Students returning to Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh next month will find things have changed while they were away enjoying their summer recess.
Not only will the school itself look somewhat different, and not only will there be a few new adult faces strolling the halls, but students may just find the culture of the school has changed as well, with a sharper focus on academic excellence.
With the opening of a new early childhood center, a new library and a new outdoor play area, and three new administrative hires — all with ties to Pittsburgh — Hillel is trying to vigorously enhance the educational and social experiences of its students.
The new Isadore Joshowitz Early Childhood Center, honoring the long-time Hillel supporter whose name it bears, will boast a re-designed space for pre-nursery through kindergarten. All classrooms will now be adjacent to one another, with the kindergarten moved upstairs from its previous location in the basement of the building.
“It will be a brand new, state-of-the-art room,” Dan Kraut, executive director of Hillel, said about the new kindergarten space. “It basically will create an immersion environment for the children, allowing them to highlight their creativity and encouraging critical thinking.
“We’re busting out a wall, and creating skylights,” Kraut continued, noting that the kindergarten classroom is a gift to Hillel from Freda Winerman, in memory of her husband, parents and brother.
The kindergarten will be located in the school’s current library, with a new, much larger library being constructed now and slated to open by Oct. 1.
The school is also putting in a new asphalt parking lot, and a 75-foot by 100-foot grass field where the more than 200 students slated to attend the academy next year will be able to play.
Yet Kraut is even more excited about the new staff members who have been working together this summer to enrich the learning environment for the students.
Native Pittsburgher Rabbi Avrumi Sacks is returning from New York to become Hillel’s new principal and educational director. Formerly the assistant head master at the Ramaz lower school (one of the top Jewish schools in the country, according to Kraut), Sacks will be in charge of the entire educational product of the school.
“He is a skilled educator with tons of experience and links to the city,” Kraut said. “He has the drive to create a great school.”
Sacks said that he and his team of educators would be working hard to ensure that the academy lives up to that potential.
“There are plans for enhancement for everything, to provide students with whatever they need in order to be successful,” Sacks said. “We have plans that have to do with curriculum enhancement and improvement, and plans in general for the school culture, both educationally and socially.”
Another Pittsburgh native and Hillel alumnus, Rabbi Sam Weinberg, will also return to his hometown from New York to become the assistant principal and curriculum coordinator for the boys’ high school.
“He’s a superstar,” Kraut said about Weinberg.
Weinberg’s experience, which includes teaching stints at both Ramaz and the SAR Academy in Riverdale, and his Pittsburgh ties make him particularly qualified to take over his new post, Kraut said.
“We are going to create a whole community of learners who value a high level of education both in terms of Jewish education and secular education as well,” Weinberg said. “Hillel gives me the opportunity to take everything I’ve learned and apply it to the culture of an entire institution.”
He added that he has gotten only “positive support and feedback” from the Hillel community regarding the innovations he is helping to implement.
“Everyone’s on board and everyone’s excited, and the excitement is palpable,” Weinberg said.”
Local educator and teacher-mentor Rebbetzin Elky Langer is assuming the position of assistant girls’ high school principal.
“Our overall goal is to increase academic excellence and put in a rigorous curriculum, both for the Judaic side and the general studies side,” she said.
One focus in particular will be to add new Advanced Placement courses to the curriculum. Teachers are taking formal AP training this summer, while the curriculum will be designed in accord with official AP guidance, Langer said.
“We want to both challenge the students now, and prepare them for the future,” Langer said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com)