Metro Detroit Jewish day schools are expanding, both physically and academically this upcoming school year.
Following the prophetic biblical verse of enlarging the site of one’s tent, several Jewish day schools in Metro Detroit welcome back students this fall to larger facilities to accommodate for 21st-century learning although overall school enrollment remains the same.
New this year is an expansion of leased space at the Jewish Community Center for Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, a new early childhood center wing at Hillel Community Day school in Farmington Hills and a new building for the girls’ school at Yeshivah Beth Yehudah. Farber Hebrew Day School continues its accreditation process.
Frankel Jewish Academy
With a 17,000-square-foot expansion of the school in the lower level of the Jewish Community Center, FJA also announced it has signed a 10-year lease to remain at the JCC.
FJA Director of Advancement Shana Kantor said the school has a “great, long-term” relationship at the JCC. For high schoolers, the building — now with its new café/lounge area in the main entrance, pool, gyms, art studios and other amenities — is the perfect setting.
She said the school, which serves students in grades 9-12, is expecting an enrollment number for this academic year of 130 students.
“Throughout the entire JCC campus, there is so much positive energy here for our students to take advantage of and contribute to,” Kantor said. “Whether they are doing STEM-related exploration in our labs or working in our art studios or doing community service visits with residents in our Jewish Senior Life residences, the JCC is a happy, natural fit for our students.”
In its new space on the lower level, FJA is using the area occupied by the former library and converting it to a multi-purpose space, making it accessible for collaborative study group work and as a meeting place for afterschool clubs.
The school is also converting the 4,550-square-foot-space of the Aaron DeRoy Theatre into a black-box theater to enhance its performing arts offerings. The Jewish Ensemble Theater departed the JCC last fall and opened a new location in Walled Lake.
The high school is also changing its schedule with a later start time, with school days running from 8:30 to 3:15. According to many studies on the sleep needs of teens, starting one hour later has been proven to have positive outcomes on the physical and mental well-being of teens, who are often too sleepy to be focused for early-morning classes. And unlike public high schools whose bus schedules are dictated by the needs of an entire school district, FJA, with no bus service, is freed from these constraints.
Kantor added that the later start allows for room in a student’s schedule for more electives and advanced placement coursework throughout the day. More than 90 students, including freshman, enroll in AP courses, thus allowing them to better pursue their passions and sample what learning will be like at the college level, Kantor said.
Hillel Day School
Matching the renovations in recent years on other parts of the school, Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills on Aug. 27 will hold a grand opening and introduce the community to its new 6,000-square-foot early childhood center. The school’s ECC started 10 years ago with 69 students. This year, it welcomes 173 students. The K-8 program will have 401 students.
“We offer a values-based program that builds self-confidence in young children, and allows children to be inquisitive, guided by experienced staff that have been with us for 10 years,” said Hillel Director of Early Education Robin Pappas.
“Additionally, they are integrated into the larger Hillel community from the start. When you offer high-quality programming, it serves a purpose and fills a niche that young Jewish parents are looking for. We give the Jewish and educational foundation that sets up young children as lifelong learners. That’s why we’re so excited to have more space now to offer Hillel’s program to more families.”
At the end of the last school year, ECC teachers attended a seminar in Italy to learn how to tap into the innate knowledge-seeking, resilient qualities of children to learn from nature and the world around them.
Other teachers were trained in “Responsive Classroom” methodologies to sharpen skills in creating a better classroom environment.
“Responsive Classroom will provide a community-based approach to social-emotional learning across our school, ultimately building even stronger student-teacher relationships, improving student engagement and motivation, and providing tools and strategies to enhance students’ abilities to critically solve problems, effectively collaborate and persevere through challenges,” said Melissa Michaelson, principal of Hillel Day School.
After the departure of Head of School Steve Freedman, following 16 years at his post, the school welcomes Nathan “Naty” Katz as its interim head administrator. Katz served as the executive director and head of school from 2008 to 2018 at Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., a preschool through 12th grade Jewish day school with 500 students.
