C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2023 / Winter 2024)

An Innovative and Resilient Community

By Robert Bruce Scott

A Pluralistic Jewish School

Denver Jewish Day School comprises two buildings -- the elementary school, called the Lower Division, and the secondary school, called the Upper Division -- with a large grassy commons area between the two and, behind the Upper Division, a playground, a field for soccer and other sporting events and, at the far end of the school grounds, a simple baseball diamond, some prairie grass, and a path down to a small creek. Next to the Upper Division building is the "Farmette," with chickens, several goats (including very popular baby goats), flower beds, vegetable gardens, picnic tables, a gazebo, and a small greenhouse recently built by students of all ages whose teachers often incorporate nature -- whether the Farmette or the creek -- into their lessons. Every student is from a Jewish family or has one parent who is Jewish. All grades study Hebrew as a classroom subject and the Department of Judaic Studies ensures that students review and understand their shared Jewish heritage deeply. 

The recent 2022-23 school year was the first one not impacted by COVID-19, so a number of school activities were able to proceed unimpaired by pandemic precautions. For example, the school restarted its exchange program with schools in Israel, in which the entire sophomore class travels to Israel in October each year, spending a month studying in schools where Hebrew is the primary language of instruction and becoming familiar with Israeli society, sacred sites, and even spending time experiencing life on the military bases which are integral to life there. For a number of students, this is not their first time visiting Israel, because many in the DJDS school community have relatives living there and these very close ties mean that some students take family trips to Israel on a regular basis throughout the school year. 

The Learning Environment at DJDS

Teachers very much seem to be selected based on general intelligence, experience, and a favorable disposition towards diverse belief systems as well as an ability to develop ones own lessons and materials utilizing the ample resources provided by the school, working within a curricular framework supervised by a subject-area coordinator. Teachers also are encouraged, and it is actually considered part of their employment agreements, to create "specials," additional learning modules ranging from intensive subject-related innovative activities to completely separate tracks such as wood-working, debate, musical productions, and artistry. DJDS students are on the whole self-confident learners who expect and appreciate new, fun, engaging instructional approaches which provide a positive challenge and opportunities to express themselves fully.

Google Classroom is utilized to organize the learning activities in ways that enhance the three-way relationship among students, families, and teachers, and parents are in continual communication with teachers and administration regarding their mutual concerns for the well-being and progress of each student. Grades are recorded outside of Google Classroom, on a secure platform called FACTS, which also is available to students and families for checking status and performance levels on particular assignments as well as cumulative totals. Communication with families is also supported by monthly updates a teacher e-mails to a list of parent addresses outlining recent and upcoming learning activities. There is a day each semester devoted to individual parent-teacher conferences, which usually are via Zoom, but can be arranged in-person as well. Many parents are professionals in the local Denver community and there is a high level of knowledge and awareness regarding the dynamics of teaching and learning, so these conversations are very helpful in finding new ways to engage the minds of these children, whose families expect the very best.

Kindness, Community, and Open Tent Flaps for Oct. 7 Refugees

In a blog entry on Friday, December 7, 2023 [https://www.denverjds.org/welcome/news/blog/blog-posts/~board/blog/post/to-every-season-a-time-for-yes], DJDS director of admissions Shayna Friedman tells the story of how the school community has responded to the needs of Israeli families who brought their children to the Denver area seeking healing and safety in the aftermath of the October 7th attacks. She recounts that when she proposed that Denver Jewish Day School "support refugees escaping trauma, and that it would probably cost money," her boss, DJDS head of school Avi Halzel simply answered, "Of course." 

Next was a staff meeting and then Friedman "got on the phone with the parents of 17 Israeli children and told them we were ready to welcome them to school. And then, the magic happened." School leaders conferenced with families to develop transition plans, "student buddies" were assigned, and faculty were briefed. English language learner (ELL) services were established and the school psychologist Dr. Natalie Mohan provided the new members of the DJDS community with mental health resources as well as contact lists of Hebrew-speaking therapists in Denver. The new students were included on class trips and other activities, and "teachers prepared current students with lessons about open tent flaps and ways to express empathy," wrote Friedman in her December 7th blog report, also quoting Lower Division principal Elana Shapiro's comment: "We're going to build this ship while we sail it." [Editor's note: The reference to "open tent flaps" is an allusion to commentaries about Abraham and Sarah's home, or tent, being open on two or more sides indicating that guests and travelers were welcome.]

Behind the Scenes

The strength of the Denver Jewish Day School community is evident to anyone who has taught there, volunteered, or visited the school, but in their response to the needs of their Israeli guests and embracing new students, some of the keys aspects of the DJDS "magic" have shone through, according to further details from Friedman's blog statement:

Behind the scenes, our community engagement manager, Alyson Slatkin, created process flows outlining who would be responsible for what, organized pop-up coffees to introduce our new friends to current families, and managed the biggest spreadsheet I’ve ever seen to match make every family’s needs with donations or volunteers from around the school and larger community (enabling one family to furnish their rental house in the coming months). Our Director of Innovation, Chagit Gibor, took an especially vulnerable family from Kibbutz Beeri under her wing to help them navigate the bureaucracy of resettlement in the US. And, of course, our development team, Krista Boscoe and Sam Walsh, initiated a special campaign to raise additional funds (beyond the $1.5 million they already raise annually) to cover the costs required to absorb so many new students in such a short time, in addition to the increased cost of adding another security officer to ensure all of our families feel safe having their children here.

In her concluding words, Shayna Friedman eloquently expresses a deeply nuanced moral imperative which suggests there is reason to remain hopeful and to take decisive actions that promote healing and restoration:

In my darkest moments, I am panicked both about how this story began and how it ends. The horror of October 7 can not be erased by a cup of coffee, a donated Lego set, or a gently used loveseat.  Lives were destroyed literally and figuratively, and it is less than three months behind us. Israelis and world Jewry face a long, uphill journey to recovery. Can I seriously think I can be impactful in the face of this existential crisis? As hard as it is, the answer can only be yes, of course.

About the Author

Robert Bruce Scott, Ed.D.

Robb Scott is a co-editor of the C2C Digital Magazine and has been a contributor to this publication since the fall of 2021. He served as a teacher educator for 12 years in the College of Education at Fort Hays State University, preparing candidates for ESOL and special education endorsements. He is a past president of Kansas TESOL and a past president of Kansas CEC. He earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Kansas; and an Ed.D. in Special Education from Kansas State University. He earned a certificate in negotiating across cultures from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. In 2021, Dr. Scott retired from FHSU, and spent the next year writing the book, "Teaching Content: Skill-Building in Inclusive Contexts" (2022), before coming out of retirement for a year to teach middle school and high school English language arts full-time at Denver Jewish Day School (2022-2023). He is currently a motivational speaker and host of the Teaching Content podcast. Robb Scott has lived and taught in Ecuador, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. He grew up in Great Bend, Kansas.


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