Akiva showcases curriculum changes, new administration and plans for its next 50 years.
Summer activity at Akiva Hebrew Day School went far beyond the early August paint touch-ups and floor and carpet cleaning.For head of school, Rabbi Tzvi Klugerman, the warm weather months brought a continuation of what he came to Akiva to achieve.
“I was brought in to make change,” said Klugerman, whose summer included many hours revamping curriculum, meeting with new staff and attending a conference of the International Society of Technology in Education in San Antonio on a grant from the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation. He also spent time at Gratz College in Philadelphia, where he is working toward a doctorate in Jewish education.
In a recent letter to families of the Southfield-based nursery-12 Orthodox Zionist day school, he wrote, “When I came to Akiva Hebrew Day School two years ago, I pledged that we were going to pursue parallel excellence on both sides of the curriculum by changing the academic program where needed and streamlining our operations so that we could be even more fiscally responsible.
“We are designing a multi-year system of accountability for all our students’ academic programs, implementing a system that serves our students in need of educational support even better, and requiring all our teachers, new and veteran, to be fluent in the educational lexicon of the best practices in education.”
To that end, as the school gets ready to mark its 50-year anniversary, much of the curriculum has been revamped and significant staff changes have taken place.
Diving Right In
Programming assessments began with the youngest students.
A fine tuning of the kindergarten English reading and phonics curriculum aims toward a goal of stronger readers, with a Hebrew reading program also being implemented.
Second-grade Akiva teacher Anita Batt is the new director of curriculum and instruction for grades K-5. She will work closely with Early Childhood Center Director Lisa Parshan to help with the transition from kindergarten to first grade.
“We are creating uninterrupted blocks of time to allow our teachers to focus on language acquisition for grades 1-5,” Klugerman said.
Akiva has adopted the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts and Math. “Common Core gives all shareholders a clear set of expectations that students can and should meet by graduation,” said former assistant principal, Rabbi Aaron Leib, the school’s new principal of grades 1-8.
The position was previously held by Teri Giannetti, who now will serve as a consultant for Batt and Leib.
“Common Core allows for the alignment of curriculum, instruction and assessment, thus providing more accountability,” Leib said.
Elementary school students will continue with the ROAR Program implemented at the end of last year.
“This is a structured ‘positive behavior system’ unique to the Akiva community,” Leib said. “ROAR (Respect, Organization, Attitude and Responsibility) will help us identify expectations and reward those who meet the expectations, and create a teaching opportunity. Children earn ROAR dollars with positive behaviors and are able to cash them in at the ROAR store for prizes.”
Leib also will continue as director of the Judaic curriculum for elementary and middle school students.
“Teachers are very enthused in the elementary school with our new supplemental Chumash program called lehavin u’lehaskil, a program very heavily focused on skill building,” Leib said. “We had a tremendously successful year with our Mishna-Talmud program, Bonayich, and we look forward to continued success as the program develops into its second year.”
A new Hebrew program titled Chaverim (Friends) is being added this year. “It develops active language production in children with activities that engage the interests of the students beyond the classroom, using multiple genres such as stories, conversations, poems, songs, journals and literature,” he said.
Batt, Leib and Jordana Wolfson, in the newly created position of director of admissions, met with elementary school parents in July to discuss the new administrative structure, curricular changes and enhancements.
“The middle school is our next big focus because some students leave after, so we want to get them feeling connected to Akiva,” Klugerman said.
“To harness their energy and innovative spirit, we are aligning our science curriculum with project-based learning in a new introductory eighth-grade course in physical science.”
Klugerman designed and will teach a new eighth-grade history course. “It is heavily infused with critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources,” he said. “We are also going to focus the middle school experience to address their social and emotional developmental needs with team building and individual growth activities.”
Akiva teacher Lizzy Doppelt has assumed the newly created position of middle school coordinator and also will oversee interdisciplinary units, including the seventh-grade Renaissance Fair and the eighth-grade Holocaust project.
This past year, the English language faculty received training through the resources of Oakland County Schools and began to implement the Step Up To Writing literature and writing curriculum that will be adopted by the middle school and high school this year.
