Schechter head of school won’t return for 2011-12 term

Rabbi Allen Selis

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

After a four-year run as head of the institution, Rabbi Allen Selis announced last week that he will not be returning to his position at Solomon Schechter after the present academic year.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “Schechter was both a place where I served the community as well as a place where both of my children went to school.”

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The decision was made public in a statement issued last week by Solomon Schechter president Missy Korenblat-Hanin in which she praised the rabbi saying the school had been fortunate to have him.

“He is a true visionary, an excellent fundraiser and committed to academic excellence,” the statement said. “He has had great success in helping each child reach their fullest potential, ensuring for differentiation, academic support and acceleration, providing both a rigorous and nurturing learning experience.”

Selis took over the position in 2007 when his predecessor Gail Armstrong left the position to spend more time with her family. The rabbi has previously served as a Jewish studies coordinator at a Solomon Schechter Day School in New Jersey and as a congregational rabbi, professional development coordinator and education professor in Maryland.

His contract at SSDS ends in June.

Selis said he has been looking into other potential opportunities both in and outside of St. Louis for about six months. He has not yet accepted a job but said he is a finalist for at least one position and has been in conversations about others.

It’s kind of a natural desire to say ‘where’s the next challenge?’ and step up to it,” he said. “I just see it as part of my outgrowth as an individual and a professional.”

Selis said he’s proud of the academic achievements of the school during his tenure, particularly the introduction of a new mathematics curriculum which incorporates language arts and the use of a Singapore-based open problem-solving method in the upper school, which includes the higher grades in the K-8 learning institution.

Selis also touted the success of a new learning platform for Hebrew.

“We also created a custom track within the Hebrew program so that Hebrew-speaking kids or kids with really strong aptitude could get an enriched Hebrew experience,” he said. “We’ve really become a destination school for people in the Israeli community because of that.”

Financial stability is another area in which Selis takes pride. He said the school was faced with deficits and accumulated debt when he took over but has since emerged from an aggressive process of rebranding, restructuring and fundraising. The annual campaign now takes in 65 percent more than a few years ago and this is the second year in a row SSDS has run a surplus, he said.

“We’re on schedule within two to two-and-a-half years to totally pay off all remaining debt on our physical plant,” Selis said.

Selis said the institution has created three named scholarships on his watch and recently secured a $30,000 gift from the Simonovitch Fund for Science and Technology. SSDS was also one of only five schools to receive grants from the AVI CHAI Foundation as they partnered with local Reform counterpart Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy on a program to combine certain business and technology operations.

The latter represents one of the efforts the Conservative day school has made to build bridges within the Jewish community, Selis said. Other efforts have reached outside the community including a recent partnership with City Academy, a North Side school, or this summer’s Three Cups of Tea program, in which students spent the day exploring Pakistani culture.

Selis said that continuing to provide academic options that interest students and parents seem to be where the future lies.

“If you look at Jewish day schools across the United States, the ones that have really thrived in markets similar to ours are taking a solid program and building in additional specialty offerings in language or technology or the arts,” he said. “Those sort of value-added features in Jewish day schools are the ones that are drawing in increased enrollment.”

Selis said that while he worked hard to educate students in the institution, he also feels SSDS taught him a thing or two as well.

“The four years I’ve had at Schechter have been the most creative four years of my professional career. I’ve grown both personally and professionally,” he said. “I’ve had a chance to facilitate both the growth of my students and, I believe, the growth of the community as well so it’s been a very rewarding time.”

Korenblat-Hanin’s statement thanked Selis for “his passion, dedication and commitment to Schechter and the Jewish Community.”

“He is committed to the Schechter faculty, students and their families attending every simcha and helping through every sorrow,” it said. “His leadership has enriched our students by providing a vibrant Jewish Day School that offers the highest quality secular and Jewish education.”

Reached by phone, Korenblat-Hanin said a chair had been named to examine the transition but that it would be premature to speak further about any search at this time.

In other news, SSDS has also named Galia and Milton Movitz as its incoming presidents.

“Galia and Milton are passionate about Jewish education,” Korenblat-Hanin said Wednesday night. “They are pillars in the community and they are also excited and have great enthusiasm for our future and leading it forward.”