SDJA’s Bold Move to Expand Jewish Education

By Eva Trieger

I first set foot on the San Diego Jewish Academy’s Carmel Valley campus in 2000 when I was hired to open up their Special Education department for a handful of students who’d been identified with learning differences. During the interview process I was impressed with the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff and administration. The potential to be a most incredible pluralistic Jewish day school was palpable, and yet, that promise has taken time to be fulfilled.

With Chaim Heller at the helm, and Sonia Mandelbaum as Co-Chair of the Our Family is One campaign, the school is on a trajectory to realize the promise I first glimpsed in 2000. Recently, I visited the administration building and was brought up to speed on the newest developments and exciting plans for making this school what the community has been begging for since its inception. The duo enthusiastically detailed for me two programs that are the impetus for this change.

Mandelbaum, an alumnus of the school, told me about the “Our Family is One” campaign, the first in this 1-2 punch. Noting that fewer Jews in the San Diego area are affiliated across the board, individuals are finding less value in a Jewish education when it has become so cost prohibitive. Yet, Sonia, who also is married to an alumnus, wants her own children, and all members of the community, regardless of socioeconomic differences, to see the San Diego Jewish Academy as the center for Jewish life in San Diego.

To achieve this goal the school realized it must grow its enrollment from the current 550 to 800 students. And now, due to a magnanimous donor and a very focused, daring move, the campaign is raising $15 million dollars to create a community-based school that will deliver a Jewish values-based education in tandem with the American normative experiences, replete with Homecoming, football and cheerleading. Our Family is One will serve to “reach out maximally to the less affiliated and make them more connected.” According to Heller, there is no contradiction in this two-pronged educational approach and it will result in “confident Jews who fit into the social fabric of American life.”

SDJA has always offered a degree of tuition assistance, and while it has enabled some students to attend the school, the new goal is loftier and demands greater commitment and participation. The first day of school year 2018-2019 saw 71 new students enter the San Diego Jewish Academy, most definitely a step in the right direction. Half of these children benefited from tuition assistance. The school also knows that in order to attract more students, it cannot be solely about the tuition, but the school programs and the caliber of the faculty must all shine.

As a special educator and former classroom teacher, I know that teaching has a multitude of rewards that are non-monetary. However, living in San Diego County requires that teachers earn a living wage. The Academy knows this and is raising teacher compensation to attract and retain quality teachers. Furthermore, they want to encourage collaboration and increase planning time for faculty. SDJA is also beefing up their course offerings with two new programs.

Rabbi Philip Graubart is spearheading the Advanced Institute for Judaic Studies. This program will feature Shabbat dinners at each grade level, a school/community wide Shabbaton, and a Kabbalat Shabbat program for the preschoolers.

Another groundbreaking program features Kwaku Aning of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking. This program will provide students and teachers, grades K-12, an opportunity to experience Augmented and Virtual Reality through two regional hackathons. Additionally, over the summer there will be a two-week camp that will bring together students from San Diego, New York City and China. Approximately 20 students from each setting will learn from each other and begin to network for future visits and programs.

A most thrilling improvement, which is near and dear to my heart, is the upgrading of the programming for children with learning challenges. This is an area that has known severe inattention until Dr. Julie Good came on board. With the new plan, the Learning Academy will boast six qualified teachers and will serve not only the SDJA’s 10-12 percent of identified students, but it will also be open to the community after school. Students who attend public school but require special services can enroll in the Learning Academy for occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physical therapy. This will allow the Academy to attract top tier professionals while they offer a massive resource to the larger community.

Heller was proud to tell me that SDJA garnered the 2018 Blue Ribbon Award as the only Jewish private school in California. This is a prestigious award, granted by the U.S. Department of Education to schools whose test scores fall in the top 15 percent of all schools nationally. But still Heller and the Board wondered how they can bring this “world class education to more than 1,100 Jewish families” who want this education, but can’t afford a price point above $10-$15,000 per school year.

This question gave rise to the hiring of Fisheye Research, and a creative solution presented itself. Through the pilot Open Door program, Kindergarteners and 9th graders will pay half price tuition for the next four years. It is understood that it is a shared commitment, and the school hopes that those who can afford to pay more will make generous donations. Through this program and charitable gifts, SDJA hopes to include students from Carmel Valley, La Jolla, Del Mar, and University City. If the program is successful, “it will be expanded to all grades until targets are met.” Currently there are families who experience a barrier to entry, and through the largesse of one anonymous donor and many other generous supporters, they can now attend. “Everyone cries about the high price, but no one does anything. It’s time to try something bold,” Heller told me.

By casting a wider net, Heller hopes to create a more diverse student body and open the social horizons and broaden the world view for San Diego Jewish Academy students. This exposure to more real-world situations and people will eliminate the “bubble” that has existed. As SDJA celebrates their 40th anniversary, we may reflect that in the Bible the number 40 is significant. It is often used to indicate two distinct epochs. May this be the epoch of realization of potential for the San Diego Jewish Academy. With their tandem campaigns of Our Family is One and Open Door, it certainly seems they are on the derech.

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