Science and math requirements have been increased for both the middle school and high school.
Upper School Excitement
“We have continued to improve our course offerings and electives, consolidated sections and increased the rigor in both Judaic and general studies,” said Klugerman, whose own children include an Akiva graduate and three current students.
Rabbi Jeff Ney, dean of students for Akiva’s Lowenthal High School, works with the Judaic faculty and Kathy Sklar, assistant principal of the high school, focuses on general studies.
“We have an exciting year upcoming,” said Sklar, who spent part of the summer designing her AP European History class. “We have a lot of enrichment classes; we offer AP literature, AP biology, AP European History, AP World and AP calculus. We also offer pre-AP physics, which is being taught a new way, with a new physics teacher starting this year.”
College preparatory general education classes are offered along with a Judaic studies component including Torah study, Jewish history and philosophy courses. The school day consists of equal amounts of general studies and Judaic learning, with classes interspersed throughout the day.
The Sugyot program, introduced this past school year, gives high school students functional knowledge of Halachah (Jewish law).
Partial block scheduling is now part of the high school curriculum. “It’s one of the best things we’ve done, alternating courses to offer longer class time for labs and plays and varied kinds of assessment opportunities for lots of different learning experiences,” said Sklar, who is beginning her 26th year at Akiva. “It gives teachers the opportunity to be very creative with their time.”
The middle school is moving forward with the Singapore math program introduced last year, and the art of problem-solving will be brought to grades 7 and 8.
“It’s a way of doing math that keeps students on grade level but adds enrichment for those who need it,” Sklar said. “It also brings math into real life.
“The science program is being pushed in a positive direction. Juniors have the option of two types of physics classes.”
The ninth and tenth grades will have blocks with Judaic learning and Irvit (Hebrew).
Around The School
Akiva students are involved in school sports teams and area Jewish youth groups that connect with peers at other Jewish day schools. Leadership skills are developed in programs like Panim el Panim, Eimatai and Model U.N.
The school participates annually in the Chidon Hatanach (Bible Contest), with Akiva students having qualified for national finals in New York City.
Educational support services provide for academic needs for students with special needs. An enrichment program allows gifted and talented students to attend sessions in math and language arts.
The Beit Midrash Akiva program is being developed for students, parents and community members and will include courses and short series led by Klugerman and Akiva teachers on topics including Talmud study and Halachah. A similar after-school program will be offered to middle school and high school students.
Who’s In Class?
This past year’s graduating class of 26 students was made up of a combination of seniors and those who had been in the junior class.
“We had a very small junior class last year, maybe three or four students,” Klugerman said. “During the summer before I arrived, we identified what they would need to do for their diplomas. In an accelerated design, they were given extra work and studied over the summer to graduate.
“Our high school is very warm; all the grades interact and the juniors knew the seniors. The downside is there is no senior class this year.”
There are 13 freshmen, 13 sophomores and 24 juniors in this year’s high school. Overall, students are still being enrolled for the upcoming school year.
“When Akiva moved into its current building, the school’s enrollment was 240 students,” said Sidney Katz, Akiva’s former executive director who now is involved in the school’s current Lead the Way Campaign that fundraises for student scholarships.
“In the 12 years since then, the school has seen enrollment increase to on average 300 students per year. Numbers for the 2013-2014 school enrollment are not final; however, with its large graduating class from last year, Akiva anticipates a slight decrease in enrollment this year.
“Yet with the revitalization of Metro Detroit and an influx of new young families in the communities that serve as Akiva’s primary feeders, Akiva anticipates long-term growth,” Katz said. “Detroit has become the new place for young families to live. This growth will not only benefit Akiva, but all of our Jewish day schools and the entire Metro Detroit Jewish community.
“On a weekly basis, there are calls inquiring about an Akiva education from families hoping to move to Detroit from cities throughout the U.S., Canada and Israel.”
In addition, Klugerman said, “Jordana Wolfson is forging out to Ann Arbor and other areas where day schools end at grades 6 and 8. In fact, some from Ann Arbor have already reached out to us. We are looking to build our high school.”
