Four Questions with Dallas headmasters

Akiba Academy: Rabbi Zev Silver and Beverly Millican, co-directors of the Learning Center
Beverly Millican worked in the public school system for 27 years. She was a principal in Richardson for eight years and was curriculum director for math in Plano and Richardson ISDs for the same amount of time. She is beginning her sixth year at ­Akiba. Rabbi Zev Silver has been at Akiba for 15 years and was the Judaic studies principal for the past four years.
Q: What do you plan to focus on this year?
Silver: The focus is totally on the child and there is a tremendous respect we all have for each other. Students get Judaic and secular studies. The kids get a full perspective in all different things and that creates a synergy. The theme for this school year is truth, and it gets into a number of different areas. One area we will talk about is raising ethical children. What do we do as educators and parents to make children better people?
Q: How is enrollment different from last year?
Silver: It’s stable. We have hit our target number and it’s pretty much the same. The school has gone all out to make sure that every child who wants a Jewish education can get one. The school does a tremendous amount of work with families to make sure children can stay at our school. There are 330 students enrolled this year; about 100 of those are preschoolers. The nice part about it is that we have a very high retention rate. [Millican agreed.]
Q: What makes students at Akiba successful?
Millican: It’s about the critical thinking they are required to do. There are many ways for them to do their projects. It’s very open-ended and that’s the payoff. They spend so much time, and care about what they do. We transfer the responsibility to the
children; they become more thoughtful and think about whether something is the right thing to do. They understand that there is a bigger picture. I think that’s why we have very few discipline issues. We support the professional growth of the kids.
Q: What do you love most about your job?
Silver: This kind of Jewish school is very heterogeneous. We focus on academics. This is a unique setting … we are in growth mode and it is good to constantly be growing as educators, as students, as a school. Everything is exciting. We view our jobs as leaders of the school. It is all about the kids, and our taking the leadership of the school is giving a strong message.
Millican: I get here every day and I’m thrilled … the kids are enthusiastic, smart and dedicated to what they do and they are happy to be here. This is a happy place. There is always something going on and the kids are glad to see us. We all feed off each other and it’s a great place to learn and grow.
Akiba Academy is located at 12324 Merit Drive, Dallas. They can be reached at 214-295-3400.
Ann and Nate Levine Academy: Marion Peterson, head of school
Marion Peterson has worked in Jewish education for 20 years. During that time, she also worked in an Orthodox college prep program at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and then founded a Jewish high school in Palo Alto, Calif. Peterson is beginning her first year at Levine Academy which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this school year
Q: What is your vision for the new school year?

