by Meredith Jacobs
Last month, in a letter to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School community, Jonathan Cannon, head of school, announced that “the time is right for new career challenges and opportunities,” and, therefore, the 2012-2013 school year would be his last.
While he has no definite plans for his next move, the year’s notice will allow him to work with search committee co-chairs Nancy Hamburger and Mike Levy as they embark on a nationwide search to find his replacement for, as he wrote in his resignation letter, “one of the premier jobs in Jewish education.” It is, he continued, a position that was his “privilege and honor to have held for 12 years.” Cannon sat down with WJW to reflect on the last 12 years and share thoughts on the future.
Born and bred in London, Cannon had served as assistant principal of Carmel College at Oxfordshire, England and head of school at the Carmel Day School in Hong Kong (no connection to Carmel College). He is married to Gilly and father to Benjy (JDS ’11), Aron (JDS ’13) and Jacob (JDS ’19).
His first week as head of CES-JDS, his second in the U.S., was Sept. 11, 2001. “It created an opportunity in the worst possible way, to get to know everybody and work with everybody,” he remembers. “I went from knowing nobody to everybody in 48 hours.”
He had set aside the first year to review and learn and yet, with 9/11, the anthrax scare and the sniper, security went from being a back-burner issue to the front burner. The first new position he was involved with was for the school’s director of security. “I learned so much — security of the building, the perimeter,” everything needed to create as safe a school as possible.
Cannon believes he’s had the “ultimate gift of a job” — one that combines heading a successful school that refuses to rest on its laurels.
He’s passionate about the pluralistic community and while there are challenges running a community day school with a multiplicity of opinions that “often contradict each other,” it is this confluence of voices that is most exciting.
“Life is not black and white,” he explains. “My wife, Gilly, says that the full spectrum of colors is within black and white. It’s not gray. Life works in that spectrum.”
He reflects on continuing major challenges he’s faced that he believes need to go beyond the walls of any one day school to address.
Being a community day school means including many diverse students with a variety of learning styles and needs. “We need to get the balance right,” says Cannon. “We need to include as many students as possible. But we need to be realistic about what we can do.”
This includes gifted students who must be challenged. Cannon is proud of how the school has expanded its special needs department during his tenure and notes that this year’s staff includes a lower school gifted and talented specialist — a new position.
In general, there is new thinking in the field, where the student’s learning style drives the education process more than the teacher’s teaching style.
Cannon was that kid who would put his keys down and immediately lose them, whose homework was crumpled up in a ball in the bottom of his school backpack.
“I was ‘organizationally challenged,’” he admits.
But that same kid, who loses his keys and homework, is the same student who loses his place while reading, or still has his book in his bag while the rest of the class is already following along with the teacher.
Understanding learning styles leads to simple changes that make significant differences. Using different colored inks for each section or even numbering sentences means no one loses his place, even those “organizationally challenged” kids.
Some students need to move around or get tapped on the shoulder to help them focus, but, adds Cannon, “some need to, but all benefit.”
“It’s extremely important — broadening the groups we can meet and being transparent when we can’t meet [their needs].” Cannon notes that the families who left the school when JDS wasn’t able to provide for their children “weren’t wrong.”
“There are too many families who have to go outside the Jewish day school community to meet their needs.” Cannon would like to see the entire local day school community pull together to offer children with special needs greater opportunities. In this way, schools would be able to direct families to the program that best fits their child’s needs.
“When the learning disability is severe, mainstream schools can’t meet the needs. Those families have to go to a county or special school. It doesn’t make sense for any one school to solve. That’s what I mean by community.”
He also advocates for day schools to come together to address the mounting costs of day school education. He believes the level of quality education families want and need requires a cost that can prohibit those families from being able to enroll their children. And, while CES-JDS contributes $4.7 million each year partnering with parents to help them send their children to school, it’s still not enough. “No one school can solve this,” says Cannon. “Not school by school.”
And, while national organizations are working on it, Cannon believes in exploring a much higher level of philanthropic participation to deal with the fees. He envisions a fund all day schools could pull from.
