Jewish Journal


March 1, 2011

Secular Academy will merge Jewish values


There are a lot of differences between what Mars Academy in Encino promises and the offerings of a typical secular day school.

Every student will have a cubicle instead of a locker. Individualized mini-lessons from a teacher will replace lectures. And it will be housed in a synagogue.

“Our situation is quite unique,” said Andy Mars, the school’s founding director.

Located at Temple Ner Maarav, a Conservative shul at 17730 Magnolia Blvd., the school will open its doors to students in September.

“I know many families out there who are looking for a day-school education, but they’re looking for a comfortable Jewish environment,” said Mars, 45, of Tarzana. “There’s no question that even though it’s a secular school, it’s got a very, very Jewish set of values here.”

To that end, the K-12 academy will be a strictly kosher facility and have an active tikkun olam program of community service. There’s another bonus that comes from being located in a synagogue that Mars also found enticing.

“I want to be off for Jewish holidays, and I figured if I put a school in a synagogue, then I have a very good, legitimate excuse to be off for Jewish holidays,” said Mars, who attends Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, where he also leads children’s services for the High Holy Days.

Meanwhile, he hopes a strong college preparatory program will draw the secular community as well. His goal is to create a mix of students from different backgrounds.

“I want children to not just be isolated amongst their own but develop a relationship, understanding and respect for others,” Mars said.

So far, interest has been about equal from Jewish families and others. The nature of the school’s location hasn’t pleased everyone, though.

“There was one family who were not happy that the school was in a synagogue,” Mars said. “They said, ‘My child will not set foot into a synagogue every day.’ ”

Temple Ner Maarav Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen said renting space to the academy is a great way to maximize the property’s assets, including classrooms that sat empty during the day. But, he added, “The truth of the matter is it wasn’t the first time we’ve done this. Before I arrived they had rented space to a charter school.”

Even though Mars Academy may not be Jewish in nature, it has “parallel values,” with its emphasis on education and values, van Leeuwen said.

“It was a good match,” he said.

The school’s site is just one way that Mars Academy hopes to set itself apart. A longtime education consultant, Mars focused his doctorate in education on learning differences and teaching strategies. He aims to put his beliefs into practice here.

First, none of the school’s five classrooms will have more than 10 students so that the children can receive individualized attention. That means more than one grade level will share a room.

Instead of lectures, a teacher will move from student to student to provide customized lessons and an individualized pace and style.

“Most children in school are either bored half the time ... or they’re confused half the time because [material is] not being taught the way that they need it,” Mars said.

The layout of the rooms will be different from traditional classrooms, too. Days will begin with students gathered around a central conference table for a discussion on anything from politics to ethical dilemmas.

Mars calls it “a very Judaic design: pondering and allowing the mind to be probed. ... It’s a community of inquiry.”

Oh, and there won’t be the traditional desk set-ups that you might expect. Instead, kids will roll around on executive chairs with lumbar support, armrests and wheels. Each will have a cubicle with a computer and supplies.

Sherman Oaks resident Ben Stein said he’s seriously considering the school for his 9-year-old son, in part because his Jewish family would be glad to enroll him in a school that observes kashrut and Jewish holidays. But that’s not the only reason.

“Judaism and Jewish values are important to us, but the educational design of Mars Academy most intrigues us,” Stein wrote in an e-mail. “It seems to be the most efficient way for a child to learn, and it is surprising that other schools have not developed such a system.”

Mars comes to this project after having been the founding director of a camp and community-service organization. His resume includes stints as a boarding-school director and a Sunday school principal.

He’s hopeful that his concoction resting on the pillars of morality, academics, reasoning and social action will be the perfect match for society’s needs.

“I believe the Valley population is incredibly primed for this,” he said.

Mars Academy currently is enrolling students for next school year’s classes. Tuition ranges from $17,500 for elementary school to $22,500 for high school.

For more information, go to marsacademy.org.

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