Even before Columbine High School would become a national synonym for school violence in April 1999, an Orange County school administrator was troubled by finger-pointing that inevitably surfaced during that awful season of school shootings.
Gangs, drugs and violent video games, cited by authorities as probable provocations, sounded like knee-jerk theories to Howard Haas, principal of La Mirada High School.
Compelled to determine for himself why children would conspire to kill their peers, Haas and a longtime colleague, Alex Aitcheson, temporarily suspended their careers in August 1999. They quit their jobs. They mortgaged their homes. They established a nonprofit organization and began canvassing students, seeking the seeds of campus violence in cities around the nation. "The only mistake would have been not to do it," Haas says.
Repeatedly, the former administrators heard kids describe feeling dehumanized when adults ignored their needs and feelings. They learned teens who felt a greater sense of belonging participated in the wider community beyond school walls. Yet, after 18 months criss-crossing the country talking about their findings, when Haas and Aitcheson revisited cities they surveyed, they often found their recommendations to curb teen alienation gathering dust, shunted aside for more immediate goals such as raising test scores.
Little wonder that Haas was quick to grasp another career turn when offered the position as upper-school principal at the 10-acre Irvine day school, Tarbut v'Torah. The private school would permit a rare, unfettered opportunity to cultivate the sort of child-attentive environment he found lacking elsewhere. That Tarbut sought out an atypical administrator bereft of day school experience illustrates the challenges of rising institutions at the forefront of an unprecedented boom in full-time Jewish schools.
A culture change is already evident since Haas' arrival at the 5-year-old campus in September. Among his initiatives so far are open houses by subject, allowing parents to sit in on math and science classes; a field trip by eighth-graders to a day school in San Diego; a dialogue about student visits with a neighboring Islamic school; bringing a lion cub cum school mascot on campus; and, at the request of a student, adding bottled water to the lunchtime beverage offerings. Haas hired eight new teachers.
"He never sits still; he's always out greeting the students or in the classes," said Joel Kuperberg, a lawyer and 10-year president of the school's governing board. "Through his attitude and actions, he's generated significant new excitement in the school."
Haas' approach is fatherly, not the authority figure expected of a principal. In fact, morning announcements can look like a fast-paced comedy routine. Juggling a sheaf of papers, Haas reads aloud the top one, crumples it into a ball and tosses it over his shoulder even as he starts the next. Another role that he tackles with mirth is greeter, though he admits so far lacking mastery over the names of 244 children in grades six through 12. "I get to see each one three times a day," he enthuses.
Compared to the red tape and crises of flare-ups that consumed Haas' days as principal of 2,200-student La Mirada High, the tempo of a private day school is relaxed and reflective. "The only meetings I have to go to are the ones I call," he says. "I feel like I'm in heaven."
Haas is Tarbut's third upper-grade principal in five years. In 1992, the school opened with fewer than 50 students in the county's Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa. Then, hands-on board members were pressed to help as janitors and secretaries. Since its inception, Bernice S. Tabak has served as principal of the elementary school, which now has 267 students.
The upper school was established in 1996, a year before the school relocated to its current site. The first two upper-grades administrators both had experience operating Jewish day schools, which typically go up to eighth grade. Ahuva Halberstam, Haas' immediate predecessor, had a particularly strong background in Judaism, which helped evolve Tarbut's Judaic curriculum.
"Unlike both his predecessors, he's the first that was a high school principal," Kuperberg says.
That expertise will take on new importance as Tarbut undertakes to more than double its high school enrollment to 600. On Dec. 16, a ceremonial groundbreaking is planned on a second campus, which is comparable in size to the school's existing buildings. Its completion is expected in September 2002. The new high school will be adjacent to a planned 121,000-square-foot Jewish campus that is to house the region's Jewish community agencies. Henry Samueli, a co-founder of the Broadcom Corp., and his wife, Susan, purchased the land for both for $20 million last spring.
The new high school is to consist of an L-shaped classroom and administration wing that borders a courtyard and faces a separate library and multiuse building. To illustrate the founders' high ambitions for the students, an arcade is to display 18 placards, all but one portraying world leaders. The exception is a blank, intended to suggest that a Tarbut alumna may yet earn an equal distinction. Last June, the school graduated its first class of 18.
Like the original campus, the high school's construction costs, estimated between $6.2 million and $12.5 million excluding land, is not in doubt. A group of donors, including a major philanthropist who remains anonymous, footed the bill for the elementary school and has also generously agreed to underwrite the majority of the upper school's construction costs, says Edward S. Heyman, Tarbut's president-elect.
Even so, the school plans a fundraiser Feb. 2. With the proceeds, Heyman hopes to establish an endowment, which will partly be used to offset operating deficits not funded by the school's annual $7,500 per student tuition. Already, about 25 percent of the 511 students enrolled receive some financial aide. "We have to fill in the space in the most meaningful way possible," Heyman says, citing enrichment programs and curriculum development as potential uses for the endowment.
Unlike established East Coast day schools that draw students from their immediate neighborhood and are financially aligned with a denominational movement, Tarbut does neither. The school is an example of the unprecedented growth in non-Orthodox, so-called "community" schools over the last decade. Since 1992, the number of children attending full-time Jewish schools has increased 20 percent to about 200,000, according to a 1999 census conducted for the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation, which supports Jewish education in North America. By comparison, since the '60s, the number of children attending supplementary synagogue-based schools is estimated to have declined by half, to about 300,000.
"It's a very significant phenomenon," says Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership of Excellence in Jewish Education, a private Boston foundation.
In suburban regions, community high schools, to successfully attract a student body of critical mass, must welcome students across denominations, offer multiple levels of Judaic and Hebrew as well as a competitive array of advanced-placement classes.
Without the backing of a denominational-aligned university to develop curriculum and train professionals, many community schools are struggling to develop coherent classroom materials and attract staff. "There's always been a shortage of well-trained teachers," Elkin says. Now, "demand is huge. The Jewish community is running very hard to catch up."
Haas, too, believes Tarbut must broaden and deepen its curriculum with more college-prep classes to compete against the county's highly regarded public schools. To reverse a historical pattern of declining day school enrollment after middle school, though, requires a social component that goes beyond class offerings, he says. "We have to give kids the ability to meet other Jewish kids. I don't want them to feel isolated," says Haas, who has two adult children of his own. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Mission Viejo.
Heyman, Tarbut's next president, also vows to enrich the upper grade school's offerings. "It pains us to lose a mind because we haven't polished one facet of a curriculum," he says, citing students that depart Tarbut for the county's performing arts high school. "We fight each case of attrition; that's one more life tossed into the Diaspora."
Even so, he says, a school must have more than "drop dead outstanding" academics.
"How do we make it meaningful to attract and retain kids in the face of rampant assimilation?" Heyman asks. "Haas is one way of investing in that mission."
That endeavor is no less challenging than the riddle of Littleton.