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Barrack Looking for a New Head

July 6, 2011 By:
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Steven Brown

While students have left schoolwork behind for summer break, administrators at Barrack Hebrew Academy are searching for a new head of school.

After three years on the job, Steven Brown stepped down June 30 "to pursue other personal and professional goals," according to a letter emailed to parents last week.

Ariele Klausner, president of Barrack's board of directors, wrote that the departure was timed to have the least effect on end-of-year activities and thanked Brown for his "wisdom and leadership in helping navigate the school through a challenging, but exciting, period in its history."

Barrack spokeswoman Bev Rosen said the decision was mutual and Brown had agreed to be available to administrators as they search for a new leader. Brown was out of the country on vacation and did not respond to an email request for comment.

The board will convene a search committee comprised of Barrack staff, parents, alumni and students to begin recruiting a new leader.

In the meantime, Sharon Levin, the school's academic dean who has been at Barrack for 25 years, will be the interim head of the pluralistic day school, which serves about 275 students in grades 6 through 12. She and Christine Farrell, dean of students and middle school coordinator, will hold a series of meetings in July and August for parents to ask questions about the transition.

The search process took 18 months when Brown's predecessor, Rabbi Philip Field, retired to move to Israel. Brown's appointment was announced in late November 2007.

He joined the secondary school, where his children had both graduated when it was still known as Akiba, the following summer -- just in time to oversee its relocation from a historic building in Merion Station to a 35-acre campus in Bryn Mawr that had been recently purchased by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

By then, Brown had amassed an extensive background in Jewish education.

Aside from a doctorate in education from Columbia University's Teachers College, he'd served as the educational director at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park and headmaster of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Philadelphia, now the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.

In 1996, he was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and began commuting from his home in Melrose Park to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

During his 12 years there, he served as an assistant professor, dean of the graduate school of Jewish education and director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education.

His tenure at Barrack was marked by a number of unusual circumstances, including an aborted attempt in March 2009 to merge with Perelman's Robert Saligman Middle School in Melrose Park. Then, in November, a faculty strike over contract negotiations halted classes for a week.

Barrack, like other day schools nationwide, has faced budgetary woes, declining enrollments and competition from other high-quality private schools in the area.

Enrollment has dropped by about 8 percent since 2009, when the middle and upper school collectively had more than 300 students, according to Exponent archives.

While the student body has shrunk, Brown oversaw expansions within the curriculum, including the addition of Arabic as a language elective, a Chinese language club, a vocal and instrumental music program, a new director of Jewish studies and opportunities for in-depth Torah study. He also led the charge to enhance athletic facilities on the grounds and use the hotel located on the campus as a retreat center for community Shabbatons.

Levin said Brown hadn't bargained for so much turmoil but he had handled everything professionally.

Her goal in the interim, she said, is to continue the programs Brown started and build on her deep connections within the Jewish community to broaden fundraising support from parents and boost enrollment.

Levin said she'll go anywhere in the five-county area, from summer camps to Hebrew schools, to tell potential students about the "palpable energy in our school."

"No matter what the name, no matter what the location, the teachers and the parent body and the student body have remained the same," Levin said. "I think we're the world's best kept secret. I just kind of want to shake people up and say, 'Come see us, meet with me.' "

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