Yeshivah Beth Yehudah
The area’s largest Jewish day school, with a combined 2019-2020 student body of 1,050 children from preschool to high school, awaits the completion of its new girls’ Bais Yaakov K-8 building by spring of 2020. The first floor of the building will be 53,333 square feet (an increase from the current 45,875 square feet). The building will stretch from 10 Mile Road to I-696. The addition of a second story of about 35,000 square feet will bring the total square footage to approximately 90,000.
The building will include 24 classrooms, two cafeterias (one for elementary and one for middle school), a gymnasium, a library, computer labs and a science lab. Eighty-six parking spaces will be constructed along the Church Road side of the building.
The site plan also says Yeshiva Beth Yehudah may build a third-floor addition after five to 10 years.
Bais Yaakov students for at least the first half of the school year will continue to attend classes at the Glenn Schoenhals school, a former Southfield public elementary school on Lincoln Road that closed in 2016. Yeshiva Beth Yehudah used the Schoenhals facility to house its boys’ school during construction of its new building, which opened in September 2017.
“As construction projects go, delays like this are expected,” said YBY Dean Rabbi Yitzchok Grossbard. “We were very fortunate to have available to us the Schoenhals school and our girls are faring well there. We were lucky it is only a block away from our main campus and that we did not have to utilize trailer classrooms as we await the opening of our new girls’ school.”
Farber Hebrew Day School
This year, Farber Hebrew Day School enters year two of a three-year accreditation process with the Independent School Association of the Central States (ISACS). If it is approved in the 2020-2021 academic year, it will join the ranks with other ISACS-accredited Jewish day schools such as Hillel and Frankel Jewish Academy.
ISACS accreditation standards are developed for independent and private, not public schools. The process involves a peer review conducted by those who understand the unique qualities of each independent school and the contributions made by faculty and administrators.
Unlike public schools, where school improvement is measured by test scores, the school’s overall process involving childhood growth and learning is examined instead.
Head of school Rabbi Scot Berman explained that the ISACS accreditation process is an undertaking that compels all members of the school community — from faculty and staff to students, parents and alumni — to be reflective on the practice of teaching to best determine the mission, strengths and challenges of the school.
The first year involved conducting a survey to all members of the FHDS community, including board, faculty, high school students and alumni, as well as reworking the school’s mission statement and strategic plan and bylaws.
This year, the school community creates different study groups to compile a comprehensive self-study report based on ISACS criteria and schedules a professional financial audit of the current school year.
Next year, the self-study report will be submitted. ISACS representatives will then visit the school for observations, and the organization’s board determines if accreditation standards have been achieved.
“In this exhaustive prevue, we examine every aspect of education curriculum instruction — even delving into issues such as building maintenance, financial health and our extra-curricular offerings,” Berman said.
As far as the general growth of the school, which in 2016 had enrollment of approximately 260 students in grades preschool-12, Berman said the student body is reflective of what the 2018 Jewish Detroit population study revealed: Younger Orthodox families are moving into the Oak Park-10 Mile corridor.
“We want to best serve our niche community of Modern Orthodox families,” Berman said. “And when an area like ours begins drawing an increased number of young families, a good, strong school where these families can feel confident sending and educating their children is a central part of that growth.”
Outside of ISACS, Berman said other developments at the school include revamped chemistry labs to better accommodate AP chemistry experiments. At the elementary level, there will be an increased focus on the value of play in a child’s social and academic development.
Farber is working with the nonprofit organization Playworks, thanks to a grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit to bring in a playground coordinator to work with children one week per month. The goals of the program are to empower students with the ability to better navigate conflict resolution, develop leadership skills and improve academic success, all through the power of play.
“We look forward to incorporating times of constructive play in our school to reduce bullying and increase inclusion and see how these benefits carry over into classroom instruction time,” Berman said. “Play is now seen as an opportunity for teachable moments and it is a vehicle to encourage positive social behavior.”