Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills and Heschel West in Agoura will open the new Kadima Heschel West Middle School with 150 students in September 2007 on Kadima's Evenhaim Family Campus.
"I think this is one of the most visionary and strategic community events that has happened in a long time," said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School, which features many Kadima and Heschel West graduates. "Sometimes we adults get so caught up in our own ego needs and institutional needs we forget that our first order of business is to serve our children."
By pooling resources and combining two small programs into a larger school, administrators say they can enrich academic offerings and give students more social opportunities.
Both Heschel West and Kadima have experienced sustained growth in the last few years, and this marriage is not a result of either school being weak or needing help, administrators say.
The idea took form after Kadima and Heschel West lay leaders began to meet to compare notes on budgetary and governance issues, and at one Starbucks meeting last year they tossed around the idea of a joint middle school dance.
While the dance never happened, it eventually lead to the idea of a full middle school merger -- an idea professional and lay leaders quickly jumped on and brought to fruition within just a few months.
"What this is really about is two institutions pulling themselves together and saying what is the best thing to do for our communities, and let's erase superficial differences and see if we can build something that is far better than what we can do by ourselves," said Barbara Gereboff, Kadima's head of school.
Renewed attention has recently focused on the challenge of how best to educate 11- to 14-year-olds -- ages when children's bodies, emotions and intellect undergo more changes than at any other time other than the first three years of life.
Recent research has shown national standardized test scores plummeting between fifth grade and eighth grade.
In Los Angeles, Superintendent David Brewer has set up a task force to look at the question of the middle school years. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has begun to dismantle middle schools, reintegrating them into a K-8 format or grades 6-12 schools.
Jewish day schools have traditionally been set up as K-8 schools, but with smaller student populations than public schools, which could mean that an eighth-grader might be with the same 20 to 30 kids for 10 years.
"The right thing for the children is that they leave the nest of elementary school and go into a larger pool of students that is a more diverse population, where they can develop their own Jewish identity and their own understanding of the way their world works," said Rabbi Yuri Hronsky, Heschel West's middle school director, who will become the principal of the joint middle school.
He will be supervised by Kadima's Gereboff, and Jan Saltsman, Heschel West's head of school.
The schools unveiled the plan to parents, staff and students in mid-December, days after the boards approved the merger and after just a few months of negotiating between the executive committees of both schools' boards. Administrators say no teacher jobs will be cut.
"I am absolutely thrilled," said Mira Winograd, mother of Kadima seventh-grader Darren and fourth-grader Toby. "We were told about this at an assembly, and every single question I thought of asking was answered in a way that left me extremely comfortable. I didn't hear one negative remark from anyone I was sitting with."
Kids wanted to know what the new school would be called, what the new mascot and team colors would be and whether they would have lockers and hot lunches.
"For a while we've had under 30 kids and only one or two classes," said seventh-grader Brian Hertz, who has been at Kadima since kindergarten. "Now with more people we'll have more friends and their will be more people in our classes. It just feels like everything is going to be better."
Hronsky, Gereboff and Saltsman have been working closely to craft the new program.
"The first thing we had to do was break down these perceptions of our differences and determine how we are alike," Saltsman said.
One of those perceptions had to with religiosity. Kadima is a Solomon Schechter school affiliated with the Conservative movement, while Heschel West is an independent community school, dedicated to pluralism. (The joint school will not be affiliated with any movement.)
But it soon became clear that the schools had the same policies regarding Shabbat, kashrut and kippahs, and that they spend the same number of hours per week in prayer. The "academic" versus "developmental" labels also proved to be specious.
"Sitting across the table from Kadima was more about brainstorming than negotiating," said Roger Bloxberg, Heschel West's president. "It was like looking in the mirror."
Kadima Heschel West Middle School will operate as an independent entity with its own board, staff, budget and bank account. A bus will run from Heschel West to Kadima, about 7 miles east.
The move solves a growing space problem for Heschel West. Founded 13 years ago, Heschel West has rented a campus since 1997 just off the 101 at Liberty Canyon. Heschel West opened its middle school two years ago, and has grown from 140 students in 2002 to 260 today.
Heschel West is planning to build a 750-student facility, which would eventually also house the joint middle school on 72 acres of land it purchased in 1997 near Agoura Hills in unincorporated Los Angeles County. In 2005, the county approved the project, but the Agoura Hills City Council is appealing that approval.
School officials are confident they will be able to move forward with the building, but in the meantime the joint middle school will be housed on Kadima's West Hills campus, a four-acre site it purchased three years ago after renting for the previous 34 years of its existence.
Kadima has grown from 180 students a few years ago to 260 today, thanks, in part, to the founding of a new early childhood center.
The school is now using only one floor of three available, and over the summer is renovating the other two floors. The middle-school wing will be fitted with science labs, art rooms and wired classrooms.
The middle school will pay rent to Kadima, and then to Heschel West when it moves to Agoura.
Shawn Evenhaim, who was one of the leaders to originate the merger idea, is not worried that shrinking both Heschel West and Kadima by three grades will harm the schools' financial status. He believes both schools are on a path of growth.
"We think that by the time Heschel West has its new campus, Kadima will be at the point that it can support itself with early childhood through fifth grade," Evenhaim said. "If you look at every successful organization, they took risks. We really feel this is a risk we should take because it will make us stronger and it's better for the children and the community."
For more information, visit www.kadimaacademy.org or www.heschelwest.com.