It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Stores are stocked with packs of pens and pencils, idolized superhero backpacks and pristine glue sticks.
It’s time to go back to school.
With most schools starting next week, school supplies aren’t the only things that are new, judging from interviews with administrators at four of the area’s Jewish day schools.
Breaking a record this year is Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, with 358 students enrolled.
To prepare for the excess, Rabbi Isaac Entin, the school’s dean, said seven teachers took professional development courses over the summer. They were trained in Responsive Classroom workshops, “a program that develops a community feel, creates this very positive classroom environment where the children are learning as a group in a community.”
“There’s a huge social-emotional component in it” for students, Entin said, “self-awareness, awareness of others, awareness of themselves and space, awareness of how they’re learning, how they’re interacting with their teacher, how they’re facing challenges and succeeding. That focus on that self-awareness and that social-emotional component ties into what is now our second year of a schoolwide push to enhance emotional intelligence in our children.”
If you’re driving by and notice the K-8 school looks a bit different, that’s because as of Sept. 1, Torah Academy will officially be renamed the Rose and Morris Caskey Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia in memory of donor Herb Caskey’s parents.
At Perelman Jewish Day School, which just celebrated 60 years of operation, Head of School Judy Groner said it is unveiling a new Hebrew immersion program for pre-kindergarteners.
Schoolwide, Perelman integrated a theme for the year: masa, or journey.
“It’s the whole idea of not only taking individual journeys but taking a journey together,” she explained. “Every subject will be thematically tied to the overarching theme. We’re really going to be looking at big questions this year, things like, ‘What is my purpose on earth?’ and ‘How do I live a meaningful life?’”
Though that may seem like heavy material for elementary students, Groner said even 5 year olds can think this elaborately — on their level, of course.
Unlike Perelman’s longstanding history, The Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia has only been around for four years, but seniors have a big year ahead of them. This is the first year a graduating class includes students who began as freshmen.
In addition to two new classrooms — making a total of seven — Ray De Sabato, principal of secular studies, said enrollment increased to 43 boys from 37 last year, and continues to grow steadily.
The old church building next to Mesivta was converted into a practice gymnasium, too, and the school added a soccer team to its roster of basketball, baseball and other clubs.
The yeshiva has also included more outside teachers into its faculty from Friends’ Central School and Lower Merion High School, who will teach secular studies like government and chemistry.
Those outside teachers take the short drive to Mesivta after the other high schools end, as Mesivta’s hours are longer than a typical high school.
“We are now considered established,” De Sabato explained for the slight jump in enrollment. “Our first group of kids have gotten into college. Our kids who just graduated are off to Israel for a year.”
De Sabato taught at Friends’ Central — his alma mater — for 35 years. The “South Philly Italian-American Catholic with a vowel at the end of my name” connected with Mesivta through an old student, who later became Orthodox and introduced him to dean Rabbi Avraham Steinberg.
“The word’s getting out that Mesivta’s trying to promote excellence in both Judaic and secular areas,” he added.
Education isn’t just for the students, as can be seen at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. The Bryn Mawr institution added a teacher mentoring program in which new educators are guided through everything they need to know about the Barrack community.
New students, too, are individually linked to an adviser who they can meet with before school, if needed.
Middle school director Christine Farrell said these are important steps as some students enter middle or high school for the first time when they arrive at Barrack.
Throughout the year, workshops prepare sixth-graders for what to expect in a new school environment and answer “really pressing questions as they move from an elementary school model to a middle school model. It’s a really big adjustment.”
At the end of eighth grade, Moving Up Day celebrates middle school ending and high school beginning (though most students stay at Barrack through 12th grade).
Sixth-graders also now have the opportunity to meet with Farrell and their adviser each cycle of Barrack’s school year to “learn the ropes of navigating the middle school journey.”
“We’ll do various activities and games and presentations with the students to really help them in the adjustment,” she added.
For Farrell, she’s just happy to be back.
“I am really excited for the building to be filled with voices and sounds again,” she said.
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