A: A vision for a school is a sacred component of all strategic thinking and planning — and forms the basis of all decision-making for both governance and school leadership. As a school community, we are renewing our mission for Levine Academy and developing an organizational vision that will guide us for the next four to six years. … If we could create the school of our dreams and have the impact we most desire, what would we look like? That question is answered in relation to the following stakeholders in our school: our students, our teachers and staff, our parents, and our board. For this year, I have restructured our management team into leadership teams based on academics, advancement and school operations so that we address all
of the school’s needs in the most creative way using problem-solving and ownership as key components. Additionally, fostering and crafting a culture of growth and appreciation is critical to the development of any organization, especially for a school. That is what we are focusing on this year: professional development for staff; creative programming for students … in both Jewish studies and secular studies; what we want a Levine graduate to be, know, understand and do; outreach to the community at large to recreate partnerships; and perhaps the most important goal — to celebrate the good news of the Ann and Nate Levine Academy!
Q: What new programs are you implementing for this school year?
A: In our leadership team are three outstanding professional educators: Dr. Susie Wolbe, our K-8 principal; Sheryl Feinberg, our ECC director; and Wende
Weinberg, our director of Jewish Studies. We have met numerous times over the month of July and each one has a clear focus on “cutting-edge” programming and curriculum for our students. Here’s a quick snapshot: In the K-8 division, we are implementing Challenge Success through Stanford University, and Rachel’s Challenge to provide additional support in the areas of personal growth and development. Our IT department is expanding its scope to keep us on the cutting edge of technology, and there are always the yearly enhancements to enrich our curriculum. In the ECC division, we are implementing additional Jewish studies and Hebrew language so that our youngsters increase their exposure to the Jewish traditions and holidays. In Jewish studies, we are engaging in a curriculum renewal process that will include identifying what Levine wants our students to know, understand and be able to do in Jewish history, Tanach and Talmud.
Q: How has enrollment changed from last year to this year? What keeps it thriving and what can you do to increase enrollment?
A: Enrollment is stable for Levine Academy. Yes, for all independent schools, Jewish and non-Jewish in the area, enrollment is always a challenge, but Levine Academy is a recognized institution of learning.… Our families return and our new families join us recognizing the excellence of the education process … and the gentle warmth of love that each teacher provides for each student.
Q: What makes students at Levine Academy successful?
A: The focus on leadership and character development, as well as academic excellence, speaks for itself when you see our graduates. Our children are not perfect just because they attend a Jewish day school. They are your normal, typical children who make the normal, typical mistakes as do other children their same age. The difference comes in how we, as a school, deal with those mistakes. Our typical graduates are leaders in their high schools, service organizations, the arts, athletics, student publications … simply everywhere you look. I challenge anyone to find a more accomplished group of students anywhere. I do not believe they exist. Our school enables our graduates to reach their fullest potential. For that, we are very proud.
Levine Academy is located at 18011 Hillcrest Road, Dallas. They can be reached at 972-248-3032.
Yavneh Academy: Don O’Quinn, head of school
Don O’Quinn came to Yavneh Academy 12 years ago. Before becoming head of school, he was a substitute physics teacher and acted as headmaster before assuming the role full-time. Yavneh Academy opened in 1993 and has 115 students enrolled for the 2009–10 school year.
Q: What new programs are being implemented this year?
A: We are modernizing our library by bringing in databases to model the library after St. Mark’s. There will be an ongoing research program in the library; Yavneh and Akiba are going to be collaborating with new software; there will be changes to the physics program; creative writing will be open to all grade levels; we will continue media production, which started last spring; and we plan to start collaborating with Yeshiva University for a teaching intern program. We want to move into the 21st century electronically, which will enable us to be more individualized …we hope the use of electronics will enhance learning.
Q: How has enrollment changed?
A: It has stayed stable. We had 116 students last year and have 115 enrolled so far this year. Our goal is to have 25 freshmen at the beginning of the year and we have 24 right now. We also offer tuition assistance. Yavneh gives kids the opportunity to get a solid Jewish education and study those things you credit to the Jewish culture, and at the same time prepare for a competitive university. Do everything for Jewish holidays … and celebrate Jewishness and the greatness of the Jewish faith. We are the only place in town that does that that is still college preparatory.
Q: How do you give students an all-encompassing education?
A: We keep kids busy. The school day starts at 8 a.m. with prayers and ends at 4:50 p.m. with prayers. Extracurricular activities are outside the school day. Every student has a language requirement and we offer Hebrew, Spanish and French. They also have three strands of Jewish studies. The second half of the school day is devoted to secular subjects. We have a heavy requirement in community service where students need to complete 130 hours. We get them involved in the community. What you produce with that kind of regime is a student who understands that they have to have a disciplined approach to what they are doing and get their responsibilities taken care of.

