The prophet Isaiah exhorted: “All of your children shall be taught of the Lord.” Some rabbinic scholars say that the word in Hebrew translated as “your children” can also be interpreted as the Hebrew word for builder, implying that Jewish children need Jewish education to build a Jewish future.
Maria Erlitz, outgoing head of school for the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle and one of the founding parents of the school 18 years ago, has devoted at least the last 21 years to both of those prophetic calls. As she takes her leave from the school to pursue a private consulting practice, the Jewish community has reaped the benefits of her dedication.
Erlitz has built a solid foundation on which the JDS can continue to grow. Forty-three students were originally enrolled in kindergarten through the second grade when it opened in 1981. Currently, the JDS extends through to the eighth grade and had upwards of 300 students enrolled in 2001. The school’s board of directors is also looking at master plans for a new building.
“I’m ready,” said Erlitz, taking stock of her work as she prepares for her departure. “I’ve put a lot of myself into the school and I’ve dedicated a whole portion of my life to watching this school grow. One of the promises I made to myself these past three years was that the only time I would consider leaving was when the school was in really great shape. I think it’s ready to take its next big step. I leave wishing it well. I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I’m ready to move on.”
Erlitz leaves JDS to return to her consulting business, where she will do some executive coaching, helping leaders become better leaders.
“I’ve had experience consulting for educators and helping organizations grow,” said Erlitz. “I’ve also been involved with the Pacific Northwest Association of Private Schools. I will broaden my scope of consulting and include technology for schools and instructional technology.”
Erlitz has accomplished much in her years at the school. She held the position of vice principal for nine years and served on the JDS board for three years. After a two-year “leave” to pursue her independent consulting work, Erlitz returned to the school in 1998, by request, to take over as the interim administrative head of school while a committee searched for a replacement. The committee’s gaze soon rested on Erlitz. Since taking the job as head of the school in 1999, she has concentrated on gathering the best teaching staff possible and feels that one of the most challenging aspects of the job has been to attract the right teachers to the school.
“I hired 17 people the first year I was back and 12 the next year,” said Erlitz. “It’s part of what I do best. I’ve hired fabulous people. Our teachers stay. I feel it would be just a pleasure for the new head of school to take over this school. Any area that you look at it’s solid.”
Recognizing the extensive contribution that Erlitz has made to the JDS and the Jewish community, the board talked about her many accomplishments and honored her at their annual meeting.
“We established the Maria Erlitz Award for Excellence in Education that will go to a JDS educator every year along with a financial reward that will go toward academic development,” said Alayne Sulkin, the current board president. “Maria has made great contributions to the school. After many weeks of deliberating, her resignation was regretfully accepted.”
Sulkin says the board will be looking for candidates that exhibit leadership skills working with institutions.
“We don’t feel any kind of pressure,” said Sulkin. “There’s always concerns about transitions, but our retention [rate] is higher than ever and we’re looking for record enrollment next year. We continue to see an influx from the Jewish Community School [which has classes through fifth grade]. It’s a very dynamic situation.”
One of the reasons the JDS may be experiencing such growth is that it also has a well-developed secular curriculum. In the 21st century, there is more to Jewish education than Hebrew and prayers. A private religious school has to compete academically with any other public or private school in the area. According to Erlitz, parents who choose to send their children to the JDS must also feel confident that they will receive above average instruction in science and math as well as learn the skills to use technology.
“There aren’t enough people who would come for the Jewish education alone,” said Erlitz. “They come because they want an excellent education all the way around. That has to be the top priority and we make it the top priority. There’s always a push and pull between taking an hour out of Jewish education and doing more science and math. Our kids do really well after they leave here. The added value is the Jewish education. They have Hebrew as a second language so when they go on to French or Spanish it comes really easily to them. There are few people who would be willing to sacrifice a secular education for a Jewish education.”
Erlitz has been sensitive to the influence of technology on education and has sought to bring the JDS into the information age, where the students readily interact with yet another language, that of sophisticated computer programs.
“We are completely wired,” said Erlitz. “This way of accessing education is so different now. We have a laptop program from the fifth through the eighth-grade. I think it takes a real mind shift for helping kids learn. The school itself has a fabulous Web site. Now, because the school has a great reputation, we comb the country for Jewish teachers. Even in this teacher shortage we still get tons of teachers who are interested because it’s more than a workplace, it’s a community.”