Tehiyah head of school steps down after seven years

The head of school at Tehiyah Day School has stepped down, the El Cerrito school announced recently, noting that Bathea James will be replaced by interim director Mollie Aczel.

Bathea James

“Bathea contributed greatly to the success of Tehiyah,” said Allen King, president of the board for the K-8 Jewish day school. “She has, through the years, demonstrated a heartfelt commitment to Jewish education and to our students in particular.”

James’ resignation, which became effective at the end of the 2013-14 academic year, was announced June 27. Aczel will stand in until a permanent head of school is found.

While James refused to cite the reasons for her resignation, she said there were issues at the beginning of her tenure, although they had long been resolved. When she was hired in 2007, the South African native said there was a clash about the role Israel would play in the school’s curriculum.

“Initially, it was an issue,” James said by phone this week from Hawaii, where she was vacationing. “Israel was a fairly contentious issue, but there was a complete cultural change in the acceptance of Israel as being an important part of the curriculum.”

James worked to change the school’s mission statement and its curriculum. “It was open, honest and we had very little issues with Israel after that,” she said.

Mollie Aczel

“We did a lot of activism with Rabbi Tsipi Gabai to change people’s perception of Israel,” she added, referring to the school’s head of Hebrew and Judaic studies. “For that reason, we saw a shift in the community perception.”

In 2008, James initiated Tehiyah’s first school trip to Israel. In 2012, the school received a prestigious national award from the U.S. Department of Education. Earlier this year, Tehiyah received a Congressional award from Rep. George Miller (D-Contra Costa County).

However, like other Jewish day schools, Tehiyah is dealing with declining enrollment, staff turnover and budget issues. The school had 28 eighth-grade graduates in 2011, but only nine in 2014. The class of 2015 has 25 students, a school official said.

Overall, enrollment has fluctuated. According to James, it was 270 when she started in 2007-08, dropped to 230 the next year, but was at 253 for the 2013-14 school year.

“Many of the challenges [we are facing] are those that many day schools nationwide are dealing with,” said Eve Maidenberg, a member of Tehiyah’s board. “That led us to discussing transitions with Bathea. We had many discussions and came to a place where we agreed it was best to separate sooner rather than later.”

Aczel has worked in a similar capacity previously. In addition to being the founding head of school at the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, a K-8 Jewish school in Atlanta, she also has served as interim head of school at Jewish day schools in California and Florida.

“She has an outstanding reputation,” Maidenberg said.

To help it search for a new head of school, the board has enlisted the help of an outside strategic firm to conduct surveys with parents and the community. “We’re talking to a lot of different people to fully understand the strengths and challenges we have,” Maidenberg said.

James, 60, who came to Tehiyah after being head of school at the Tucson Hebrew Academy in Arizona, doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but said she plans to stay in the Bay Area, where her family and grandchildren reside.