The year 2022 was a big one for Mitchell Daar. The longtime educator got the biggest job of his career, as head of school at the Perelman Jewish Day School. He also moved with his fiancée (now wife) from New York City to the Philadelphia area.
For Daar, 37, 2022 was about managing that transition. But in 2023, he was able to do more than manage. He started putting his stamp on the pre-K-5 institution that he took over.
After spending his early months on the job building relationships, Daar could walk through the doors of the school and wave to everyone he encountered. His team also implemented a geographic scholarship program designed to expand the Perelman brand to zip codes in which it may not have been present before. And finally, he was able to reopen the school community post-COVID, putting kids back in full classrooms and hosting holiday gatherings and family events.
As the year concludes, Daar is satisfied.
“It’s an incredible community, and it has already allowed for some changes and will set a foundation for changes in the future,” he said.
Daar was hired in January 2022 and started that summer, after the 2021-’22 school year. When he arrived in the Philadelphia area, he had to get to know parents, students, teachers and donors. He did that with “satellite dinners in people’s homes,” he said.
“Really making sure I was out there,” he added.
After that, he started trying to spread the word about his new institution. He looked at data from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s 2019 population study and determined that there were areas with Jewish populations that were “underrepresented in our school,” he said. Those zip codes included parts of Montgomery County, parts of Bucks County and portions of Philadelphia.
Perelman instituted a $12,000 per-year scholarship for students from those zip codes. Daar explained that the school started the program by retroactively providing the scholarship to 60 students already in the school. But in 2023-’24, 15 new kids also will benefit from it. In the future, Daar is hoping to offer it to more new students.
“We want to make sure that families far and wide have access to our incredible Jewish day school experience,” he said.
In 2022-’23, it was certainly a better experience than it was during the COVID years. Hundreds of people came out for Chanukah and Purim events, according to the head of school. Parents, grandparents and other relatives attended a multigenerational family gathering. In early June, the community hosted a parent kickball game. Before that, it welcomed in Shabbat at a local synagogue and held a Shabbat dinner at which parents cooked for the whole community.
“We’re getting sort of, quote, back to normal,” Daar said. “We run our program to the fullest for the first time since before the pandemic.”
There were other small changes, too, like an investment in the school’s enrollment department, the hiring of a new human resources director and the implementation of a parent survey on “everything about our school,” Daar said.
Daar believes that in his first year, he’s “laid a foundation for future growth.” The tagline at Perelman’s recent gala was, “The future starts now.” Next year will be about “setting a path for that vision of what it’s going to look like and how we’re going to execute,” he said. Daar intends to show Jews in the community that “we’re the best elementary school in the Philadelphia area, and it’s going to be because we’re a Jewish day school.”
Recently, the former math teacher taught a math class to a group of fifth graders.
“I was so impressed with the students. The level of interest mixed with their appreciation for learning and their knowledge of the subject matter,” he said. “It was an absolute joy to teach them.”