Q: What do you credit students’ academic success to?
A: Students are responsive to their learning needs. We tell every kid that a child is a gift from G-d. “G-d has a purpose for you and has given you the ability to achieve that purpose; it’s your job to discover those talents on your own. Yavneh’s job is to let you explore what your talents are going to be and to take you from childhood to adulthood.” There is a philosophy here that you have to develop the whole child. That means you help them discover what they are good at and make them comfortable in asking for help. They have a willingness to try new things. Most satisfying is watching the maturation, seeing them start in ninth grade and go forward to the future. They become young adults who are ready to move on.
Yavneh Academy is located at 12324 Merit Drive, Dallas. They can be reached at 214-295-3500.
Mesorah High School for Girls: Rabbi Avraham Zev Kosowsky, headmaster
After teaching for nine years at Akiba, Rabbi Avraham Zev Kosowsky accepted the headmaster position at Mesorah, where he is entering his seventh year. Forty girls are enrolled for this school year.
Q: What makes Mesorah High School unique?
A: Mesorah is the only Orthodox girls’ high school in Dallas. Our focus is on developing young Jewish women who appreciate their purpose in the world in every aspect of their lives. We encourage them to develop both spiritually and intellectually and show them how the two can be intertwined in careers, in family life and in their role in society.
Q: What is your vision for the new school year?
A: To integrate our academic, religious and extracurricular programs to maximize our students’ love of Yiddishkeit, thus strengthening their ability to combat the challenges facing teens today.
Q: What makes students at Mesorah successful?

A: Each staff member takes a vested interest in each student. The girls are invited to their homes on a regular basis for Shabbos meals, holiday-related activities or just to shmooze. Each student feels cared about and the staff is always available to lend an ear or a hand.

Q: How does it make you feel to know that you make an impact on students every day?
A: It is truly a team effort. I feel honored to be working with a team that is so dedicated and committed to helping each girl reach the end of her high school years a better person, ready to face whatever comes her way with confidence in who she is.
Mesorah High School is located at 12712 Park Central Drive, Suite B-190, Dallas. They can be reached at 214-490-1990.
Torah Day School of Dallas: Rabbi Yerachmiel Udman, headmaster
Rabbi Yerachmiel Udman is the founding headmaster of Torah Day School and is beginning his seventh year in that role. Before that, he taught at Akiba for 12 years. Rabbi Udman said Torah Day School was created to fill a void in the community and grew out of a desire for a different type of education — single-sex classes. Torah Day School currently has 303 students from 2-year-olds through eighth-graders.
Q: What is your vision for the new school year?
A: Our plan is to continue a lot of our wonderful things, and our goal is to maintain the programs we already have. One thing that’s exciting is that cooperative things have happened in the community between all of the day schools. We are happy to continue the teaching intern program where we bring in two girls who have finished teaching in Israel. We also plan to maintain our positive atmosphere toward Judaism, where children can learn and grow and become part of the school, community and Jewish people.
Q: How has enrollment changed from last year to this year?
A: Enrollment is similar. Overall, we have about 10 more students than last year. Our parents are committed to Jewish education and we want to work with families who are having trouble in this economy.
Q: How do you combine Jewish studies, secular studies and extracurricular activities?
A: We have high academic standards and have teachers who are sensitive to different needs. Students are given the opportunity to work at a level that’s challenging, but not frustrating. With the dual curriculum of Judaism and secular subjects, they are learning Hebrew texts and challenged to express themselves in Hebrew. Students here read Torah in third or fourth grade, and you don’t usually have that
kind of experience until you start reading Shakespeare. Don’t be scared by the price tag — we don’t want to sacrifice education. We have an intramural basketball program for fifth- and sixth-grade boys and a team for seventh- and eighth-graders. We offer a basketball league for girls and an optional Sunday learning program for fifth- to eighth-grade boys.

Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: I love children and am the father of 12. I love the excitement of seeing children grow. I have a great staff, and am very fortunate to have a job I really love that matches my own personality. I enjoy that my influence is exponentially compounded. If I can keep the teachers motivated, that impacts 300 children. I love that Dallas is at the forefront of Jewish education. Day schools are in, and I’m glad that people are not sacrificing the quality of education.
Torah Day School is located at 6921 Frankford Road, Dallas. They can be reached at 972-964-0090.
Texas Torah Institute: Rabbi Shlomo Pacht, head of school
Rabbi Shlomo Pacht earned a master’s degree in educational administration while pursuing his advanced smicha (Rabbinic Ordination). His advanced Judaic studies were done at the Rabbinical Seminary of America (commonly referred to as Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, after the renowned uncle of its founder). Rabbi Pacht moved to Dallas from New York in 1993. Texas Torah Institute (TTI) is a yeshiva high school and beit midrash program for boys.
Q: What new programs are you implementing for this school year?
A: We’re expanding and improving many of the programs already in place. We’ve had college courses available for advanced seniors; we’d like to increase the offerings and broaden that program. At the same time we’re offering an advanced Judaic track for seniors who want extra Torah study and can handle that level. We’ve brought in Rabbi Moshe Tropper to join our staff. He will be teaching some of those higher-level Judaic courses plus taking on some of the administrative responsibilities that grow as our school expands. We’ve hired three new secular studies teachers…. Our teachers meet at the end of each school year to evaluate the year’s performance, and again before the beginning of each year to work out an “improvement plan” to make sure we continue to grow in every way possible. We received the highest possible ratings and a strong commendation when our school was evaluated last year by SACS, the largest accrediting agency of private schools in the country. The list of schools accredited by SACS is a who’s who of educational excellence, and we were proud to join their ranks.
Q: How has enrollment changed, what keeps it thriving and what can you do to increase enrollment? How many students are currently enrolled at TTI?
A: We opened in fall 2003 with eight boys. Not only has our enrollment grown significantly every year since then, but the number by which it increased has gone up every single year. We are currently slated to open, with G-d’s help, on Aug. 31 with 47 boys in the high school and 23 boys in the post-high-school beit midrash program. There are about 10 more applicants who would like to come, but whom we cannot consider at this time because we don’t yet have the facilities to accommodate them. We have done almost no advertising in the last two years and yet have seen a staggering increase in applications from across the U.S. and as far away as Canada and Mexico. When you stick to the basics and make sure to stay focused on the primary objective — well-rounded, well-educated young men — the results speak for themselves. I think that when we came there was less awareness of what a yeshiva is, and people were skeptical of what sounded like an outdated, closed-minded approach. Now, people are seeing the results of those early years, and are beginning to appreciate the incomparable value of a firm grounding in our heritage — for education and for life. This is the only institution of its kind in the state (and in the Southwest) and people want the opportunity we offer. We have boys from Houston and San Antonio and have gotten calls from Austin as well. Not only have we brought Dallas into the limelight of Texas, but even in the broader yeshiva world we’ve established a reputation of excellence,
and the Dallas Jewish community has gained a lot of positive publicity.
Q: How is Texas Torah Institute unique?
A: As much as we try to innovate and remain current with educational resources and social currents, the core of our program is deeply rooted in traditional Torah education. Judaism is different from any other religion in that it contains within it the guidelines for application and adaptation to all circumstances, all situations. When Hashem gave us the Torah at Sinai, he also taught us how to safeguard it, how to teach it and how to preserve it for future generations. Torah is the key to successful Jewish life in Dallas, Texas, just as it was the key to the success of our ancestors over 3,300 years ago … we use Torah as a basis and guide for all our educational programs and philosophies. We use the same Torah texts and same delivery methods for those lessons which we received from our mentors, and they from theirs. At the same time, we know our boys will need to function in contemporary society, and need a solid secular education as well. We apply the same work ethic and moral code to our pursuit of these subjects as we do to everything else.

Q: Why do you think is it important for students to get a Jewish day school education?
A: Staying so firmly rooted in the past is what enables us to constantly adapt and innovate for the present. I found personally that my background in Torah education, perhaps more than anything else, enabled me to succeed in a challenging graduate program, and gave me the tools for success as a husband, a father and a member of society. Also, by establishing a clear understanding of G-d’s creation and our role in it, we’re able to provide stability, meaning and perspective which our children so desperately need, as the world becomes more complicated and confusing.
Texas Torah Institute is located at 17738 Davenport Road, Dallas. They can be reached at 972-250-4888.

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