years’ time will I be able to tell you if it worked.”
He recently witnessed a CESI visit to a school in Toronto and was astonished at its thoroughness.
“Sixteen top-notch professionals from across the country came to the school for three days, and they went over everything from cleanliness to admissions policy to the football field to communication between parents and teachers – every detail. Then the school got an objective, arm’s-length report.
“Where else are you going to get that? They do not impose anything. They look at how you deliver the product you claim to have.”
At Beth Rivkah Academy – which has about 600 female students in elementary and high school and is under Lubavitch auspices – executive director Rabbi Mendel Marasow is enthusiastic about the CESI process. In fact, Beth Rivkah began the initial phase of self-evaluation about three or four years ago, but stopped midway through because its small administrative staff had to focus their attention on “other fires,” he said.
“The internal audit was very healthy, but not easy. In fact, [it was] extremely painful,” he said. “No one likes to look at themselves in the mirror, and CESI makes you do that.”
Elsewhere in Canada, Winnipeg’s Gray Academy of Jewish Education is CESI-accredited.