Day Schools Balance Innovation and Convention


Jewish day schools in the area have plenty of new wrinkles to iron out this year.

The beginning of every school year also represents an ending of sorts. While there will always be a significant portion of the curriculum derived from and dependent on well-established paradigms, there is always an impetus to employ newly proven techniques and methods for teaching students in different, effective and successful ways. This is evidenced by the changes coming to schools like Abrams Hebrew Academy, Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and Kohelet Yeshiva High School.
A Therapeutic Change at Abrams
Amid empty classrooms and quiet hallways, Rabbi Ira Budow, the head of school at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, relaxed in his office on a hot summer day surrounded by pictures of eighth-grade students on a trip from the past school year.
One of the highlights of the school year is the eighth grade trip to Israel, he said. In July, he ran into one of his old students, Andrew Neave, 20, who works at the Wawa in Yardley. When Budow asked him if he remembered the trip to Israel, Neave replied, “Of course! I want to go back.” Budow said this made his day. “The fact that this kid has a connection to Israel, we did our job.”
Budow, who has been at the school for 35 years, has witnessed countless excursions and encounters like this one, as well as changings of the guard, both in student and faculty populations. This year will be no different: In addition to welcoming a new class of children to Abrams, he will be introducing the new school psychologist, Donna Porwancher.
Porwancher, who has been a psychologist for more than 30 years, has counseled children on issues ranging from world events such as war and school shootings to sibling rivalry and peer conflict and pressure.
“I wanted her here because we live in today’s society,” Budow said. “This is not the generation of 40 years ago with the intact family. She will make a big difference in this school. There are a lot of broken homes.”
Porwancher certainly sports the academic chops to make an impact at Abrams: She has an undergraduate degree in learning disabilities from Northwestern University, a master’s in educational psychology from Marquette University, an advanced graduate study certificate from Gallaudet University and a doctorate in educational psychology with a focus on child development from Rutgers University.
“A school psychologist is the go-to person in a school setting,” Porwancher said. “I am the person who can evaluate a child if needed or who can interpret test data. I can work in tandem with staff and parents to address concerns. I am looking forward to being in a smaller school with students of all ages so that I can work with the little ones again.”
Torah Academy’s Enriching Experience
Entering his second year as head of school at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, Isaac Entin feels the new School Enrichment Model will have a powerful impact on students at the K-8 institution.
The Wynnewood school’s program will be modeled after educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which supports a broadened conception of giftedness. It is rooted in the fundamental belief that students are most engaged and enthusiastic about learning when they are interested in their area of study, when they are actively involved in choosing the learning materials and projects, and when their projects are connected to the world around them.
“We realized this is the future of education,” Entin said. “It really exposes them to a different style of learning where the students are teaching their goals and they are working towards that goal.”
Elana Obstfeld will serve as the enrichment program coordinator. Prior to joining Torah Academy in 2012, she spent seven years as a teacher and arts education liaison at PS/MS 278, a New York City public elementary and middle school with a Schoolwide Enrichment Model program for students in grades 1-8. She facilitated enrichment clusters during each semester and attended numerous in-house trainings in this educational approach.
Students in grades 1-5 will participate in enrichment clusters, which are small cross-grade groups that will focus on a variety of interdisciplinary topics with curricular tie-ins. As Obstfeld describes it, they will select their clusters based on their interests. Each cluster will be facilitated by teachers, administrators and community members who will guide students toward identifying real questions or problems related to their subject and using investigation and problem-solving activities to create products or services as solutions.
“Our enrichment program provides opportunities for students to learn and grow beyond the regular curriculum,” Obstfeld said. “Enrichment clusters help us to recognize our students’ talents, interests and abilities. Participation in clusters allows each of our students to feel successful during the school day, to have positive associations with school and to feel appreciated for their individual interests and talents.
“This model offers an exciting opportunity to encourage and develop creativity, problem-solving skills and independent thinking in all of our primary grade students, and an exciting opportunity for us to get to know our students beyond the four walls of the classroom.”
The first session of enrichment clusters will begin in December for grades 1 and 2 and the second session for grades 1-5 will be in March.
The school will also introduce a new addition to the Talmudic curriculum, where Rabbi Yehoshua Duskus will teach an advanced track of Talmud learning called masmidim. Students will have to test into the class and there will be mandatory after-hours work on Sundays and Thursdays.
