Superfund helps local school open doors

A new high-powered philanthropy has given the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School of Palo Alto a major grant to help build a bigger elementary school and open a middle school.

The nondenominational kindergarten to fifth-grade campus is one of four schools from around the country to receive a $100,000 grant from the newly formed organization, the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

The grants come with the promise of larger awards paid over five years as part of the partnership's $18 million package designed to open 25 new day schools across the United States.

The Mid-Peninsula school had learned of the grant opportunity months ago and applied for the funds. After an evaluation, it was selected for its excellence and innovative teaching techniques.

Such techniques include a shift from lecture-led teaching to group discussion and activities, as well as independent activities that require more initiative from the students to seek knowledge on their own. The practice, among educators called constructivism, develops habits that lead to lifelong learning, its proponents say.

"Many day schools have traditional pedagogic views. At our school, the desks don't all face front and the kids are busy," said school board member Estee Solomon Gray.

One indication of the school's high caliber is that all general studies teachers and many of those who teach Jewish subjects hold California credentials. That is unusual for day schools, according to director Gerry Elgarten.

The school's expansion into new space and upper grades has widespread appeal for many Palo Alto-area families who want to combine Jewish learning and a quality general education.

"A lot of parents are realizing that a bar and bat mitzvah is not enough" to cement a lifelong Jewish identity, according to Gray.

"They're looking at the need [for a grades six to eight school] and think, `My God, this may be the last thing my kids do Jewishly."

Some of the biggest names in Jewish philanthropy — including Jim Joseph, chief executive officer of Interland Corp. in San Mateo — agree. Twelve of them formed the Partnership for Excellence in an effort to thwart rising assimilation rates by promoting Jewish education.

Joseph, who is now based in Florida, where his family foundation also invests in day-school curriculum development, said the Partnership for Excellence is not seeking to identify communities where it can start day schools but rather to aid communities who express the need.

"It takes concerned parents to start day schools; not philanthropists," he said.

Jewish day-school education is widely seen as the most effective antidote to assimilation, but relatively few Jews have such schools in their communities. And many of those who do cannot afford tuition and fees that in some cases exceed $10,000 a year.

Recent shifts in Jewish geography, like the growth of Jewish populations in some Southern and Western towns, along with a growing embrace of day-school education as a priority for non-Orthodox Jews, have created a need for Jewish schools where none existed before.

In Palo Alto, assimilation is just one of several concerns facing the Jewish community and the Mid-Peninsula school, Gray said.

The Jewish population has surged in recent years, and the popularity of the school has grown proportionately. Enrollment, as a result, has reached the limits of what can be accommodated at its home in the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center.

"There were 109 students when I first came to the school three years ago," said Elgarten. "Now there are 153," and applications are still coming in.

Elgarten also must turn away families who would like their graduating fifth-graders to remain at the school during their middle-school years.

Alternatives in the region — public schools, nonsectarian private schools with highly competitive admissions boards, and one Orthodox middle school — are inappropriate substitutes for the Mid-Peninsula school community, Gray added.

While Mid-Peninsula parents could provide their kids with a Jewish education at an Orthodox school, Gray explained that most would not want their child schooled with strict distinctions between the roles of girls and boys.

Orthodox teachers also tend to teach in more traditional formats, do not include non-Orthodox Jewish perspectives and, Gray added, "the headmaster often is a rabbi, not an educator. None of those things make sense to me or my community."

Lacking what they considered suitable alternatives, parents and school board members decided to start an $11 million capital campaign to build a bigger campus for the grade school and to open a middle school in the current grade-school location.

Groundbreaking for the elementary school will take place on a newly purchased lot close to the ALJCC in June 1998, and both schools will begin instruction in fall 1999, Gray said.

The Partnership for Excellence grant will pay for the hiring of a middle-school director a year ahead of schedule, and will fund a high-powered task force of Jewish educators from around the country to plan operation and curriculum for Mid-Peninsula's new schools, she said.

Michael Steinhardt, founder and chairman of the Partnership in Excellence's board of directors, said the group is committed to helping nondenominational Jewish day schools as well as those affiliated with particular movements.

Steinhardt, who retired from his career as an investment fund manager to develop new ways to attract people to Jewish life, also recently founded Kol Israel Chaverim: The Jewish Life Network, a Manhattan-based foundation funding other projects.

"We have experienced a substantial drop in Jewish knowledge," Steinhardt said. "The goal of [the Partnership] is to try and change that, to begin helping people understand what being Jewish means so that they can make knowledgeable choices."

Rather than fund Jewish high schools, which many experts on Jewish education say are in short supply, the Partnership for Excellence has decided to focus on the creation of elementary schools and the extension of some of those schools into the middle-school grades.

While the full 25-school program won't be launched until September 1998, the four pilot grants of $100,000 were awarded to jumpstart the program.

The partnership comes on the heels of the formation of the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, a grassroots group of Jewish day- and high-school leaders that is urging Jewish charities and wealthy individuals to concentrate their efforts on making day-school tuition affordable.

While that group's founder, Chicago real estate developer George Hanus, has been focusing his work on the need to rescue Jewish schools already in business and struggling to stay open, he welcomed the new partnership.

"We are here to help all factions that want to get more kids into day school. Our movement can be allied with the partnership," he said, "to create a groundswell across the country."

Each of the 12 high-profile participants in the Partnership for Excellence has committed $1.5 million — $300,000 for each of five years.

Others joining in the partnership include:

*Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the Seagram Corp.

* Charles Bronfman, his brother and president of the CRB Foundation, which sends American Jewish teens to Israel.

*UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, which has funded the creation of half a dozen new day schools and also provides $3.3 million a year to other day-school-related support through its Continuity Commission and other channels.

Each new school that receives a grant will receive an average of $300,000 over five years, according to Rabbi Joshua Elkin, director of the partnership. Each school will have to raise at least as much money from non-tuition sources to match the partnership grants, he said.

A secondary project of the new partnership is to establish a database of top-level educational consultants and technical assistants available to aid any Jewish day school as it develops staff and administration, plans its curriculum and deals with a host of other issues.

The partnership, said several of those involved, is an experiment both in Jewish education and in models of philanthropy.

"We believe that this can test and demonstrate the possibilities for rich collaboration among philanthropists," said John Ruskay, chief operating officer of UJA-Federation of New York.

"I don't know if it is the best answer," Charles Bronfman said. "It is an answer, one idea.

"On-the-job research will be important. Let's see what happens 20 years from now — will these kids be Jewish?

"This is an experiment, and what one does with an experiment is watch it," Bronfman said. "Let's see how it works."