By Duncan Gilman
“We took the building down to the studs,” explains Marci Frenkel as she leads me through the hallways of the Weinreb Family Early Childhood Center and Beck Lower School at Ann and Nate Levine Academy in North Dallas. Frenkel is co-chair of the school’s capital campaign and building renovation committees, which means she has already led many tours through the in-progress construction and will lead countless more before its completion later this month. But it’s her role as a Levine parent that makes her guided exploration through unfinished classrooms and under exposed ceilings such a treat for me. As the expectant dad of a future Levine student, I’m getting the kind of tour not many parents get.
We both strap on safety glasses and hard hats, and as we make our way through the construction zone, Frenkel fills me in on some of the work that went into this major overhaul before they even broke ground. “We have incredible lay leadership. It’s been a true team effort.”
Levine Academy, the Dallas area’s only conservative Jewish private school, celebrated its 30th year in 2009. Though the middle school was newly built in 2001, the ECC and Beck Lower School have been showing their age for a number of years. To create a 21st century learning environment, Levine Academy is undertaking a total renovation. Most of the effort is concentrated in the Weinreb Family Early Childhood Center and Beck Lower School, but the Middle School wing, which houses fifth through eighth grade, is also getting touched up with a fresh look.
The changes help to further Levine’s commitment to add new dimensions to the learning process and new ways of weaving together Jewish and secular studies. Sheryl Feinberg, director of the ECC, explains that the “plan is to provide a multisensory approach both indoors and outdoors.” Two highlights of the pre-K wing additions include an indoor Discovery Center for science and technology projects, and two outdoor classrooms, one for nature, art and science, and one for music. “We have a generation of children who have become disconnected with nature,” says Feinberg.
As Frenkel leads me through the different grade areas, it’s clear that addressing the experiential needs of the youngest learners is a top priority. In fact, one of the most impressive areas is a space that will be called “Beit Am” (House of the People). It’s a multipurpose room that features almost 2,000 square feet for prayer, music, dance and programming, as well as two glass garage doors that open up onto the outdoor classrooms and brand new playground. Walking through the unfinished Beit Am, I get the feeling that this combination indoor/outdoor center will see plenty of use by multiple grades and classes.
The new ECC library and home science area are equally impressive, but it’s not just incoming preschoolers who will benefit from the renovations. As Frenkel puts it, “no space has been untouched,” which is evident as we step into several Beck Lower School classrooms. Each of these classrooms has been expanded and is now probably the size of the entire school when it opened onsite at Congregation Shearith Israel in September of 1979. According to Levine’s K-8 principal, Kathleen Swafford, these are some of the largest classrooms in Dallas.
“Our new Beck Lower School classrooms will transform the ways in which we teach and learn,” Swafford said. “The spacious and inviting environment supports collaborative and independent discovery, integrating technology and lively learning stations. Our new 21st century furniture is designed specifically for small group, large group and one-on-one instruction. The students will experience project-based learning, integrating the disciplines and affording our students the foundation for acquiring new knowledge.”
In addition, the middle school will benefit from classroom technology upgrades, aesthetic updates and a new main entrance and reception office to provide better security and a better visitor experience. Head of School Mark Stolovitsky said, “The building will now reflect the superb education that is the cornerstone of our school, which prepares our students academically, emotionally and spiritually to be active learners and leaders.”
Luckily, the current 10.5-acre campus, just south of the Plano border, has room to grow because the new construction that touches every part of the building in some capacity is just one phase of an ambitious capital campaign, whose chairs include Frenkel and Board President Chuck Butler.
“When you’re doing a renovation project,” Butler said, “it makes sense to combine those efforts. We’re fortunate that we have great parents and community members who have gotten behind it and driven it.” In addition to the facility and program enhancements, the campaign will create a permanent endowment designed to continue to attract high quality educators, invest in academic resources and ensure long-term viability of the school. “The endowment not only puts the school in a position of financial security, it allows us to increase programing without increasing tuition,” Butler added.
As a future Levine parent myself, it’s the long-term viability that resonates most with me. The attention to things like sustainability, community impact and ADA compliance will set Levine apart just as much as the SMART Boards and campus-wide Wi-Fi. And the $2 million endowment will allow for maintenance of the new space as well as the necessary financial assistance for students at all economic levels to benefit from it.
Throughout our tour, even Frenkel herself was in awe over how much had changed from just a few hours earlier. The plan, a project of Entos Design’s Barry Maners, will be complete by the time teachers return on Aug, 14. The aggressive schedule for Joe Funk Construction means that 80 to 100 workers are on site during a typical day, and areas of the school can undergo radical changes between morning and evening.
Despite the physical updates, Levine Academy’s educational philosophy is based on a deeply rooted belief that quality secular studies and quality Jewish studies don’t have to be mutually exclusive. That’s something that hasn’t changed since the beginning. As a native Dallasite, I still remember 25 years ago riding along with my mom to pick up my younger brother from what was then Solomon Schechter Academy. It’s hard to believe I’ll be going through that same carpool line to pick up my own kid in a couple of years. Maybe she’ll even take me on a tour.
This article was submitted by Levine Academy.