Not Your Father’s Hebrew Day Schoolby Julia Bernicker July 26, 2018
The last time we checked in with Chabad Hebrew Academy (CHA) in January, they were halfway through implementing their theme for the year: Building Bridges. Focusing on STEM application, CHA’s Leadership Visionary Committee designed programs that would allow students to make connections to the curriculum and each other. During the year, all 185 K-8 students were organized into mixed “Gesher Groups” with representatives from each grade. These groups met three times a year for activities that included learning about different bridges around the world and then using that knowledge to build bridges of their own with different materials. The year culminated in Field Day, where each Gesher Group participated in different STEM-themed activities led by the 8th grade class.
CHA also makes it a point to include parents in their programming. They held a family STEM night where families learned about different projects around the world. Topics included Legos from Denmark, or GMO potatoes in Ireland, which put STEM and the year’s theme into a broader context for students and their parents.
But last year’s theme encompassed far more than STEM, as connections were made and bridges were built in every area of study. CHA hosted four additional events throughout the year that were tied into the theme and a different Jewish holiday, such as building a Sukkah from recycled materials or their annual Purim carnival. By putting the school’s core Jewish values in a different perspective, students can relate more. “We are a warm and welcoming community with outstanding academics. Even our Judaic study is very academic,” Principal Liz Earne said. “A parent put it really well and said ‘this is not my father’s Jewish day school.’”
Now, as CHA looks to plan the theme for the upcoming year, Principal Earne reflects upon Building Bridges as a success. Several programs, such as Gesher Groups, that were developed during the year, will even carry over into the next, acting as a starting point for students’ knowledge.
This year, the theme revealed itself quite clearly to Middle School Humanities Teacher and Dean of Students, Ms.Heesch. “In conversations with the Middle School, they told us that students were more concerned with the right answer rather than figuring it out on their own,” Principal Earne said. “We want to start with a question and encourage students to develop their own passions.”
They came up with the theme “Inquiring Minds,” which would focus on inquiry units of study and emphasize the importance of making mistakes. In an email sent to the whole school announcing this year’s focus, Principal Earne lists Family Problem Solving Night, a Science Fair Elective and interdisciplinary units of study as possible ideas. When teachers return in August, the whole staff will brainstorm and plan programs for the year, so the new theme fits in seamlessly with the curriculum.
One of the reasons for the yearly themes’ success is the individualized approach CHA takes to every aspect of learning. Small class sizes coupled with access to broad support resources empowers each student to thrive. CHA has specialists in every subject that meet with students to help them with difficult material, especially reading. “Every student K-2 meets with a reading specialist, and that’s not something you see at other schools,” Liz Earne said. “It’s not just for our struggling readers, but also to encourage our budding readers.”
The school also draws from a wide range of backgrounds, which is something they focus on celebrating with each theme. CHA is home to a large Israeli community, as well as students who commute from Mexico daily. “We are really proud of the diversity here, not only in religious observance, but in cultures,” the principal said. “On any given day, you might hear Spanish, Russian and Hebrew being spoken.”
It is clear, even on your drive onto campus, that Chabad Hebrew Academy is always up to something new. Most recent projects include installing solar panels in the parking lot or an updated playground, while a partnership with student residence community ‘Campus of Life’ (located right outside the school gates) is just getting up and running. Even in the summertime, the faculty and staff at CHA is busy planning for the next year.