Educational programs, initiatives bring welcome changes

Educational programs, initiatives bring welcome changes

At CDS, STEM learning opportunities will grow this school year.Photo provided by Community Day School
At CDS, STEM learning opportunities will grow this school year.Photo provided by Community Day School

The recent sound of school bells signal summer’s end. But seasonal demise is no reason for sadness, as a swath of new programs are promising optimal educational experiences for Pittsburgh’s Jewish students.

Countless offerings from the city’s Jewish day schools, religious schools and early childhood centers offer students and parents much to smile about.

“At Hillel, we are extremely excited for the upcoming school year, as we plan to introduce and expand a variety of programs throughout our school,” said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh.

Among Hillel’s lineup is an increased focus on educational technology. With the appointment of Spencer Kingman as the school’s ED-Tech coordinator, Hillel hopes to augment its approach to robotics, coding and engineering curricula for students in kindergarten through high school, said Weinberg.

A similar push is underway at Community Day School.

“Our students will benefit from more outdoor learning and STEM learning opportunities this year,” said Jennifer Bails, CDS’s director of marketing and communications.

“We are piloting a new math curriculum in grades four and five called MyMath for improved differentiation and enrichment opportunities, as well as a comprehensive online component,” Bails added.

Creating an online portal for learning has been at the heart of “BadgeQuest,” an initiative that rewards students of the Joint Jewish Education Program (J-JEP) with digital acknowledgment “badges” for having engaged with Jewish ideas, values and practices, said Liron Lipinsky, director of the program.

BadgeQuest began last year “with awesome success,” Lipinsky said. This year, she hopes that along with the program’s 25 new students, BadgeQuest will enable J-JEP, a collaboration between Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation, to flourish.

“This is the fifth year of J-JEP. It’s a huge deal. It’s grown and evolved every year,” said Lipinsky.

Boasting similar aims for expansion is J-Line, the Jewish knowledge center for teens in eighth through 12th grade. Hosted by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, J-Line is open to all teens, regardless of affiliation or background.

Beginning this year are chugim, said Carolyn Gerecht, the JCC’s director of teen engagement and experiences. Playing upon the origins of the Hebrew word chug (circle or activity), the program encourages students to create communities around shared interests and actions.

During each Sunday session, multiple chugim are offered. Options include making Israeli salatim (salads) and discussing how the foods reflect regional culture, playing Pokemon Go and considering whether certain areas (including cemeteries and concentration camps) should be restricted from the location-based augmented reality game, constructing architectural models of sukkot while reviewing the oft-times unusual Talmudic instructions for classical sukkah design, and even creating Jewish-themed jewelry with Tech Shop.

As opposed to laying out the entire year’s chugim, J-Line administrators have only announced the fall schedule. The reason for doing so, explained Gerecht, is that efforts are being made to track participants’ interests and input to ensure that winter and spring chugim best meet students’ needs.

Gauging constituency pulse is central for several area schools.

“We’ve been working on greater collaboration with parents,” said Iris Harlan, director of Temple Emanuel Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC).

As recipients of a five-year grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, ECDC participates in the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI). While working with experts in the Reggio Emilia based pedagogy, ECDC hopes to provide superior education by making students, teachers and parents partners in the learning process.

“Parent collaboration is very important for the quality of our school,” said Harlan.

Bringing parents on board was equally key to CDS’s recent success.

“In 2012-2013, we were experiencing serious enrollment and value proposition challenges at CDS that were threatening our viability as a school. Even though we have for years been on a course of continual improvement, our message was not being heard by our own parents and in the community,” said Bails.

To combat such loss the Squirrel Hill- based school developed a retention plan.

“We understood from all the research we did with PEJE (Partnership For Excellence In Jewish Education) and NAIS (National Association Of Independent Schools) the importance of internal marketing, having your parents sell the school,” said Avi Baran Munro, CDS’s head of school.

“We decided less to focus on outside recruitment and more on our existing families,” she added.

CDS leaders learned much from a self-developed parent satisfaction survey.

“We listened to parents about what annoyed them,” said Munro.

“The communication was something that was atrocious, there was no streamlined system for parents. I was getting bombarded by random emails every day from somebody at CDS, there was no one stopping it,” said Rona Kaufman Kitchen, a CDS parent who in the spring of 2014 pulled her children from the school, but eventually re-enrolled them in the fall of 2015. “CDS was totally absent from social media, now you have a Facebook page for CDS parents where you can post something and it’s immediately answered by another parent.

“These little tweaks about how the school was run [have] changed things,” she added.

Other schools are also seeking outside guidance for internal effectiveness.

The Nathan and Hilda Katzen Religious School at Temple Sinai is embarking on PACT (Parents and Children Together). The program will take participants to site visits at six different organizations “dealing with a variety of issues in Pittsburgh,” explained Rabbi Keren Gorban, Temple Sinai’s associate rabbi.

Temple Sinai has also adopted DVASH, a Hebrew learning curriculum which boasts a multisensory approach.

While second- and third-graders at Temple Sinai will participate in the program, students of other ages around the city will experience the curriculum as well.

Beth Shalom’s Early Learning Center will pilot the DVASH program this year, said Jennifer Slattery, the Early Learning Center’s director.

J-JEP, now entering its third year with DVASH, has achieved “ridiculously amazing success” with the program, said Lipinsky.

Masha Sholler completed an internship with The Chronicle earlier this summer. Staff Writer Adam Reinherz can be reached at