Shira Chai (Sally Kotler), who lives in Israel, welcomes her former Paul Best classmate Joanna Rebelgale.Shira Chai (Sally Kotler), who lives in Israel, welcomes her former Paul Best classmate Joanna Rebelgale.

Best Elementary grads
Prepare for a reunion Aug. 17th

In her kibbutz in Israel, former Oak Park resident Shira Chai, 61, finds escape from the tensions of a country at war by scrolling through the Facebook page of the Paul L. Best Elementary School — which she attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and which closed its doors in 1976.

For Chai (the former Sally Kotler), the attraction goes beyond remembering happy times, like the popular Best Fair, ghost stories told around the campfire at school camp and the field trips to everything from the former Wonder Bread factory to a Van Gogh exhibit at the DIA.

She remembers that she and the other Jewish students (about 30 to 40 percent of the school) enjoyed a “supportive environment for all religions.” One teacher observed both Christmas and Chanukah — by having the children break pinatas. A “holiday” tree in the lobby held little objects of art.

It was only when she went on to the former Lincoln Junior High (like Best, in the Ferndale School district) that she experienced anti-Semitism. “I heard the word “jewed,” she said. “I was so shocked.”

Marc Shaw, now 60 and a retired teacher, also recalls being appalled when he started Lincoln and heard epithets like “kike” and “n****” for the first time. “I was never aware of anti-Semitism” at Best, he said.

Shaw is flying in from California to attend the Saturday, Aug. 17, All-Years Paul Best Reunion at Farina’s in Berkley. The last reunion, five years ago, attracted almost 130 Best grads from around the country, plus a few parents and teachers. Reunion organizer Jon Nachman, 48, says he’s particularly pleased that Larry Sophiea, 92, a strict but popular Best teacher and the school’s last principal, is attending.

“He’s excited,” says Nachman, who built a model of the school he’ll bring to the reunion.

Mary Baroff, 93, a West Bloomfield resident, will be attending with her son Alan, also a local Best grad. “Learning was made exciting at Best,” she said, “and kids were taught respect for different races and religions.”

Named for a former assistant superintendent of Ferndale schools, Best opened in September 1954. Its visionary principal, WWII vet Scott Street, welcomed the flood of college-educated, stay-at-home moms, many of them Jewish (and natives of Detroit) in helping to shape a progressive, parent-involved school.

Some became so involved in curriculum planning that a few received credit from the Wayne State School of Education.

A Progressive Bellwether

Best was the first school in the state to require regular parent-teacher conferences — where parents received detailed evaluations of their children’s progress instead of letter grade. Long before schools had mission statements, the school’s “We believe” guidelines encouraged building self-worth in children and respect for others.

In early 1959, Street was honored at a banquet attended by hundreds of parents — only to be fired two days later by an increasingly conservative school board. (The lack of letter grades was a particularly sore point.) Though Street and the parents fought back, the firing stuck.

Street went on to work with schools overseas and eventually to retire as a professor at Eastern Michigan University. Years after he left Best, he told a former student that he felt some board members resented the “Jewish influence” on the school. (Street was not Jewish.)

But Street’s successor, the German-born Joe Mathesius, did not fundamentally change the school’s direction. He loved music and often dropped in on classes, playing folk songs on his guitar.

Many Best grads went on to play in high school and college orchestras; clarinet player Larry Liberson now plays with the Detroit Symphony. Other Best grads include journalist Bill Schmidt, former deputy managing editor of the New York Times; physician Sam Broder, former director of the National Cancer Institute; and Judy Hu, a former top executive at General Electric.

Together Again

The reunion begins with a meet-and-greet at CJ’s Upper Deck in Waterford on Saturday, Aug. 16, the evening of Dream Cruise. After the Sunday afternoon gathering at Farina’s, some participants will head to 24220 Rosewood — now John F. Kennedy elementary — to take pictures. Although what seemed then like the world’s largest slide is long gone, some grads plan to strike poses on the modern playground equipment.

Early 1960s graduating class from Paul Best Elementary School in FerndaleEarly 1960s graduating class from Paul Best Elementary School in Ferndale

Chai regrets she won’t be among the celebrants. “The intimate, caring atmosphere at Best was very comparable to the atmosphere here on our kibbutz,” she said via email. However, she may be there in more than spirit; former classmates are hoping to Skype her at Farina’s.

Thousands of miles apart, she and they may even sing a round of the school song:

“Best School is the best school /
In the Good Old U.S.A.”

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For information about the Paul Best reunion, check the Paul L. Best Facebook page or call Mike Gerber at (248) 840 7628.

Eve Silberman | Special to the Jewish News