It's a step toward increasing TVT's enrollment, bringing it closer to its 1,000-student capacity, up from the 585 students who now attend. More importantly, acting head of school Derek Gavshon said, the infusion of cash is intended to eliminate finances as an impediment to a Jewish education.
"Between three Jewish day schools in the county, we should be able to capture a lot more kids than we have," Gavshon said. "The main reason why we cannot is financial."
About 25 percent of the school's 377 families receive financial aid, previously capped at half of the annual tuition of $14,000 to $17,000. Gavshon hopes that removing the aid cap, as the donor requested, will help the school attract new students and provide relief for current families struggling with economic hardship.
Tuition aid of that magnitude is rare in the pricey world of Jewish day schools. Still, the gift complements TVT's mission to make Jewish education accessible to children who would otherwise have no opportunity to be attached to their religion or cultural roots.
Perched high on the hills in Irvine's sprawling Samueli Jewish Center, TVT's $18 million, 21.5-acre campus is a far cry from the converted Costa Mesa warehouse where several dozen elementary students first met in 1991. Relocating the school to its permanent site in 1998, alongside the bustling Merage JCC, the Jewish Federation and other community organizations placed it in the hub of the county's rapidly developing Jewish communal activity.
"The concept of the Samueli Jewish Center enabled a lot of Jews to come out of the woodwork," said Gavshon, a South African-trained attorney and the school's former business manager who took over as chief administrator 17 months ago. "Suddenly, they had a place go and their kids had a place to go, which heightened their awareness of their Judaism."
"With the Jewish community's focus being here, the focus is on Tarbut as well," he added.
Drawing predominantly from Irvine, Newport Coast, Tustin and Laguna Niguel, TVT attracts a diverse student population, at least half of which is unaffiliated with a synagogue or religious movement. The wide range of backgrounds, from observant to traditional to nonpracticing, can be challenging, Gavshon said, especially when it comes to tefilah (prayer), where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform practices diverge greatly. The school provides students with a range of observance options, including an Orthodox minyan with a mechitzah along with a mixed-gender service, allowing students to practice where they feel spiritually comfortable.
A staff of 131 delivers the school's project-based, hands-on curriculum, which is roughly 65 percent secular and 35 percent Judaic. Emphasis is placed on teaching by demonstration, with students actively applying their knowledge to practical situations. A nine-to-one student-teacher ratio at the elementary level and 14-to-one in the middle and upper schools creates a caring environment where teachers attend to their students' individual needs. That is a comfort to many parents turned off by the vast number of students in the public school system and the implications that has for education.
"There is a whole culture of friendliness and communication at Tarbut," said Mike Natelson, whose oldest daughter, Danielle, graduated in June 2008. "We decided on Tarbut because we had such a good feeling of caring. Danielle blossomed in kindergarten, and her first grade teacher felt like an extended member of the family working with our kid."
For Natelson, a former Los Angeles public school teacher, and his wife, who works in the Tustin Unified School District, enrolling their younger daughter, Gabrielle, now a 10-grader, in TVT's more intimate kindergarten class three years later was a no-brainer.
Middle-schoolers will be housed in their own unit this year for the first time. Administrators hope that separating the middle-school students from their older peers will allow them to explore the host of puberty-induced identity issues in a pressure-free environment.
"The learning process is different, so the school needs to be different; the layout of the class and access to teacher must be different," Gavshon said.
To encourage students to bond with teachers and each other, they spent the fall's first three days of school off-site at "middle school boot camp." Without their cell phones, PDAs and other means of contact to the outside world, students engaged in trust-building and relationship-developing exercises intended to foster camaraderie and to prevent bullying from becoming a problem during the year.
That ethos of caring is extended beyond the school's majestic Jerusalem-stone walls to the larger community. Tikkun olam -- repairing the world -- has become the fourth "R" of TVT's rigorous curriculum, as students are taught to integrate their Jewish experience into everyday living. Ideas for community service projects flow freely in a collaborative exchange between students, faculty and parents that supports student initiatives and encourages creative thinking.
As a seventh-grader, Jaclyn Singer, now a freshman at San Diego State University, started a food drive to assist Marine families at Camp Pendleton. The experience, said her mother, Jill Singer, left a lasting impact
"The event changed all of our lives," said Singer, of Laguna Hills. "Since that time, our family continues to assist Marine families through Orange County-based Moms4Marines."
"Jewish life values [and] a deep and treasured understanding of Jewish history and law have created a rich foundation for Jaclyn to live her life," she added. "She is empowered by her Judaism because she understands it and cherishes it."
"We emanate a commitment to our core values," lower school principal Jean Oleson said. "We're creating global and economic awareness and connection."
That awareness led sixth-graders to donate 2,000 books to the budget-stricken Orange County Educational Arts Academy in Santa Ana last year and to paint the school library. TVT was recently named an "O Ambassador," in a program run by Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network and Free the Children. The program promotes awareness of poverty, education and sustainable development in struggling countries and promotes fundraising programs for development projects overseas. TVT students will raise funds for an African elementary school throughout the year.
Gavshon brimmed with excitement as he showed off the school's high-tech facilities, including a TV studio, where students can learn production skills while staging a live weekly news program. The music room is home to Tarbut's very own five-student garage band as well as choral and other musical programs. The lower school is built in five self-contained "villages," complete with classrooms, teacher workrooms and an open-concept computer lab.
Last year, the school inaugurated a college-counseling center, where full-time counselors help students navigate the application process.
"We have the luxury of being able to look at each child and see what their potential is," Gavshon said. "We must tap into that and extract the fullest potential so that each student will defend Judaism, be solid in themselves and be prepared for life. The first question we ask alumni is 'Were you prepared?'"
They seem to be. The nationally recognized Blue Ribbon school boasts a college matriculation rate of more than 98 percent and SAT scores well over the national average.
"[TVT's approach] stems from an innate love and passion for children and learning," lower school principal Oleson said. "We see learning through the eyes of children and we share in the excitement of learning."