Cindy Schlesinger, the incoming head of school at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, knows her new job starts July 1. But she has no idea when the next school year will start. August? September? Nobody knows.
That’s the kind of uncertainty school administrators face in the time of coronavirus.
Schlesinger, currently Yavneh’s middle school dean, replaces Zvi Weiss, who has been tapped to head a Jewish day school in San Diego.
After what she deemed four fulfilling years at Yavneh, Schlesinger said she is ready for the challenges ahead, in part because, according to the Palo Alto native, the culture of Yavneh is more like a family than a schoolhouse.
Parents aren’t simply “sending their kids to school,” she said. “Kids and parents are part of a Yavneh family, where we truly care for the students. We believe in the importance of true integration and not putting up barriers that don’t belong.”
Founded in 1980, the K-8 school is housed on the Levy Family Campus of the Addison-Penzak JCC.
Currently the school has about 185 students enrolled and a faculty of 30 teachers. But since the statewide school shutdown began, Yavneh students have switched to remote learning, which has posed its own challenges.
“These are pretty extraordinary times,” said Schlesinger, a Redwood City resident. “The new buzzword is ‘nimble.’ Yavneh has always been a school that has been able to make changes we see as necessary. Our faculty is compassionate, dedicated and caring, and we’re seeing that even more as we have to move to remote learning.”
Whenever the coronavirus crisis abates, Schlesinger said she intends to maintain her school’s reputation for innovation. For example, rather than having isolated Hebrew-language classes, students will sometimes have their math class taught in Hebrew in order to deepen the immersion experience. And when fifth-graders learn to chant Torah, they will lead a Torah service at the school; when seventh-graders study Holocaust history, they will lead a Yom HaShoah service.
“Our students often play a leadership role,” she said.
Schlesinger is fully in her comfort zone at Yavneh. Her father was a professor of medicine at Stanford University, so she grew up on and around the campus. She and her family attended Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, and she graduated from Gunn High School in Palo Alto in 1988.
As a teen, she started working with kids at religious schools and at the JCC in Palo Alto, where she met her husband, Jon, while working as a camp counselor. Their son is a graduate of Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto.
After earning a graduate degree in science education at USC, Schlesinger worked at the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, then became a teacher before returning to the Bay Area. She taught math and science at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto for 18 years before moving over to Yavneh.
While she, like everyone, hopes to get back to normal as soon as possible, Schlesinger said the pandemic has impacted the Yavneh community, and not just in terms of inconvenience.
“We have some [families] who have lost jobs and are struggling financially because of this pandemic,” she said. “We are looking at figuring out how much more financial aid we’ll need to give. We don’t want to lose families. We want to stay strong, so we’re looking at starting an emergency campaign that would help offset some of that additional financial aid.”
Even a pandemic couldn’t diminish the excitement in her voice as she looks forward to her new role, and to the universally familiar back-to-school feeling that will soon start bubbling up.
“Everyone at Yavneh really understands how unique this institution is,” she said, “and it really goes back to our fundamental beliefs. I’ve been teaching since I was in high school, and this is my first time as head of school. So to be taking this on right now is a little overwhelming and quite an exciting opportunity.”