A few of Akiva’s students choose to go to the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield for high school.
“Each school offers a very different program and families choose what appeals to them more,” Klugerman said. “It is a handful of students who go any given year. The overwhelming majority of our students choose to stay with Akiva for what Akiva provides and go on to great year programs in Israel and then colleges and universities here and abroad.
“Over the past six years, we have a 96 percent acceptance rate at U-M Ann Arbor. We have had students go to Ivy League colleges and the top year-programs in Israel. That is what we provide. And that is why the majority of our students stay with us through high school.”
Seventeen staff members left at the end of the last school year.
“Turnover in teaching staff is characteristic of any school that is undergoing curricular changes,” Klugerman said. “Teachers retire, or go to other jobs. We are fully staffed for this year.”
Of those who left, only six were full time, according to Akiva’s new executive director, Scott Cranis. “The others were part time, including seven who taught only one class a week. Some of their courses have been consolidated into other teacher’s schedules.”
Needing More Space
“We are constantly looking to expand and grow,” Klugerman said. “The house next door, to the west of the school, has been demolished and the land is now Akiva’s. We also have land behind the current parking lot.
“We have drawn two sets of plans, either for expansion or new construction, and are considering how to finance this growth.”
Founded in 1964, the school has been at its present location for the past 12 years and stands on the Schostak Family Campus.
The facility was originally a church, which was purchased by Congregation Beth Achim and expanded.
“The Jewish Foundation, the banking and real estate arm for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, purchased the building and leases it to Akiva for less than market rate,” said Eugene Sherizen, an Akiva board member and parent, and head of the school’s physical plant committee.
“The school creates committed, productive, educated Jews, regardless of where they learn, but the facility needs to be updated. We shoehorned a school into a 1960s synagogue building. But we made it work. When we ran out of space, we added classrooms in the lower level [in 2008].”
In recent years, an Akiva group has met with architects. “There are a lot of inefficiencies, an older infrastructure and roof, single-pane windows, outdated HVAC, a lot of wasted space and parking doesn’t flow well,” Sherizen said. “We are researching various options to either add on to the current building and make the school function better, or start new construction on the same location.
“Rabbi Klugerman provided the educational needs assessment for the physical building, and I am involved with architects and contractors.”
No official fundraising campaign is in place for this plan but Sherizen said, “We would do it right now if there was funding.”
Plans are underway for construction of a new, more secure main entrance with a guard station, with the help of Federation and private funding.
“Federation would be very pleased to work with Akiva on its plans for expansion or new construction,” said Jeff Lasday, director of Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education. “With its recent leadership changes and development of a new school strategic plan, Akiva is focused on providing its students with an excellent education that will meet the needs of 21st-century learners.”
Current Akiva tuition ranges from $8,850 for kindergarteners to $14,250 for high schoolers. Each family also contributes to a building fund annually.
Tuition does not cover the expense of educating the student body.
“Akiva partners with Southfield Public Schools to offer rigor, challenge and variety in our curriculum and keep costs down as much as possible,” Klugerman said. “The Shared Services is unique to the state of Michigan and the partnership is for non-core subjects such as PE, art, music, AP courses for grades 1-12.
“We have some very nice and generous donors,” Klugerman said. “Federation also.
“Our focus is to raise teacher salaries and increase teacher training,” he said.
This year’s allocation of funds from Federation is $440,344.
Connecting To Israel
Akiva’s connection to Israel includes programming led by young Israeli women who provide tutoring services and informal education programming on Israel as part of Sherut Leumi (alternative voluntary national service in Israel).
The program runs in conjunction with Bnei Akiva, an organization that provides religious Zionist education and programs for Jewish youth and families. Many Akiva students are involved in leadership and membership roles in Bnei Akiva’s youth groups.
The school hosts Israeli couples, who come to Akiva with their children for two- to three-year time blocks. They serve as Israeli educators, holding classes and running Israel-related programs for the school and the community.
