An Exciting Chapter for San Diego Jewish Academy

by Jacqueline Bull January 2, 2019


ribbon-cutting-eccThere is a lot going on at the San Diego Jewish Academy: a brand new playground, a new tuition program and a 2018 National Blue Ribbon Award.

“There is a great nexus of things happening,” said Kelley King, the head of Golda Meir Lower School (K-5).

And to see all of this for myself, I made a campus visit. It happened to be a day that it was bucketing down rain. We navigated around puddles and ducked under awnings, making our way around the campus. Even so, everyone I interviewed and saw in passing was in great spirits.

I started this visit by connecting with Keri Copans, director of admissions, who led me around the campus.

The first stop was the Early Childhood Center (ECC), which sees children as young as six weeks up until Pre-kindergarten.

Kelly Gros, the PTO President for the ECC, crossed our path bringing coffees to some of the leadership and staff there. When looking for a preschool for her children, she toured many before seeing SDJA.

“Our tour here was amazing … All the teachers came out and greeted us. They were like, ‘Hi, Welcome! Haven’t seen you before. Who is this little guy?’ It was so welcoming and wonderful and my kids kind of chose it before I did,” Kelly said.

She said she connected with the teachers who she found to be patient and loving and could harness the kids energy.

“I wanted to be involved in the PTO because drop off and pick up you see all these nice people and all these sweet kids that are giving each other hugs and kisses – every morning they act like they haven’t seen one another in a week – and it is just like a love fest, so then you get to know the families and we wanted to spend more time with the families and plan events,” she said.

Then Yael Edelstein, director of the ECC and Anita Ip, the assistant director, sat down at a big oval table with us to talk about the center.

“Really, the idea philosophy behind our teaching is we don’t see ourselves as teacher-directed … In all the ages we see ourselves really as facilitators, so that is where the play-based comes in. Play-based doesn’t mean they play all day, it means that we set up activities to hide learning in play,” Anita said.

And in each of those activities is a particular learning objective and purpose.

“We want to be the village. We want to be the village outside of the home – an extension of the family. In the whole ECC, we pride ourselves on being partners with the parents,” Anita added.

“There is not really one philosophy that we completely stick to though, like you might go to a Montessori school, you might go to a Waldorf school though, but here in the ECC though, we base the center of all our decisions on the child. It really varies day-to-day. Sometimes it is teacher-directed, sometimes it is more child-directed, sometimes we add some Montessori games, it really varies and changes and depending on what group of children are coming in that year as well as what there needs are and where there strengths are,” Yael said.

In keeping with this, they have small student to teacher ratios and in the ECC specifically, the difference between the oldest and youngest child in one classroom is about six months.

To get a clearer picture of what they were describing, Yael led me around to peek into a couple classrooms and explain what was happening.

We went into a Pre-K classroom with different tables with activities set up toward the front of the classroom and an area with a play kitchen and play closet toward the back.

“What every classroom looks like though is that there are four tables (some have more, just depends on the class), but always four or more tables are set up though. And there is the opportunity for individual work and the children are independently able to make those decisions to move from table to table – as well as if a child needs assistance, they are able to help each other, they are not feeling stressed to complete and rush over. They take their time. If a child wants to be here a little longer and make 20 rings, great, the other child wants to make two, that is their independency, which is important. A lot of critical thinking, which is important, some socializing takes place in terms of – the rule here is you always have to ask two buddies before you ask a teacher. And at the same time the teacher is able to work with each child individually though, so this is a typical way our school runs in this age group,” she said.

They typically have an activity for math, fine motor skills, a writing activity and the fourth table will vary. In the classroom, we saw the math activity was connecting numbers to create a Star of David and the the fine motor skill was making looping paper rings. “I want more hands-on experiences than tons of work books and worksheets,” she said.

Then we toured the new playground. Yael explained wanting to have natural elements in the playground. There are trees and grasses growing around the perimeter and rounded lines like the gentle swooping line of the sandbox. There are structures to crawl under and over and things to explore. And the whole playground is in blues, browns and greys, not a speck of bright yellow or red plastic.

Yael told a story of watching a child stand atop a boulder and go to jump down and one of the parents telling them not to, and Yael chimed in ‘Yes, jump!’ Throughout our exploration of the playground she highlighted wanting to provide elements that encourage children’s exploration in a natural setting.

Next, we went to see Kelley King, the head of the lower school. The lower school was awarded the National Blue Ribbon for 2018.

“I have a lot of autonomy and authority as a principal to step back and look at the instructional program, the whole educational program and think about how to resource it, how to staff it, how to schedule it, so we get the right pieces in the right place for the right kids. And so that flexibility is a big difference for me.

“I spent a lot of years in the public school system, in some really great public schools that I’m proud to have worked in. When you work in a public school system, there are so many mandates, policies and procedures that are built to manage a huge system of thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of kids, the system can become a little fixed. There is a uniformity that comes with managing that big of a system.

“We are so small, we can really be nimble and we have the autonomy, we can take what we like, but not take the parts that are cumbersome or don’t work in the best interest of the kids … I really don’t feel like I’m having stumbling blocks in my way. In fact, I have them cleared out so that we can really make a lot of progress. And that is how we have been able to make (in four school years since I’ve been here) such significant changes in the educational program and make such progress to get to the level where we are recognized as a Blue Ribbon school in a relatively short amount of time. It’s because we haven’t had to navigate around, over, under, through roadblocks that are really a big problem in the public school system,” Kelley said.

Receiving the accolade of being a Blue Ribbon school was further proof that having a religious or values-based approach could still meet and exceed high academic standards. And in keeping with the mission to serve the Jewish community, they don’t screen kids out like some secular private schools do.

“It’s really important for us to have a wider door for kids even if they come with some learning challenges to find a way to accommodate those,” Kelley said.

And in curiosity with how to better serve the community, the school worked with Fisheye Research and did a market study that interviewed Jewish families that weren’t attending Jewish schools. They found that the biggest reason for them not to come was not lack of interest, but the financial barrier.

That is where the new tuition program comes in. The school will offer half price tuition for students entering Kindergarten and 9th grade: two of the largest entry points into the school.

“We are breaking new ground with this,” Kelley said.

The Open Door program, funded by an unnamed donor, is positioned to help new families be able to take part in excellent Jewish private education. And furthermore, they are optimistic about the program strengthening the Jewish community and Jewish continuity in San Diego at large.

Their goal is to eventually add 200 students at the academy overall.

“We have a lot of irons in the fire, but it feels really good. They are all just coming together nicely,” Kelley said.


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