He references research indicating that day school education, Jewish summer camps and extended trips to Israel are key childhood experiences leading to affiliation and connectivity for Jewish adults. “There needs to be a national campaign that helps people understand the relationship between day school education and the future,” he says. “It’s tricky. People on the national scene are not convinced there should be one fund. They think there is more out there [for individual schools].”
“Affordability is huge,” he says. “The school recognizes it and knows we can’t do it alone.” And while philanthropy is not the only answer, budget cuts prove to be a challenge. Cannon explains that the overwhelming majority of the budget goes to faculty salaries. “We can’t compromise on the teachers. They earn far too little as is. We want to be competitive, and we want to be decent.”
Cannon, who received his undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Leeds, is especially proud of the technological advancements made during his tenure. The school is nationally recognized as a leader in this field.
“I’m most excited about 21st-century education,” says Cannon. “Students acquire certain skills — collaborating, critical thinking. Education is a historically competitive environment. But the world our kids graduate into is a collaborative environment. Technology is about collaborating across continents, forming groups, communicating.
“Kids in second and third grade will go into jobs that don’t yet exist, will use technology that hasn’t been invented and will solve problems we don’t yet know are problems.”
The challenge, he explains, is that because of technology, there are many voices talking to our children.
“Twenty-five years ago, it was just family and school. Now we are only 5 percent of the sound that comes in. And if we want to come into the conversation that will affect them, we need to be part of the technology they are using.”
More and more, students today are taking ownership over what’s important to them. Cannon points to the growing movement of students wanting to impact their environment, to make a difference.
He speaks with pride about Families in Action Day, when more than 1,000 members of the school community participated in social action projects around the city. It began as Students in Action Day and evolved into a project for the families. “The students drive, and the parents come in behind them.”
In addition to social action, Cannon sees students surpassing their parents’ education in Hebrew and Judaics, bringing that knowledge home.
Cannon remembers when he began his career, parents drove up, dropped their kids off to school and said “see ya in 12 years.” Now, “parents are serious partners and students are serious partners and that triangle is critical to success.”
One might think that with all that input, too many cooks would spoil the chicken soup, but Cannon welcomes the challenge. The conversations, he says, that have made him a better listener, also make his a “real world school” that helps “prepare kids for the world they’ll live in.”
And preparing students for the real world also involves speaking openly and honestly about issues revolving around drugs, alcohol, and social media.
“We can’t pretend there isn’t a real world out there,” he says. “Do you keep quiet or do you educate and prepare?”
When asked to select a favorite memory from his 12 years at the helm of one of the nation’s largest day schools, Cannon mentioned a few including the Purim he dressed in a Pink Panther suit. A teacher from one of the younger elementary school classrooms, challenged her students to guess who was in the suit. “Their first thought was Freddy the custodian. When I pulled off the head to show it was me, they were so disappointed it wasn’t Freddy. I was so happy that’s the kind of environment we have” where everyone is important.
The next memory is of the school’s a cappella choir performing at the Yom Hazikaron observance held at B’nai Israel Congregation. “The ambassador speaks, the chief of staff, the military attache. They invited our kids to perform. It’s for the whole community but mainly for the Israeli community. It is a real privilege,” he says. “To be invited by the families for whom the war was real.”
He remembers his first days in the school. “I wasn’t used to thinking our athletic teams could be champions, but then I walked into the gym and saw all the banners.”
And not just the athletic teams are champions. Sometimes being a champion has a different meaning. Two years ago, the two teams in the debate semifinals were both JDS teams. The teams walked away from the finals, refusing to compete against each other.
As head of school, he had the extraordinary opportunity to speak at his own sons’ graduation. But the memory he speaks of next is about a JDS senior class tradition. Each student receives a jersey with his or her graduating year on the front and something silly on the back. “They make one for me,” he explains, “and one year it said [on the back] ‘All my children.’”
“The real privilege of this job is getting to watch hundreds of students work with amazing teachers to become the best they can be.
“Who gets to do that?”