“We also are introducing a new program, the Steinsaltz Ambassadors, in a partnership with Adat Shalom Synagogue and Wayne State Hillel to bring two bachurim [young men] trained by Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Yeshiva to work in Akiva and the two institutions,” Klugerman said. “They bring a different caliber of engagement with Judaism and Israel.”
Akiva students are exposed to Hebrew language immersion and nearly 100 percent of Akiva graduates spend their post-high school year in a yeshivah or seminary in Israel before college.
Elana Greenbaum of Southfield, a 2013 Akiva graduate, arrived in Israel in early August for a year’s study at Migdal Oz.
“Having been at Akiva from nursery to graduation, I have not only grown to be a mature, educated religious Zionist, but I have also seen Akiva grow and flourish,” Elana said. “Being surrounded by Israelis has properly prepared me for this year and, under the guidance of Rabbi Klugerman, the educational structure of the school has improved immensely. It is no cliche that Akiva is a family because it truly is like a second home to all that walk through its doors.”
Elana’s family has longtime Akiva involvement.
“Five generations of my family have been closely affiliated with the school, and we have started our third generation of students,” said Elana’s father, Joseph Greenbaum, who attended Akiva along with his siblings. His brother Michael graduated in the first Akiva class in 1974.
Their grandfather, David I. Berris, was a school founder.
“He was one of its first presidents, and one of the members of a small group whose leadership, vision, drive and perseverance led to the formation of Detroit’s first — and still only — Orthodox, religious, Zionist Jewish day school.
“My father, David Greenbaum, served on the board and other committees for many years, and my uncle, Herb Speiser, served as school president in the early ’70s.”
A past-president himself, Joseph’s brother Michael served four terms in the position. The two are the only pair of brothers as well as the only Akiva alumni to serve as Akiva presidents.
All of their children also attended or still are students at the school.
“The most universally agreed upon positive feedback from school parents is that the school and its member families feel like one big family,” Greenbaum said.
“The school accomplishes this by creating a warm environment and teaching and cultivating the Torah values of leadership, kindness and respect for one another that we all want perfused in our children.
“The students also often comment that they feel like one big family, with the high schoolers getting to know the younger students and serving as their role models and ‘big brothers and sisters’ because they are all on one campus and in one building.”
“Last May, we had a consultant from ISM [Delaware-based Independent School Management] — who consult with private schools across the world to help find their path — come to Akiva and meet with our board members for 10 hours over three consecutive days,” said Dan Mendelson, school president and an Akiva parent.
“Jeff Lasday, Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education director, also attended.
“The consultant presented results of a series of secure surveys previously completed by the Akiva community, and we worked on turning them into a master plan. We narrowed them down to 16 key initiatives that are critical and of high value on the strategic plan toward a goal of improving the school.”
Committees have been formed for each of the areas, including development, facilities, finance, head of school support, marketing and trustees.
With the new committees already meeting, Mendelson looks further ahead in the strategic plan he says was begun by immediate past president, Seth Korelitz.
“Akiva is now in our 50th year, and we look toward a celebration with the community in the spring,” Mendelson said. “Not just a celebration of the school and the education it provides, but also of its place in the community.
“From a strategic planning standpoint, the most important thing I can do is build bridges to the community. We welcome the community into our programs and celebrations and to our twice-daily minyan at Akiva.
“We celebrate modern Orthodoxy and Zionism — our love for Israel — as integral parts of who we are as a school and as individuals and in how it is incorporated into our shuls and camps and lives,” Mendelson said.
“We have just sent more than 20 of our high school graduates to study for a year in Israel. At the same time, we are rooted in the good works of the Detroit community, and we will see that our graduates visit our Federation’s Partnership Region in the Central Galilee.
“My strategic plan is to strengthen the school and, as it gets stronger, to turn around, with our eyes facing out, to connect to the community.”
By Shelli Liebman Dofrman, Contributing Writer
For more on Akiva Hebrew Day School, contact Jordana Wolfson at Jordana.email@example.com or (248) 386-1625, ext. 222.
To contribute to the Lead the Way campaign, contact Sidney Katz at (248) 761-0215 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to akiva.org. Donations made by Aug. 31 will be matched by an anonymous donor.