A Just Community milestone: Dr. J’s 500th Town Hall is March 24

By Leona Fallas, Senior Staff Writer

Dr. Jill Beerman doesn’t actually remember that first Town Hall in the fall of 1994, but she has a pretty good idea what it was like. Fewer than 60 students and faculty sat in the circle on the floor, sans microphone.

While she doesn’t remember the topic, she suspects it had something to do with altering school policy.  Whatever it was, it made quite an impression.

“I was really impressed by the thoughtfulness of the remarks made,” said Dr. J, who was then known simply as Ms. Beerman. “It made a lot of sense to me to have that sort of thing in a high school.”

The occasion for all this reminiscing presents itself before the end of this month. According to her calculations, at Town Hall on March 24, Dr. J will attend her 500th Town Hall.

“I think 500 is probably an underestimate rather then an overestimate,” says Dr. Beerman. “I’d pass it during this year, definitely.”

Playfully dubbed “Dr. J” since receiving her doctorate in 2008, Dr. Beerman does remember her most entertaining Town Hall ever. During a heat wave some 10 years ago, she said, students proposed an amendment to let them to wear shorts to school when the temperatures rose past 96 degrees.

“In Town Hall, it got amended that it was only in their non-Judaic classes,” laughs Dr. Beerman. “They voted on it and it got passed, and the next day the heat wave broke and they never got to do it.”

But while there have been some playful moments, Shalhevet alumni seem to most remember Dr. Beerman’s probing questions, insightful comments, and her automatic tendency to rise and defend a student being ostracized.

“Dr. Beerman is a Town Hall legend,” says Jeremy Lowe, who was agenda chair during the 2009-10 school year. “Everyone knows that she has something to say and always stirs up and always provokes extra thoughts through her comments.”

Alumnus Seth Samuels ’06 remembers her passionate defense of the underdog.

“She’d often defend students during Town Hall, and then promptly usher them into a class at the end of passing periods,” recalled Seth Samuels ‘06. “In both instances, she was acting out of the best interest of the student.”

Dr. Beerman knew little about Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development when she started teaching at Shalhevet 17 years ago.  But the Just Community and Town Halls, both based on Kohlberg’s work, sparked her interest right away.

Prof. Kohlberg believed that people progress through stages of moral development by pondering “moral dilemmas”, which allow a person to consider the moral course of action, and why something is right or wrong. This leads to moral growth, and climbing up a step of Kolhbeg’s 6 stages of morality.

When it came time to write her dissertation at NYU, Dr. Beerman researched the use of moral dilemmas in movies to teach American History.

“It all came from Shalhevet,” she says. “I included a transcript that I took from a moral discussion I had with my 10th-grade class … and commented on which [of Kohlberg’s] stages were being exhibited.”

As noted by students and colleagues, Dr. Beerman has the rare skill of stimulating discussion with thought-provoking questions without imposing her own beliefs on the students. Dr. Sam Gomberg, former General Studies principal and Director of Moral Education, said that is exactly the point.

“The purpose of Town Hall was for teachers to come up and stimulate discussion, not necessarily join in on the discussion,” said Dr. Gomberg, who was Dr. Beerman’s mentor while he was here. “Jill understood that from the get-go.”

While Dr. Beerman strongly supports the Just Community model and Town Hall in general, she has gripes with students’ level of enthusiasm and involvement in Shalhevet’s current Thursday sessions.

Most of these issues stem from a lack of student participation, which may be a result of increased enrollment since the original Town Halls. The student body has almost tripled in the past 16 years, from 60 students to about 175.

“It really disturbs me that we’ve grown so much,” says Dr. Beerman. “There’s a good percentage of people who don’t take much interest most of the time. It drains some of the energy.”

But as her 500th Town Hall approaches, Dr. Beerman is still active in the process of school writing amendments to try to keep Town Hall functioning with almost three times as many participants. This year, she carries the title Director of the Just Commnity.

And like her very first Town Hall, her 500th will probably also be involved with altering school policy. Most recently, students voted to meet with small core groups every two years to rewrite the student handbook.

“I think that’s the fairest way to run the school,” said Dr. Beerman, who wrote the proposal.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the date of Dr. Beerman’s 500th Town Hall as March 31. Dr. Beerman had said her calculations could not be exact, and that either March 24 or 31 was possible.