Six months after two competing Jewish middle schools agreed to merge, officials are moving full steam ahead toward a September opening in Bryn Mawr.
Construction has started, staff is in place, and both enrolled and prospective students have already visited the campus that will house the Robert Saligman Middle School of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
But Barrack and the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, which ran the Saligman school, still have not signed a final, legally binding deal. Officials from both schools insist there are no major stumbling blocks and the process should be completed by the time school opens in September.
Back in December, leaders from both schools signed a detailed, draft agreement to close the old Saligman school in Melrose Park and open a unified school at Barrack, a pluralistic institution that also has a high school.
With the move rapidly approaching, parents, teachers, current students and alumni have been preparing themselves for the end of Perelman’s 12-year experiment in Conservative Jewish education for grades 6-8.
Susan Friedman, who has led Saligman since it opened and was selected to lead the new institution, called it “the school of my dreams. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to recreate it.”
Communal leaders invested tremendous energy in making the merger happen, creating a more viable non-Orthodox middle school.
Though a small minority of Jewish students attend day school — and that is particularly true in the Philadelphia region — healthy day schools are often seen as a strong indicator of the vitality of the larger Jewish community, as well as a source of pride. Advocates for day school education point to studies that suggest that day school graduates are more likely to become active Jewish adults and leaders in the community.
The decision to merge followed years of competition between the two schools for a shrinking number of students. The resolution came about after months of tense negotiations.
Sharon Levin, Barrack’s head of school who will also be Friedman’s supervisor, said the new school “is already proving a great success. We are trying to get more students into the day school system. That is what this is all about.”
Levin declined to give specific enrollment numbers or say what percentage of current Saligman families or students graduating from Perelman’s fifth-grade classes have signed on. But she said that enrollment is “right on target” and that “we are getting a critical mass of students from each grade.” She expects an incoming 6th grade class of more than 50 students.
Before the merger, each middle school averaged fewer than 25 students per grade, she said.
One of the things many parents and students liked best about Saligman was that it was housed in a separate building from Perelman’s lower school on the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park. It gave adolescents a space of their own — even though it was just a hallway — at a particularly important time in their social and cognitive development.
The non-binding agreement signed in December called for the new school to be located at Barrack’s athletic building, which is a freestanding structure.
But Levin said that all the parties involved came to the conclusion that the athletic building wasn’t a feasible option, that there wasn’t enough optimal space and the structure would be far too costly to convert to a new use.
Instead, Barrack has decided to turn its four-story hotel/retreat wing, which is attached to the main school building, into a middle school. When Barrack first relocated to the Federation-owned campus in 2008, the hotel and retreat center was envisioned as a major source of revenue for the school, but that financial windfall never materialized, Levin said.
Construction on the middle school began several weeks ago and is expected to run throughout the summer. The structure will have room for more than a dozen classrooms and a multipurpose room that can hold 150 students and will primarily be used as a beit midrash for both study and prayer.
Levin said the middle school will still have an entrance separate from the main school and will feel like a different building. At the same time, she said, current Barrack middle school students are used to being in the same building as high school students. So the attached wing, she said, represents the best of both worlds.
Although there is not yet a binding agreement between the two schools, Cecily Carel, Barrack’s president, and Tracey Specter, Perelman’s incoming president, said in a joint statement that they “are in the final stages of formalizing the language of the final agreement and expect to complete that task in the next few weeks.”
One Perelman board member involved in the talks and in drafting the agreement, attorney Allen Mandelbaum, said an agreement is 60 to 90 days away.
When asked about suggestions that one sticking point involved an annual $500,000 payment that Barrack agreed in principle to make to Perelman for five years, with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia acting as a guarantor, Mandelbaum said that wasn’t an issue. These monies have “never been discussed and/or negotiated,” he wrote in an email. Such obligations are “firmly understood and agreed to among the parties.”
The details being worked out revolve around the rules for recruitment and how Barrack might “best promote its independent absorption of the present middle school population,” Mandelbaum continued.
Meanwhile, also adding to the shifting middle day school environment, Kohelet Yeshiva High School, a Modern Orthodox school that operates in Barrack’s former Merion Station home and has seen its student body grow at a steady pace, is planning to open an eighth grade program for the next academic year only.
It is not clear if that move is directly related to the opening of the new Barrack middle school. But Sharon Baker, the school’s director of admissions and communications, wrote in an email that the temporary move is a response “to the changing middle school landscape and requests from 7th grade families.”
School officials declined to give more details for this story, and it is not clear how many families have enrolled.
Meanwhile, Perelman has entered into talks with a potential new head of school to replace Jay Leberman, who has led the school since 1997 and spearheaded the opening of Saligman. He is leaving to make aliyah and become director of a Jerusalem-based experiential educational program.
The talks with Judy Groner, head of the B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, N.C., are still ongoing, according to Specter. Groner would start in July 2014. Current Perelman president Elliot Norry wrote in an email to parents that Perelman is setting up a task force to address professional leadership over the next academic year.
Many of these technical details seemed far from people’s minds on May 29 as parents, teachers, students and alumni gathered outside Saligman for an end-of-the-year barbecue — and a farewell.
The sun beat down and Israeli tunes blared from giant speakers as folks mingled and munched on kosher hot dogs, hamburgers and slices of fresh watermelon.
The festive atmosphere belied the sense of melancholy many expressed. Saligman language arts teacher Marsha Messinger, who, like most but not all the teachers, will be going on to Bryn Mawr, echoed the view of many when she called it a “sad day.” But she added that the students and teachers “will be going on to great things.”
Chatting with other parents, Ellen Mermelstein, a co-president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, also said it was disappointing that current Saligman students won’t get to complete their education in the same school where they started. But she praised the faculty and said she expects the new school to be just as good.
One set of parents, who asked not to be identified, said they were still upset about the decision to close Saligman and have decided against sending their child to the Bryn Mawr campus.
Justin DeRose, a 2009 Saligman graduate who is now a senior at Council Rock South High School in Bucks County, said he “wished it could stay open. They did a great job with subjects that my public school wasn’t able to do.”