Day school merger offers chance to craft new identity

Third graders Daphne Levy, Alan Fulson and Aviva Kiernan work on a project during the first joint event between students of the former Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis and the Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy. The schools have merged to become the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Eight-year-old Faith Faro of Solomon Schechter Day School is excited as she cuts out and traces squirrel patterns in a classroom at the Chodorovsky Building on an unseasonably mild but foggy February morning. It may not feel quite like summer outside but the third-grader is looking forward to the next school year nonetheless.

“It will be a good opportunity to make more new friends,” she said.


Nearby, Aviva Kiernan, planting basil seeds as part of the day’s activities, agrees. The Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy student said she already made a new friend today while sowing the herbs which will one day be used to prepare her midday meal.

Lots of things are happening at SSDS and SMDS-RJA these days. For starters, neither of the acronym-laden institutions officially exists anymore. As of the first of the year, the facilities became known as the east and west campuses of a combined organization, the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, which is the reason Faith and Aviva will get to be classmates this fall.

The pair were attending last week’s program, which featured a talk by an Israeli zoologist and various art and gardening projects for the pupils. It was the first joint gathering of the student bodies, which will be merged into the former SSDS building on Congregation B’nai Amoona’s campus when children return from summer vacation later this year.

As with the two girls, parents, board members and staff seem enthused about the change even if the details of the final product remain only partially defined, like shapes in the mist lingering outside the building.

Best practices

“The most fun for me is envisioning all the community building we’re going to do,” said Cheryl Maayan. “We’re putting together a curriculum that’s not just a combination of two schools but really we have an opportunity to incorporate best practices from top-tier schools from around the country.”

To that end, Maayan, the former head of SMDS-RJA who will now helm the combined institution, is spending this week traveling to various day schools in Boston and New York on a continuing exploration of the models that might guide the new organization into the future.

Some of that eventual blueprint will be created from scratch out of necessity. The school’s leadership says this is the first instance they are aware of in which a Conservative school and a Reform institution have merged, leaving staff and board members alike drawing the roadmap as they go.

Milton Movitz, immediate past president of the SSDS board, thinks that’s a positive thing.

“We don’t have a book we can read that will tell us how to do it,” said Movitz, now a lifetime member of the community school’s board. “We are writing the book and hopefully others will follow suit. It’s a new day, a new world and we have to be part of that.”

During the merger, Movitz said board and staff leaders have drawn on “a tremendous team,” including professional consultants, experts with Partnership with Jewish Education, Independent Schools Association of the Central States, administrators and staff at other schools, lawyers and CPAs.

He thinks the new institution could serve as an example for other parts of the community as well including local synagogues and agencies that may need to take a hard look at issues like mergers as they deal with excess infrastructure.

“It’s not a world of adding more right now,” he said. “It’s a world of consolidation and looking to the future, not the same old, same old.”

His wife Galia is also an immediate past president at SSDS, now a vice-president of the new board, which is composed of half of each of the previous governing bodies. She said she’s felt a real sense of community and family among the lay leadership.

“It was around the time of Hanukkah when we said, ‘You know what? It feels like a miracle that you can dream something and then see the reality,'” she said.

Time, patience and answers

There are still challenges to hammer out of course. The leadership has been working to draw up a grid that compares the curricula in each subject area between the two campuses in terms of philosophy, goals and content. This process is expected to continue through the spring as the former SMDS-RJA prepares for the big move to Mason Road from its present home on the campus of B’nai El.

Maayan said the first area to be tackled is the one she gets the most questions about from parents, the Judaics content, which they hope to have nailed down by March 1.

“They want answers and we want to give them answers but we want to make sure that we’re being responsible in terms of setting up the curricula,” she said.

Experts agree that the process takes time. Dr. Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, the New York-based Jewish Community Day School Network, said fast answers aren’t necessarily good ones.

“We all want it to be done yesterday,” he said. “But things that get done yesterday tend to fail by tomorrow.”

Kramer has spoken with leadership at the new school, which will be a member of his umbrella group, and said he was impressed by their approach, noting that they seem to have the right mindset.

“There are two core strengths that the leaders of this new entity will need to have,” he said. “They are going to need to be patient with all of those who are acclimatized to a different status quo. They are going to need fortitude to wait out and walk through the hard stuff.”

He said the community needs to remember that change is a process and not an event.

“They also have to keep an eye on the fact that if they’ve merged their institutions, the merger doesn’t eliminate all their challenges,” he said. “Things that were challenging for one organization may remain challenging to some degree. Things that were challenging for both organizations could wind up being doubly challenging.”

The early numbers

Maayan thinks that worries over at least one of those challenges may have been dealt with already. She said consultants had warned that mergers could sometimes result in a body blow to enrollment for both institutions, which might lose as much as a quarter of their headcount. Fortunately, Maayan said that gloomy scenario doesn’t appear to have borne out at Mirowitz. There are already 124 re-enrollment contracts plus another 27 new applications. She thinks they’ll start the school year with 160-170 students, close to the 171 both institutions had combined this year.

Maayan said that on the whole, she believes people have responded enthusiastically to the joining.

“Change creates a sense of anxiety and I think when the information was first released, there was a lot of anxiety,” she said. “At this point, I think most of our constituents feel confident that their children are going to have an education that is equal to or better than what they’ve been getting.”

SMDS-RJA parent Ann Mayer Eisen was one who initially had worries but now feels more assured. She said she’s enthusiastic about the merger and has faith in the leadership of the school to bring about a diverse student body that caters to all levels of observance.

“At first, I was concerned that RJA would lose the flavor of RJA. I was concerned that it would change,” said the Shaare Emeth congregant who has a second grader at RJA, “but I think that the schools are coming together well and the building has a lot to offer which can make our school grow even more.”

Tina Rafael, an SSDS parent and board member said she knew it would be a challenge. But she is excited about the prospect of incorporating the two schools into a single stronger institution. She’s optimistic despite the unknowns.

“The biggest concern I have, as a lot of families still have, is the uncertainty in that we are committing to something that we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to look yet,” said the Clayton resident. “That’s a scary thing for a lot of people but I have all the confidence in Cheryl Maayan as a great leader. We have a very strong board and the staff at Schechter and RJA are both phenomenal.”

Rafael said that she thinks with the support of the community and the Jewish Federation, which has helped during the transition, the pieces will fall into place. Like many parents, she wants to know about the Judaics lesson plan but like Kramer she said it’s vital to take the process slow and have patience.

“That’s what makes me feel good about it,” she said. “As much as I’d like to know exactly how the Judaics curriculum is going to be when my child is in second grade next year, I realize that’s not an answer we’re going to have right now. I’m willing to wait for it because I know that they are taking the time to make the best decisions for the school.”

‘A great deal of energy’

Michael Rubin is chairing the new board, which had its first meeting last month.

“I’m not saying we agreed on absolutely everything but we got everything on the table, found ways to work it out and it was refreshing,” he said. “I felt a great deal of energy in the room as well as an enthusiasm for the merger and a willingness to work through just about everything.”

He said most of the immediate heavy lifting issues like a financial aid policy have been resolved. Now the organization is looking to longer-term topics like facilities and an ongoing strategic planning process.

Maayan said the institution is also working to assure donors that the school is a wise investment of philanthropic funds. In addition, it will be coordinating a community fundraising campaign with the Jewish Federation, though details have not yet been announced.

“The community is always talking about how important it is to attract young professionals to St. Louis and Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School is primed to do just that,” she said. “People want the best education for their children and that’s what we’re preparing to give.”