"I saw an opportunity to take an already very good school to the next level," said Katz, 65, of his decision to leave the Park School in Brookline, Mass., after 20 years as its head.
As the only Reform Jewish day school in New York City, the 607-student nursery through eighth grade school draws families from the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side and many other zip codes. But it's looking to expand its reach and popularity further. About a year and a half ago the school hired its first communications staff member to help raise the school's profile.
"Among the things I would say with confidence — this is a school where kids are extraordinarily well-loved and cared for and a school that changes kids lives," Katz said.
DNAinfo New York spoke with Katz about his vision for the future.
Q: What factors contributed to your accepting the position as Head of School?
A: What sets the school apart is its strong conviction to caring about the character of the kids as members of a responsible and just community. I’ve been very pleased with what I’ve seen of the way our current eighth-graders are. They’re seen as not only very well-prepared academically, but as kids who make a difference and bring others together in an effort to do what’s right.
Q: What are some of the changes you predict making at the school?
A: Right now, I’m in my first year here — I’m doing a lot of looking and listening. In terms of big strategic priorities, I’ve shared areas that are important to be looked at — [increasing] faculty compensation, financial aid. If we really want to be accessible and affordable and if we think that economic diversity is important, we have to look at ways of growing financial aid.
Q: What does innovation mean to you at RSS?
A: Innovation in a school doesn’t mean blind experimentation. This school does not aspire to be at some cutting edge. It really means keeping up with best practices and being open to change.
I believe very strongly that any school that aspires to be excellent can never afford to get complacent and stand still. I think the school needs a culture that is fairly nimble and good at looking outward. That means a big commitment to faculty development. That’s one of the first initiatives I’ve put in place here. We’re basically tripling [faculty development]. We’re doing a big initiative around using technology in the classroom, focusing on second through eighth grade. We have a big initiative around differentiated instruction — how to plan and present and access learning for kids who are at different levels with even greater effectiveness. We want to help teachers from wherever they are in their current repertoire to get even better at it. We have a lot of faculty professional development and we’re trying to increase it going into this summer.
Q: How does the school interweave the study of Judaism and Jewish ethics with other academics?
A: Jewish knowledge, ethics and history are integrated throughout the curriculum in an analysis of literature and history. Kids have separate Hebrew and Jewish studies classes. They have to add on to an already full day of English, history, modern language, art, music, athletics, drama. We’re aspiring to offer kids the whole range of learning experiences… but also this kind of strong grounding in a sense of joy and pride in their Jewish identity. There’s no one way to understand their Judaism. We’re encouraging kids to question and find their own sense of what’s meaningful, what resonates with them.
We have kids who leave here knowing a lot about Jewish faith and Jewish identity, but knowing they’re on their own path to finding their identity.
Q: What are your goals in terms of how the school is viewed in the wider community?
A: It’s my impression the school has this very important and very visible affiliation with [congregation] Rodeph Sholom. [Parents] learn about us through the congregation or word of mouth. I think that we see ourself as a school that has something really quite wonderful to offer to a broader range of kids and families than we might currently be reaching.
I think we feel fairly confident that there is no stronger academic experience or nurturing culture. We often hear people saying, 'We’re so glad we took our friend's suggestion!' 'Why didn’t we know about this school?'
Q: It's your first time working at a religious school. Has that influenced your own Judaism?
A: So far it’s been a fascinating and very rewarding new element. I’m learning things about Judaism, about my own Jewish identity. I’m learning things about why I increasingly feel it’s so important to help kids being raised in Jewish families to experience pride and joy in their Jewishness outside the home or the synagogue.
I’d be pretty confident that kids who come through this school who are Jewish are more likely to retain a positive sense of Jewish identity in their future lives.