Hillel teacher Becky Melamed works with Ellery Gnesin on her iPad while Caleb Starr works nearby. Two years ago, students at Hillel began to receive iPads and laptops to aid in 21st-century learning.
Hillel teacher Becky Melamed works with Ellery Gnesin on her iPad while Caleb Starr works nearby. Two years ago, students at Hillel began to receive iPads and laptops to aid in 21st-century learning.
Local Philanthropy Will Help Hillel Gain 21st-Century Edge Keri Guten Cohen | Story Development Editor

Thanks to generous local philanthropic funding, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit will be well-positioned with regard to some hot topics in the private school world: affordability and retention, and 21st-century school design. In late January, the Farmington Hills Jewish day school for grades preK-8 received two transformative gifts. One will allow it to offer an innovative tuition grant program aimed at middle-income families and designed to reward loyalty. The other gift will enable Hillel to complete three phases of a dream plan to create physical space that promotes hands-on, student-driven learning.

The significant gifts come from families that have historically been leaders in the community. The William Davidson Foundation in Southfield is providing funds for the launch of the tuition grant program, and the William and Audrey Farber Philanthropic Endowment Fund at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit will provide for extensive renovation of the school’s interior.

“I’m still pinching myself,” said Steve Freedman, head of school. “On one hand, we have the Farbers catapulting us into a ‘this century’ school, while the Davidson Foundation is helping us address cost and sustainability, which is a huge national conversation.

“How lucky for Hillel and the Detroit Jewish community to have such visionary leaders who understand the importance of Jewish day schools. We all should be celebrating.”

Embracing the twin concepts of Jewish education and Jewish identity, the Farbers also have given significant gifts to Temple Israel’s Susan and Rabbi Harold Loss Early Childhood Center and to Akiva Hebew Day School in Southfield. The Davidson Foundation recently awarded $500,000 for a digital learning program at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.

“Audrey and I deeply care about the Jewish people, Jewish identity and Jewish education,” said Bill Farber, a pharmacist and pioneer in generic pharmaceuticals. “Our hope is that by supporting Jewish education, we may positively impact the Jewish identity of many children and their families for generations to come.”

Dreaming Together

For 18 years or more, educators have been talking about what 21st-century schools will look like, said Freedman, who gathered his teachers and professionals in the last year or so “to dream and imagine a ‘this-century’ school.”

“Learning is social,” Freedman said. “We need to make sure our kids are prepared with the ‘three Rs,’ and also with skills essential in today’s world.”
The group agreed Hillel students must graduate with what they call the 7 Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, community, character, communication and core Jewish values. They also agreed the school environment that will promote this type of learning must be comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, flexible and contain spaces for collaboration as well as quiet reflection both inside and outside the building.

The group of dreamers came up with a document outlining how they’d like the school to look. Then they found Prakash Nair, a school architect based in Tampa, Fla., who is considered a futurist, visionary and a global expert in designing 21st-century schools. Among many projects worldwide, his firm, Fielding Nair International (FNI), had renovated Hillel Academy (preK-8) in Tampa and the new Bloomfield Hills High School.

Steve Freedman
Steve Freedman

In mid-November, Hillel’s board voted to fund a master space plan and to hire FNI to execute the design. Nair and FNI-Michigan architect James Seaman worked with the school — after gathering information from focus groups and meetings with stakeholders — and came back with floor plans in late January. After a little tweaking, the plan was ready.

Nanci Farber of Franklin and Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, acting as the Farbers’ philanthropic adviser, met with Freedman to see how the Farbers might help Hillel. The timing was perfect. Nanci participated in all the FNI meetings — as mother of twin daughters in the fifth grade and also to gather information for her in-laws. Hillel has been a family legacy. Her husband, David, has three children and all are Hillel graduates.

“It’s a beautiful design plan and the staff and students are excited,” she said. “I came in with Bill to the last meeting to see the plans and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It’s a very personal thing for our family with so many roots there … To be in this position to give back is tremendous.”

Bill Farber said, “I am especially happy that my children have chosen to work with Audrey and me in our family’s philanthropic giving.”

Breaking From Tradition

Farber’s gift will fund the first three of four phases.

So, what will be different? A lot.

At most schools, learning takes place the old-fashioned way — in little boxes called classrooms.

“The whole notion of educating kids in traditional classrooms is obsolete,” architect Nair said. “It’s a remnant of the industrial age where kids are widgets in a factory. You run them through and expect all children to come out the same, to be good at this specific curriculum.

Prakish Nair
Prakish Nair

“But there’s a major fundamental flaw; in a factory, to get uniform output you need uniform input. With schools, one student may be marathon runner and one a rocket scientist.
“Children have different personalities, aptitudes and talents,” Nair said. “A school should feel like a comfortable, happy place to be, not institutional. We have to change the physical building — it’s the envelope where 21st-century education happens.”

A goal is to create teacher teams and learning communities, with interdisciplinary learning that involves math and science and literature and art. In this environment, Nair says, each child is doing something different at a different pace and all teachers become resources.

“Hillel was already ready,” Nair said. “Teachers want to work together and are already trying. If you walk through the school, you see it’s very student-directed. But, ultimately, there is only so much you can do when trapped in a box.”

Of the $10 billion spent annually on school construction in this country, Nair says 90 percent is spent on the traditional “cells and bells.” He is encouraged by schools like Hillel that initiate change and set standards others can learn from.

Phase I of the project will be Hillel’s Central Heart, a gathering space that lends a sense of community with a fireplace and presentation platform, comfortable seating easy to move and reconfigure, a “learning cave” with windows, a glassed-in conference area and glass folding doors to open the current library to the school’s heart. The area can accommodate 300 people.
The second phase is the Innovation Hub to engage students with all aspects of creativity, including art, technology and the environment. The space will include a “libratory,” an art studio, science lab, group areas, a greenhouse, gardens, indoor and outdoor learning porches, an audio/video studio and a makerspace, where students can engage in creative, hands-on tinkering and learning blending art and science.

Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information involved in the growing Makers movement. She visited Hillel to hear more about the Innovation Hub and perhaps help find a good fit for Hillel’s new director of innovation.

“Makerspaces are growing across the country,” she said. “They are not unusual, especially in the West Coast independent schools, but they are pretty unusual in Michigan right now. Engaging with our hands is how we grew up playing; children today did not. They want to crochet or sew by hand because it feels good. When kids can learn by doing, it’s very powerful.”

Phase III of the renovation will be the Cafe and Kitchen, designed as a learning and gathering space with outdoor and indoor seating. The smaller Dorfman Gym will be converted into the Cafe and a new music room will be added nearby.

Additionally, the traditional main hallways lined with lockers and classrooms will become wide avenues filled with comfy furniture and places for quiet conversation, informal meetings and more.
Construction is expected to start June 12 and be mostly finished before school starts in the fall. Phase IV, which still needs funding, calls for converting classrooms into learning communities. Freedman sees potential for the new spaces to be used by the larger Jewish community as well.

Tuition Grant Program

“Three years ago, we conducted market studies to help us understand our community, how it is perceived and what barriers keep people from coming to Hillel,” Freedman said. “Cost came out as a significant factor and also fear of the future — how high will tuition go? Last year, we did the same study with an admissions consultant and the same things came out over and over.”

For inspiration, Freedman pondered the words of Pat Bassett, recently retired head of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., to which Hillel belongs. Bassett suggested the concept of reducing tuition the longer a family was at a school, which rewards loyalty and also recognizes yearly cost increases.

“He thought relief should be coming along the way and not just at the front end because it costs more to raise older kids than it does younger ones,” Freedman said. “That intrigued me.”
Freedman assembled a group of Hillel teachers, professionals, board members and volunteers to brainstorm ways to act on this suggestion.

They came up with a tuition grant program for grades 1-8 that will begin for the 2014-2015 school year. If a child begins the program in first grade, the family will receive a $1,000 reduction that year, followed by an additional $1,000 each year the child remains in the school, with potential to reach up to $36,000 in eighth grade, if all the yearly savings are totaled.

“For the student who goes through grades 1-8, the total annual tuition the family will pay through graduation will actually decrease over eight years as a result of this grant,” Freedman said.
“This program effectively lowers the real tuition dollars parents will need to pay,” he said. “The program brings predictability to the tuition process, along with stability. While tuition will increase modestly each year, the value of the grant will outpace the increase, effectively lowering the real dollars families will have to pay the longer they stay at Hillel.”
The program is open to any currently enrolled student or students making lateral moves from another school. The $1,000 reduction starts in whatever grade the student may be in when the family enters the program. There is no income test to participate, but families do have to opt in each year.

Tuition for the 2014-2015 academic year at Hillel will range from $11,280 for kindergarten to $17,975 for grades 1-8. More than half (54 percent) of the school’s 564 students receive financial aid. Families earning up to $160,000 (one child) or up to $200,000 (two children) are eligible to apply for assistance.

This leaves 46 percent of families paying full tuition. Many are middle-income families used to being on the giving end rather than the receiving end. Some are reluctant to provide the financial information required when applying for assistance.

“It’s a really creative way to provide middle-income families with an incentive to start early and continue with Hillel,” said Jared Berman of Novi. He and his wife, Amy, have two of their three young children at Hillel. “We would not have qualified for financial aid, but the tuition still is not insignificant to our lives.

“We are thinking of this proposition for all three kids because we fell in love with Hillel and love the core values and Jewish identity they are getting. This grant program could save us more than $100,000 by the time we’re done — if the grant continues and if we stay. That’s significant.

“We are very excited about this. For some, it could be the extra thing they need to commit to Hillel if they are on the fence.”

What makes Hillel’s tuition grant so unusual is the donor’s full coverage of the program for all who want to participate. The Davidson Foundation granted $7.5 million to launch the program, with additional matching funds up to another $7.5 million contingent on funds raised by Hillel for its tuition assistance program through 2018.

“Our annual campaign needs to stay strong; this only works if we can do financial assistance,” Freedman said. “This Jewish community and Federation is how we are able to thrive in a tough recession.”

The school’s annual budget is $8.6 million. Its Federation allocation is $609,129, with an additional $491,457 coming from the Shiffman Tuition Assistance Fund and the Jewish Education Trust.

“Hillel Day School’s tuition grant program is designed to help more Jewish students attend and stay in Jewish school by making it more affordable,” said Jonathon Aaron, president, William Davidson Foundation. “By promoting Jewish education, we hope to foster a strong, vibrant Jewish community in Southeast Michigan for future generations, as Mr. Davidson wanted.”

Charles Cohen, an affordability specialist for PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in Boston, said, “Hillel is definitely lucky to find a funder like this. The goal is retention — the more time students spend in a day school, the more effective it is at creating a lasting Jewish identity.”

Cohen says other day schools are trying various approaches, including capping tuition at a percentage of adjusted gross income or targeting new students or certain grades for discounts.
“Hillel is the only one doing something this comprehensive for both retention and recruitment,” he said. “We will be watching Hillel; it can be a model for other schools.”
Freedman looks at the two transformational gifts through the lens of Hillel’s overarching mission.

“We need kids in Jewish days schools for our future; we need knowledgeable, educated and committed Jews — to the community, Israel and God,” he said. “Our mission is crucial to the future of the Jewish community, and the community is working together to make it as easy as possible for these families.” ■

Keri Guten Cohen | Story Development Editor