Tehiyah Day School undertakes ambitious expansion

"It's something akin to the [movie] `Field of Dreams.' Build it and they will come," said Greg Morell, explaining how Tehiyah Day School of El Cerrito will fill its classrooms after it nearly doubles in size over the next few years.

The school kicked off a three-to-five-year expansion plan last month with a ground-breaking ceremony. The three-phase plan will increase the school's interior space by about 80 percent, from 17,500 to 31,761 square feet.

The expansion isn't much of a gamble: Students from kindergarten through eighth grade have already been coming to Tehiyah Day School in droves.

"It's too crowded," said Morell, who was elected president of the board at Tehiyah last month, and now finds himself in the midst of a construction plan the school has been developing for over a year.

The use permit at the school allows 360 students. The school already has 275 — about double what it had only five years ago.

"We try to do much too much in too little space," Morell said. "Lots of our spaces serve multiple purposes. That's hard on our teachers, it's hard on our students, it's hard on everybody."

Tehiyah purchased the 3.1 acre site from the Richmond Unified School District in 1984. The building was formerly an elementary school annex.

This summer, in the first phase of the expansion, a computer lab, science room, two classrooms and a faculty workroom will be built, with completion expected before school starts in the fall.

Phase two, slated for next year, calls for the addition of a music room, art room, entry court and auditorium. For lack of an auditorium this year, the school held its graduation ceremonies in Berkeley.

Phase three, slated to begin in the summer of 1998, will include a new library, Judaic studies room, primary-grade science room, and added space for the middle-school classes.

When construction is completed, Tehiyah will not only be larger, but look more presentable, like "its own self-contained school and not just an annex of the school down the street," said Joanne Backman, co-chair of the school's development committee with Noah Alper of Noah's Bagels.

Total cost of the project is estimated at $3.5 million. So far, the school has raised about $600,000.

A hefty contribution of $260,000 from Hope and Noah Alper greatly assisted the fund-raising effort and enabled the project to move forward, according to Debbie Sanderson, Tehiyah's outgoing board president. She has been involved in the expansion process from its inception.

"I had reached the point where I couldn't proceed without money, and I didn't know where it would come from," Sanderson said. "It saved the day."

The Alpers have two children attending the school. Their oldest son, Jesse Buckner Alper, started at Tehiyah when he was in the fourth grade. He has since graduated high school, spent a year in Israel, and is headed for Brandeis University in September.

"Kids who go to Jewish day school are more likely to be involved in Judaism as they grow up," Hope Alper said, explaining why they gave a significant donation. "We're big supporters of Jewish education for our youth."

Tehiyah Day School is actively soliciting donations from parents and grandparents of students, people in the community and foundations, according to school development director Martha Kariv.

"One of the goals of this," she said, "is to build something not only for our children, but for our children's children."