On July 1, 2019, Dr. Dalia Hochman became Gann Academy’s head of school—the third person to assume the position in the school’s 22-year history. A native of Lexington, Hochman has an impressive resume. Prior to coming to Gann, Hochman was a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for Summit Learning, the Silicon Valley charter network funded by The Chan Zuckerberg Education Initiative. She has been involved in educational reform initiatives in Rhode Island and Los Angeles. She began her career in education as a high school history teacher at The LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she won a Fulbright award for excellence in teaching.
Hochman earned her undergraduate degree in history from Yale College and her Ph.D. in educational policy, politics and leadership from Columbia University. A 1992 graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, Hochman also attended Prozdor at Hebrew College and Camp Ramah in Palmer as both a camper and counselor. “I’ve been the beneficiary of Jewish Boston’s excellent institutions,” she said. “I’m very aware of the impact of a quality Jewish education.” She recently spoke to JewishBoston about her new role at Gann Academy and shared her vision for the school’s future.
What were you doing before returning to the Boston area?
I have lived in many great cities, including Jerusalem, where I studied at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and at The Hebrew University. I’ve also lived in New York City, Los Angeles and, most recently, in Washington, D.C. These are all great Jewish cities where I was involved as a Jewish lay leader. As my three children began to grow up, I entered the Jewish institutional space as a parent.
I have been working in public education for my entire career. I became interested as an undergraduate at Yale in equity and civil rights when I volunteered in the local New Haven public schools. Jewish values of tikkun olam help sensitize me to issues of equity and access.
Adolescence is a magical time period because young people are so keen on exploring their passions, pushing boundaries and testing out new ideas. I find that I am particularly effective working with teenagers. Over the past few years, I began to consider transitioning from the world of urban school reform to Jewish education, but I wanted to work at a high school. When a position at a Jewish high school in my hometown opened up, it was a perfect opportunity.
How is your work unique at Gann?
Work in education can be lonely. As a senior program officer at a national foundation, I funded and visited schools across the country. The experience taught me that while context matters, we all face common challenges. After all, high school math is not radically different here than it is in a rural school in the Midwest or in California. There are some innovative new approaches in education and it’s exciting to think about how they can be applied to Jewish schools.
For example, this year at Gann, we had a beautiful sukkah that was essentially destroyed during a windstorm. One of our teachers who offers a course on environmental science came up with the idea of predicting future climate patterns in Boston to help build a more sustainable sukkah. Based on their analysis of weather patterns and climate science, students came up with proposals for various different materials and designs for the new Gann sukkah. As part of the project, students had to study the Talmudic laws related to what makes a sukkah kosher from a halachic perspective. Students also had to consider design, materials and engineering principles. This project represents the best of what we can do at Gann, blending Jewish studies with important academic principles in science and engineering.
What appealed to you about leading Gann?
Before applying for the position, I thought long and hard about the school’s mission. I believe one of the most important goals of secondary education is to teach students how to engage in discourse with civility and respect, while maintaining the strength of their voices. It’s important for teenagers who constantly text one another and chat online to also practice looking peers in the eye to agree or disagree. Gann is a pluralistic community that is intentional about teaching how to dialogue across Jewish communities. It prepares kids to navigate across differences of all sorts when they leave our doors.
What are your plans for Gann?
Gann is a school with a wonderful community and a proud history. I have been meeting with the school’s founders and reading through the original documents to understand how and why the school was built. I’ve also been meeting with members of the community and listening to Gann’s remarkable students and alumni. Wherever I travel, I try to organize meetings with Gann alumni who often share that attending the New Jewish High School was one of the most transformative experiences of their lives. It is rare to hear anyone speak about their high school experience in such a way. This year, I am spending as much time as possible experiencing the school, visiting classrooms and getting to know faculty and staff.
What are your priorities?
The most important priority is the learning that happens each and every day. As a new leader, I’m eager to be responsive to the community’s needs. In the big picture, we want to make Gann a sustainable institution for the longer term. My job is to make sure the school exists for future generations of kids. Affordability is also an important issue to address and tackle.
The education field has been rapidly advancing and we are acquiring a better sense of the skills and competencies required to succeed in the 21st century. We have to include those skills in our program so we are equipping our graduates. That applies to whether we’re talking about quantitative reasoning, analysis, written communication or Jewish literacy.
You wrote a beautiful description of Gann in a speech you gave at The Roxbury Latin School last fall.
Yes. Roxbury Latin invited me to speak to the boys about the Jewish High Holidays. I decided to bring one of our Gann juniors with me, and he started the conversation by blowing the shofar. We were in the formal, historic chapel of Roxbury Latin, standing on stage in front of all the boys who were sitting so formally in their seats, and I said: “By U.S. standards, Roxbury Latin is an ancient school with very modern commitments. Gann Academy is a modern school with very ancient commitments. So, the two schools have a lot in common—how we blended the ancient, or the traditional, with modern values.”
Gann is the jewel in the crown of the Boston Jewish community. I would love to collaborate with other institutions. My vision is for us to be a hub for Jewish teenagers in Boston. We’re all doing the same work to engage Jewish kids. I’m looking forward to exploring working together and bringing our strengths to the table.
This interview has been edited and condensed.