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Jewish Journal

Milken Middle School Gets New Campus

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

September 2, 2009 | 8:56 pm

A central thoroughfare lined with benches and trees connects classrooms  at new Saperstein Middle School.

A central thoroughfare lined with benches and trees connects classrooms at new Saperstein Middle School.

Students at Milken Community High School’s middle school were awarded a first-class upgrade when school opened Monday, as they left behind classrooms in trailers on rented church property and took ownership of a $30 million, high-tech, terraced hillside campus.

The new David Saperstein Middle School, attached to the Mulholland Drive high school campus and across the 405 Freeway from Stephen S. Wise Temple, its parent organization, brings the seventh- and eighth-grade facilities up to par with the high school, with a multimedia lab, a music and dance room, an art studio and a 35-foot rock-climbing wall.

Previously, the middle school was housed in trailers about a quarter of a mile up Mulholland from the main campus, and students had to be shuttled to the high school for many classes. Now, the middle school is not only self-contained, but the 30,000 square feet of learning space was designed with the students’ specific educational needs in mind.

“It’s one thing to talk about making kids architects of knowledge, getting them actively engaged in learning or giving them a hands-on experience, but when you’re in a trailer, where the doors are falling off the wall and you can’t move because the tables are so close together, it’s basically impossible,” said Sarah Shulkind, the middle school’s principal.

About 600 students, parents and dignitaries gathered in the outdoor sports court and amphitheater for an opening ceremony on Aug. 30, fanning themselves with programs in the smoky, triple-digit heat.

Jacob Dayan, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, whose children attend the school, addressed the crowd, as did Stephen S. Wise’s Rabbi Eli Herscher, the temple’s educational director Metuka Benjamin and Head of School Jason Ablin.

David Saperstein, a Bel Air billionaire who created the traffic report industry and now owns farmland, donated $12 million to the school, and he cut the symbolic ribbon with outsized scissors. Other donors hung mezuzot in classrooms around the school.

Several other private schools in Los Angeles have recently opened or are planning new middle school campuses, making Milken’s long-planned upgrade timely in its bid to be competitive with top independent schools.

This year, Jewish day schools have seen enrollment drop as the economic slump tightens its grip around families, philanthropists and institutions. Milken itself has seen a higher attrition rate between eighth and ninth grade, with families unable to afford even a fraction of the $30,000 tuition for middle school and high school. One-third more students than last year are on scholarship this year, Ablin said.

With 195 students now enrolled and room for 245, the school has ample room for growth.

Of the $30 million price tag on the new facility, only about $5 million is left outstanding, since most of the donations were made when philanthropists were still flush, Ablin said. Milken already owned the land on which the new campus was built.

The middle school was designed to feel like a village, so that students could retain a strong sense of community, Ablin said.

Clusters of one-story buildings open onto a flowing flagstone thoroughfare lined with benches and trees. A large community room, where hot lunches will be served from a full-service kitchen, has sliding doors that open to a plaza with tables. Throughout the campus, 30 sayings from Jewish texts are etched onto the walls.

The 10 classrooms were collaboratively designed by teachers, students and the Los Angeles architectural firm Harley Ellis Devereaux.

Decorated in subtle oranges and grays, classrooms are lit by floor-to-ceiling windows that bring in the feel of the surrounding foliage.

Every pair of classrooms is connected by a project room, where students can gather in smaller groups in office-like space with whiteboards, computers and work tables. Students chose the rhombus-shaped tables in all the classrooms because they can be pushed together in any number or configuration, allowing for groups of any size to work together. Students were also involved in designing the library nooks in each room, with gaming chairs and books geared toward students who are working at various paces. Each room has a Smartboard, laptop stations and laptops that students can check out, as well as 144 desktop computers in the classrooms and computer room. All the classes in the school will be digitally videotaped, both for professional development use and for downloading by students who missed class.

Shulkind and Ablin hope the new facilities will help students negotiate the physical, emotional and intellectual transition of the middle-school years. Twelve- and 13-year-olds learn to work collaboratively, think abstractly and detect nuance as they begin to discover their passions and develop a stronger sense of self, Shulkind said.

As students at the Sunday event checked out the campus, they began to lay claim to the space as their own.

“I’m really excited about all the resources and books in the beit midrash. Any Jewish questions I might have I can find in there,” said eighth-grader Eliana Wasserman.

The beit midrash, or chapel, isn’t done yet; the students are working on a glass mosaic surrounding the ark where the Torahs are held. But Wasserman was taken by it. “It’s such a beautiful space, and when I walked in there I felt totally connected to the school and to the whole idea of this community.”

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