“We set out last year to put a fresh perspective and a growth perspective into Torah Academy and I think we’ve been pretty successful,” Entin said.
While he has received positive feedback from the faculty and parents, he knew he had made a difference when he witnessed a student smiling and singing in the hallway last year.
“This was really the proof in the pudding,” he said. “People sensed a tone in the new school. I think this year is going to be a celebration of learning.”
Barrack Will Be Full STEAM Ahead 
Beginning this year, students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr will have the opportunity to participate in the STEAM program (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math), which Head of School Sharon Levin said will prepare them for life after college. Barrack is the oldest pluralistic, co-educational Jewish day school in North America for students in grades 6-12.
“This will permeate all aspects of the curriculum,” Levin said. “We’ve become a very technologically adept institution. I think we’ve moved forward with the times and are ahead of the curve.”
Arthur Maiman, who was involved with the STEAM program at Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in Miami, Fla., and has taught physics and science for 25 years, started at the school July 1 and will serve as the STEAM coordinator. As part of the new program, he has created an “innovation lab” — a large, open space with modular furniture that will allow students to build and work on long-term projects.
“The innovation lab will facilitate STEAM,” Maiman said.
Students will learn about 3-D printers, electronics, robotics and computer programming and software. Currently, there are 80 kids enrolled in STEAM — a number Maiman said is sure to rise once other students see how fun the course is.
“I want them to come up with ideas that they’re passionate about,” he said. “What we’re actually putting together here is beyond what they’re imagining. Project-based learning is something that benefits kids tremendously.”
Programmed to Succeed at Kohelet 
Students at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station will see some changes in the curriculum this year. Led by the addition of Tamar Krieger, the new director of educational programming, the school will now offer 3-D printing, the STEM (Science Technology and Math) program and a new Torah learning program.
“I think this is at the heart of the mission of what we do,” said Head of School Rabbi Gil Perl, who is entering his second year at the school. “We want excellence in both” Judaic and secular studies. “Our goal for the kids is to be doing high-level STEM research before they graduate high school.”
Perl said he and his staff asked parents and community members who work in laboratory research environments what kids will need to know in order to do conduct research in labs after high school. The school is also aiming to give students more of a voice, which is one of the things Krieger is working on.
“When the kids feel empowered and feel ‘this is my school,’ what they do and the way they perform will exceed anything they can imagine,” Perl said.
Krieger taught chemistry, biology, forensic science, architecture and design at Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School in Riverdale, N.Y., for the past seven years. While she is new to the school, she knows the area well because she grew up in the Lower Merion Jewish community.
In addition to improving the curriculum, she will be involved in spearheading the new professional development inquiry-based model where teachers will do their own research in areas that interest them and will present their findings to the faculty. Perl said rather than having a speaker come in, he hopes this will help people teach differently.
“My goals are multifaceted — we not only stimulate our students to grow academically, but we also nurture their talents and assist them to reach their potential in their formative high school years,” Krieger said. “I am excited to create student-centered programming, which allows students to have a voice and showcase their interests and talents. I want to build relationships with teachers and students in order to support their goals, too.”
She will oversee an advisory program to create a curriculum with options that are developmentally appropriate. She said she would like to help students learn how to include chesed into their everyday lives, so they view it as part of an authentic Jewish life, not just as school-mandated community service.
The school is also launching its Matmidim program, which is an incentive-based Torah learning program. Students can learn during or after school and there are five tiers with different tests and requirements. For example, kids who take either an exam offered as part of Yeshiva University’s Bronka Weintraub High School Beikut Program or a Chidon HaTanach qualifying exam and score higher than 75 percent will receive a $25 gift certificate to the Dairy Café. As the tiers increase, so does the work and incentives.
Perl, who comes to Kohelet after spending seven years at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, Tenn., said he had to not only adjust to life in Philly, but to transform a school that abruptly lost its previous Head of School, Rabbi Elchanan Jay Weinbach, two years ago. While the school was coming off a difficult year, Perl knew what he was getting into. His first priority was rebuilding relationships.
“Everything is built off of that,” Perl said.
He implemented a system for synthesizing schedules, new communication protocols for teachers, emphasized a collaborative approach to learning and every member of the administrative team now has their own budget. Although it’s only been a year, he said he can see the signs that Kohelet is headed in the right direction.
“I believe in giving people the support and opportunities for the things they are great at.”
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