Maria Erlitz can sum up her retirement from the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle in two words: “It’s time.”
With an education consulting business that she put on hold for her position as head of school and a desire to slow down, Erlitz felt that now was the right time to say “l’hitraot” — until we meet again.
“It’s not that I don’t love what I do, but it’s hard to balance,” she said.
When she turns over the reins to Mike Downs, an interim head who will come to the Bellevue school while the JDS search committee seeks a permanent head, everything should be in place for a smooth transition.
“Sometimes you want to cleanse the palate from someone who’s been here a long time,” Erlitz said. “The school is in great shape, and in good hands, and it gives the search committee a little bit more time.”
Erlitz has spent the past five years as head of school of the Bellevue academy, but her history with the school goes back to its founding 33 years ago. Back then she was a recent transplant from New York and connected with a group of parents who wanted to give their children a Jewish day school education, but wanted something more pluralistic than the Seattle Hebrew Academy, at that time the only game in town, was willing to offer.
“They went to the powers that be and said, ‘How about if you get a little bit more pluralistic?’” Erlitz recalled. “And thank God that the Seattle Hebrew Academy said, ‘This is our mission. We are a Torah Umesorah modern Orthodox [school].’”
And so JDS was born. Erlitz started as an educator, then eventually became head of school. She left for many years to run a consulting practice that works primarily with day schools’ boards and leaders, but in 2008 when the call came to serve as interim head of school while the board searched for a permanent replacement, she took it. And when she asked to stay on as that replacement, the board jumped at the opportunity.
Since Erlitz retook over, the school has noticeably embraced education 21st-century style.
“Any vision, especially in education, if you’re not constantly improving you’re not doing your job,” she said.
Part of that vision is more intangible: Welcoming interfaith families or talking and writing about God and belief — sometimes in conjunction with people who practice other religions. But other parts are very much in line with leaps in technology.
“Because things are at your fingertips, to teach facts these days, and to have kids memorize facts and regurgitate facts, is really wasting time,” Erlitz said. “To have them discover the facts and research the facts — to support a burning question that they’re looking at is where education is going.”
That burning question, known formally as inquiry-based learning, has been piloted in three grades but this fall will become the standard for all of JDS.
“I’m certainly most proud that the inquiry-based curriculum is taking hold school-wide and we’ve been able to promote that,” Erlitz said.
Rabbi Stuart Light, the school’s head of Judaics, put the curriculum into practice Jewishly through a monthly program. During an assembly, Light would query students about Jewish history or practice and then send them out to the Internet and Jewish texts to discover answers for themselves.
“The amazing answers that come back, that’s the kind of education that you want,” Erlitz said.
Light, incidentally, is also leaving the school after 13 years to lead the Judaic studies program at a large day school in Irvine, Calif.
This style of education that Erlitz has pushed JDS toward — with the backing of the school’s board and its parents, who are fiercely loyal to the school (and have top ranking in a national survey to prove it) — is a decisive move away from the teacher at a blackboard talking at rows of children.
“Even the second grade or the first grade, the students can do their own project,” she said. “Now the kids can ask, ‘What kind of animals live in the rainforest?’ I want to research that. Every student in the class will study the rainforest, but in their own way.”
The school has been working on a five-year strategic plan in conjunction with
the Samis Foundation and Seattle Pacific University, but with the technology moving so quickly, it’s difficult to make decisions based upon what computers are available today if their basic capabilities are obsolete in that time.
Erlitz, holding up her iPhone with the Siri voice-recognition capability, wondered when all of computing would be voice activated.
“You want your first grader to learn to read? Let your first grader dictate their own story and have the words pop up,” she said. “I guarantee you that child can learn to read a lot faster than if they use Houghton Mifflin or Scott Foresman.”
One point of pride for Erlitz is maintaining the curriculum and quality of JDS’s education in the wake of the recession. Given the quality of Bellevue’s public schools, “if you don’t value Jewish, it’s a hard sell, because we have a hefty tuition,” she said.
“Even in the recovery from 2008, people are not feeling like, ‘Oh, I just have all this money and discretionary income,’” she said. “Especially in the middle.”
The school did sign on 10 new students for the year that just ended, “so we did kind of turn that curve,” she said.
As she wraps up her JDS career, Erlitz said she’ll miss the staff and teachers and especially the students, but she has trust that the school’s leadership can and will continue to improve.