It’s not every day that a high school is excited to introduce elementary- and middle-school students to its halls.
But the tight-knit community of students and educators within the old mansion walls that originally housed Akiba Hebrew Academy in its prime — whose grand wooden staircases are often nicknamed “Hogwarts” — enters a new era of education fused with technological innovation.
Two years ago, Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station merged with Kohelet Yeshiva Lab School, a project of the Kohelet Foundation, adding grades K-8 to its institution.
The middle school division officially began last week for the 2017-2018 school year, with 33 students out of Kohelet’s total of 206.
Most notably, all the classrooms follow the AltSchool model, a Silicon Valley-based network that uses technology in multi-age classrooms to personalize learning and streamline school operations.
Rabbi Gil Perl, head of Kohelet, was taken by AltSchool’s curriculum. It started four years ago, creating a private schools network to collect data on individual-based education.
“It was the closest thing I have seen out there to what we were hoping to do, which was a small school with multi-age classrooms,” he explained.
Instructions are personalized to each student while also developing social-emotional components. Kohelet students often use school-sanctioned iPads or Chromebooks to complete assignments, which are easily submitted and accessed by teachers via the AltSchool online system.
“What [AltSchool] is trying to do is not replace the human interaction. It’s actually to use technology to take away all the administrative pieces and make it much easier to preserve meaningful human interactions between students and students, teachers and students, teachers and teachers,” Perl added.
That takes form in a data-driven system. When students complete assignments online — or on paper, too — teachers tag them under a specific skillset to individually assess what level the student is on and how he or she should proceed.
“And that’s why we have multi-age classrooms, because it doesn’t matter — you can be a sixth-grader, [but] if you’re ready to do 10th-grade math, you’re getting assigned 10th-grade math,” Perl said, “and the platform is going to show that’s what you need.”
In addition to following AltSchool’s model for general studies, Kohelet created its own K-8 standards for Judaic studies, which AltSchool then agreed to add into its platform. If other Jewish day schools later join AltSchool, Kohelet sets the Jewish studies precedent.
But taking on grades K-8 in a traditional yeshiva high school begged the question: Where do you put them?
Last year, kindergarteners and first-graders occupied a small storefront on Montgomery Avenue. Now, they’re back on campus, occupying a newly built separate wing attached to Kohelet, while middle schoolers occupy a large space behind the stage in the gym.
Another freestanding 30,000-square-foot campus for K-8 is under construction adjacent to the original building — and is anticipated to open by next school year.
“The idea is to have a space that feels separate from high school, so K-8 kids feel like they have their own space, our high schoolers feel they have their own space,” he said.
The wing K-1 students are using will become a center for arts and the Fab Lab next year, a space for arts, robotics, woodworking, design and 3-D printing.
It’s a lot to take on, but it’s only the beginning for Kohelet.
“We see it as an investment,” Perl said. “We invest in the future of the community, for our high school.”
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