On Sunday, July 28, the Epstein Hillel community came together to celebrate the leadership and commitment of Arthur and Esther Goldberg to our school and the North Shore. We welcomed 300 guests for an inspiring reception prior to the spectacular performance of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show “Dear Evan Hanson.” Below follows a redacted version of my remarks from the evening. With such a critical message about our children’s future, it was worth sharing far and wide.
Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a weeklong institute at Harvard for heads of schools, principals and superintendents from around the world. We were a group of 130, representing 15 countries and 32 U.S. states. One of the four stated goals of the program was to look at the challenges schools face today and consider solutions that will help ensure the best education possible for the next generation. These challenges include the skyrocketing numbers of students with anxiety and depression, as well as the need for pedagogical change to ensure that diverse learners can access curriculum and meet their full potential. One of these issues, adolescent mental health, is the theme of “Dear Evan Hanson.”
The actors will sing the song “Waving Through a Window,” and you will feel the isolation of a teen who doesn’t feel like he belongs. It’s such a painful image. This scene couldn’t be more different from the experiences of Epstein Hillel School (EHS) students who joyfully play together across grade levels. Whether it’s on the basketball court, in the gaga pit or at Kabbalat Shabbat, everyone is included and feels connected and valued.
The tagline of “Dear Evan Hansen” is “You will be found.” The story looks at the aftermath and actions of a community after they face a horrific tragedy caused by severe loneliness, isolation and helplessness. The show underscores the critical need to ask for help and connect to those around you because there is always someone who can lift you up. Many years ago, a very wise man, Fred Rogers, said: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Imagine sending your child to a school where every child feels welcome, known, accepted, supported and celebrated as they grow and change, stumble and fall, win and lose and face challenges and opportunities with equanimity, stamina and drive.
That school is Epstein Hillel. When I talk about EHS with prospective parents, one of the first messages they hear is that their child will be known—backwards, forwards, left, right and upside down. Our faculty and staff are invested in each child. They take the teaching and nurturing of a child’s development as a serious responsibility—a holy endeavor. It is no wonder that each year they talk about their class as “my kids.” They are all in. Our students’ growth and progress can’t be measured or captured by a test score, because we consider not only their academic development, but also their character and confidence too.
All too often children and schools are judged by numbers. How big is your school, how many students got into [insert the name of an elite high school/college] and how well did they do on their SATs? But really, what can anyone understand about a school’s quality or student’s potential through these numbers? There is a website, GreatSchools.org, that is an independent nonprofit and its mission is: “To help all parents get a great education for their children, and for communities to ensure that all students receive a quality education…. We strive to display a variety of indicators of school quality to provide a well-rounded picture of how effectively each school serves all of its students.”
It’s a noble endeavor, but the problem is that they use three measures of assessment: test scores, equity and student progress. And of these three, test scores were weighted double that of student progress. Now, I believe that we are a very well-educated audience here tonight, and I bet there are those of us who did not do so well on standardized tests. Yet amongst us are people who have had an incredible impact through the lives they’ve touched through acts of kindness—gemilut chasidim—and through the time and energy they have spent helping the less fortunate through tikkun olam. I don’t know all of you, but I do know our alumnae who are here. They are those people. GreatSchools.org, where are the measures for compassion, leadership and confidence?
A great school is one where parents wish they could go back and be a student because they see their child’s curiosity, passion, intellect and potential are being fostered. After Kabbalat Shabbat last spring, a parent said to me, “Why didn’t EHS exist when I was a kid?” A great school is one where students’ creativity, energy and joy is celebrated. Step into the first-grade classroom at EHS and you will see students becoming confident decoders by reading aloud to Oscar. He is a miniature golden doodle who is happy to hear stories and doesn’t judge.
Walk through our middle-school hallway and see students who are filming scenes from an Israeli restaurant to practice their conversational Hebrew. A great school is one where faculty and staff feel supported in their professional growth and are inspired to try new things in the classroom. Seven EHS teachers received grants from our teacher enrichment fund to spend their precious summer days pursuing projects that will grow their skills, create new curricula and enhance our students’ experience in the fall.
A great school is one where alumni and their parents stay connected and years later volunteer their time, resources and expertise to give back to the next generation. Our classrooms literally are blessed by mezzuzot donated by alumni for the next generation of students.
Epstein Hillel is a great school, and I’m the lucky one who gets to lead this incredibly talented and dedicated faculty and staff so that the next generation of Jewish children on the North Shore will be confident, resilient, committed to their Judaism and empowered to go out and make a difference in the world—not just by what they will do professionally, but how they will choose to live and what they choose to give. Epstein Hillel is educating the next generation of leaders.
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