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Jewish Journal

Beyond Day School

Jewish high schools are a response to a growing demand among the non-Orthodox.

by Diane Arieff

November 8, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Put off by the embattled public school system and intrigued by a combined secular-Jewish program, parents with very young children are opting for private Jewish schools in increasing numbers. This is no longer news. While the majority of non-Orthodox kids still receive their Jewish education "after school," it's a well-documented fact that the Jewish community has undergone a day school boom. And, it's not just in large cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Houston, but in Jewish communities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, Miami and even Orange County.

Now the proliferation of day schools has sparked a boomlet of its own: Jewish middle and upper schools. One by one, private schools ranging from grades seven through 12 are appearing on the landscape, promising meaningful Jewish adolescent life after bar mitzvah, along with the usual fare of Advanced Placement courses, yearbook and varsity teams. Establishing a school from scratch is an ambitious undertaking, and non-Orthodox Jewish high schools remain only a small piece of the overall demographic picture. Still, it's a significant and influential trend, indicating that these days, if you build it, they will come.

In 1946, when today's oldest day school parents heralded the beginning of the baby boom, there was a total of six non-Orthodox Jewish high schools in the entire United States. By the mid-1950s, there were 11 more, bringing the national total to 17. Four years from now, that number will have already doubled.

California alone is a case in point. In Palo Alto -- where schools are considered top-notch, where homes are pricey, high-tech careers are common, and recently, a group of parents at the local Jordan Middle School were told to purchase each of their sixth-graders a $2,000 personal laptop -- there is still a clamoring for upper-grade Jewish alternatives to public school. A new Jewish high school named Kehillah is set to open in September 2002, promising a "world-class" education for students in the Peninsula and Bay areas. The "Jewish Community High School of the Bay," will also open its doors to Jewish high schoolers in the fall of 2002, having secured a temporary site in the upscale Tiburon area of Marin County.

Closer to home, the critical mass of students who complete elementary school at places like Sinai Akiba Academy, Adat Ari El Day School, Valley Beth Shalom, Pressman Academy and a host of others are now finding there are choices beyond local magnets or private secular schools. Already, this month, families with day school kids slated to enter seventh grade next fall have begun a round of open-house visits, applications, "parent coffees" and interviews as they shop the private education market at Jewish schools like Milken, Shalhevet, and an array of elite, secular private schools.

It's a process that could be described as a combination of anticipation, anxiety and sticker shock. Abraham Joshua Heschel in Northridge continues to easily fill its seventh- and eighth- grade classrooms. Shalhevet High School is arguably part of the same boomlet. While its philosophy is Modern Orthodox, Shalhevet has attracted its share of the local, non-Orthodox student pool that the day school explosion has created.

Milken High School is now a force to be reckoned with, drawing kids from both the city and the San Fernando Valley. Milken educates more than 800 students in its sprawling mountaintop complex in the Sepulveda Pass. Its own middle-school students, along with graduates from neighboring day schools, easily fill the classrooms in an increasingly competitive admissions process. Local educators say the school is receiving approximately 400 applications for every 175 spaces available.

Clearly, Jewish secondary education has arrived. The demand alone, many say, is sufficient impetus for another Jewish high school to open its doors. The New Community Jewish High School is poised to expand on that trend. Head of School Bruce Powell has received, he said, "wonderful support" and assistance from Milken and Stephen S. Wise Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin. "My hope," Powell told The Journal, "is that once our new school is filled to capacity, another will open up. Leaders in our community will recognize the need. I believe many of those leaders will be the graduates of our own Jewish high schools."

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