Plans start for Jewish high school



Could St. Louis have a new pluralistic Jewish community high school in its future?

Dr. Bruce Powell and a local planning committee think it does, and that it could happen as soon as the fall of 2009 or 2010.

Powell, a nationally recognized educator, and head of school at the New Jewish Community High School in Los Angeles, visited St. Louis on Wednesday to discuss the potential for starting a Jewish community high school here.

Powell has been assigned as a coach for the St. Louis community by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) during the planning phases for starting a new school. The coach is made possible through a PEJE grant matching a local grant from Dr. Phillip and Arleen Korenblat.

This was Powell’s second trip to St. Louis, and he spent the day meeting with the members of the Jewish Community Day High School Committee, local rabbis and members of the community, providing guidance and answering questions about the process of starting a Jewish community high school.

At an open community meeting on Wednesday night at the Jewish Federation’s Kopolow Building, Powell told the audience that the committee is at a key stage in the process of forming a school: the crafting of an overall vision and a mission statement for the school that will resonate with the community, and especially with parents and donors.

“We’re at what I call the ‘MVP stage’: mission, values and philosophy, and it has to appeal to a community not used to even the concept of having a pluralistic high school ” Powell said.

“One question that is still out there in the community is, ‘Why do we need this high school?’ ” Powell said. “Many people don’t understand what a Jewish community high school can actually look like. It’s not a yeshiva, it’s not a Schechter high school, it doesn’t have a dogma. It’s an educational institution that can pull all these strands together. “

Dr. Alyson Aviv, co-chair of the Jewish Community Day High School Committee, and a clinical psychologist added, “Jewish High schools give kids a remarkable identity foundation and a strong sense of Jewish identity, is the most valuable gift we can give our children.” She said that college campuses today are very politicized and there is a lot of anti-Semitism.

“A Jewish high school education arms our kids by giving them the tools of identity to stand strong in the face of identity challenges that will be thrown in their direction,” Aviv said.

“We want our children to learn everything they need to know to live in Rome, but we want to temper it with the values of Jerusalem, ” Powell said.

Powell explained to the audience that Rome is about education for power’s sake. Jerusalem is about the gaining of knowledge through a Judaic value based lens, so that a person becomes able to know how to use knowledge in an ethical and moral way.

To illustrate his point, Powell used an example of a teacher at his school who uses the biblical concept of sinot chinam or ‘baseless hate’ to interpret Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet. ” “Whoa. She’s putting a Jewish lens on Shakespeare. That’s a Jewish community high school, ” Powell said. “It’s brilliant stuff. “

Powell said that after the “core work of developing the mission and vision ” are completed, the rest of the work to create a school could be done in about two and a half years. Powell said the committee could realistically look at opening a school in the fall of 2009 or 2010.

In general, school planning committees develop a vision, and then they create the business plan around it, Powell said. After that, the committee must take the plan to donors and search for a head of school.

Powell said a rough estimate of costs for the first year of operation of a high quality school with full time faculty would be around $900,000 to $1 million.

“For ballpark figures, let’s assume your first freshman class is of 20-25 students, that would give you tuition of about $200,000 to $250,000, ” Powell said, requiring approximately $700,000 to $800,000 for first year fundraising.

The upshot, Powell said, is that as enrollment increases, the per-student cost decreases dramatically and more tuition dollars roll in, requiring far less money from fundraising.

Aviv said the committee does not have an official timetable yet for starting a school, but said the committee will be working on this and many other details in the coming months.

Aviv said the articles of incorporation for the school were filed last week with the Secretary of State’s office and that the organization would be seeking 501c3 non-profit status in the near future.

The committee has been working over the past two years to determine the potential market and the sustainability for a community Jewish high school and Aviv said interest has been good. After the Korenblat grant, the committee and its sponsor, the Central Agency for Jewish Education, hired two educational researchers to conduct a feasibility study, looking at community interest and at the results of other communities that have started Jewish community high schools. Aviv said, that over 80 families have expressed interest in the project, with new families surfacing at every open community meeting.

She feels the school will be important for keeping St. Louis an attractive community for Jewish families. “If St. Louis is going to retain the Jewish professionals that it currently has, and also attract new professionals, a pluralistic high school will be crucial to the future of the community.” She adds that many Jewish educators today believe that an in-depth, sophisticated education in both Jewish and secular subjects is important for a meaningful and successful future for our children and for Jewish life in North America.

Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona has worked with the committee since he came to town 18 months ago. “Personally, I’m very invested in seeing this come to fruition, ” Rose said. “I think it’s a missing element for our Jewish community in St. Louis, not having a pluralistic Jewish High School. “

Asked to gauge the prospects for creating a successful Jewish community high school in St. Louis, Powell said other similar-sized cities, like Denver and Houston, have created successful high schools, although he said it was too soon to speculate about how the process is going here.

“Let’s wait until the first check comes in, or until we find the site, and then I’ll tell you how it’s going, ” Powell said.