By Kerri Weinstein
With the school year just weeks away and local parents struggling with the decision about sending their children to school or keeping them home, Hillel Academy of Broome County is gearing up to offer in-person instruction five days per week to new and returning students. Providing a quality secular and Jewish education in a safe environment – while following CDC and state social distancing guidelines – has been the greatest concern to parents and teachers.
When the shutdown occurred this past March and in-person schooling closed, the teachers of Hillel Academy were quick to switch their daily curriculum to the online virtual classroom within 48 hours of closing. Every student received a Chromebook (the youngest receiving iPads) to log onto from home and interact with their classmates while receiving live virtual instruction from their teachers. No other school in the community was able to provide a curriculum online within the same time frame as our school.
As an alumna student of Hillel Academy and a parent of a current student, it has been disheartening to see how much smaller the school has become since I attended the school from 1986-94. Back then, it had more than 100 students and ran through eighth grade. I have so many fond memories of a bustling school in the basement below Temple Israel: the dedicated teachers and a truly amazing education set me up for future educational success.
Unfortunately, as Broome County’s Jewish population has become smaller over the past few decades, the area’s only Jewish day school has seen its numbers diminish greatly. To accommodate the decreasing numbers, classes were combined and fifth grade became the final grade before graduation from Hillel Academy.
My husband Jonathan, who is also Jewish, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and never attended a Jewish day school or a Jewish summer camp like I did. Judaism was not a large part of his childhood, except for celebrating the holidays and having a bar mitzvah. When we moved back to Binghamton and had a daughter, Sloane, we were not planning on sending her to Hillel Academy. Instead, we were content with sending her to our local public elementary school. I received calls from Hillel’s board members asking me to consider sending Sloane to the school, but I was adamant that it would be easier to send her to public school and continued to decline their offers. Admittedly, I was also concerned about affording tuition, even though I was told that there was scholarship assistance should we need it and it was important to the school that every Jewish child be offered a Jewish education.
So, we went ahead and enrolled Sloane in public school for kindergarten and kept her there through first grade. I was extremely underwhelmed with how she was learning and the very large class size of 25 students. There was little time for a teacher to provide extra assistance, which resulted in us having to hire an outside tutor to keep her on track according to Common Core guidelines. We feared that we had made the wrong decision in sending her to public school and also felt we were not providing her with enough opportunities to learn about Judaism. I kept comparing her education to the one I received when I attended Hillel. I knew that when I was at the same age she was currently, I was already reading and writing Hebrew, and knowledgeable about some Jewish culture and customs. It was clear that she would never get to this point if she stayed in public school.
As if my thoughts had been heard, I received a call from a board member, Joy Yarkoni, inviting me to bring Sloane to an open house and learn more about what Hillel Academy currently had to offer. She answered all the questions I had and encouraged us to attend. Sloane was already enrolled in public school for second grade and had even received her teacher assignment. However, we decided to attend and meet some other parents, students and teachers. I distinctly remember after meeting everyone, Jonathan saying to me, “I want her to have this education. We need to enroll her.”
Within two hours, Sloane was registered for Hillel Academy and we never looked back. Stepping into the school that day and making the decision to enroll her has been life-changing for all of us. I have watched as Sloane has flourished at Hillel Academy: she truly enjoys going to school. She loves learning about and celebrating the holidays, and she was able to learn Hebrew very quickly. She receives any extra help she needs, and truly enjoys her classes and teachers. It has also brought more Judaism into our home life again.
Now that I am a board member and a grateful parent, I feel that it is more important than ever that we do everything possible to keep our school open. Given the recent pandemic and our ability to provide space according to guidelines for our students, we anticipate a full day of learning five days per week. Students and faculty will follow mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines. Our teachers and administration have been working very hard to make sure that we have ample indoor and outdoor space for our current students and any newcomers.
Hillel Academy is proud that, during such an uncertain and difficult time, we are growing and bringing new families on board. In the past, we have seen a steady decrease in student enrollment. This year, the tides have turned. We have been actively recruiting new families and have seen a lot of interest from prospective families. Currently, we expect to have about a 40 percent increase in enrollment and still be able to adhere to our safety guidelines.
Obviously, no one can predict what will happen in the fall and should COVID-19 cases spike again, Hillel Academy is prepared to go to virtual learning immediately. Teachers are able to offer Google virtual classrooms and keep our students socially and emotionally engaged. Our students and their well-being remain our highest priority, and we are proud to be able to offer them high-quality in person and virtual instruction no matter what the future brings.
Hillel Academy is still open to enrollment for the upcoming 2020-21 school year. We have been arranging in-person appointments for prospective families to meet some faculty and tour the school. Also, a socially-distanced event, “Popsicles and Tricycles,” will be held outdoors on Thursday, August 27, for current and prospective families to meet. Call 304-4544 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information or to set up an appointment. If any prospective parents would like to reach out to me personally, I can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Kerri Weinstein is an alumna of Hillel Academy and a parent of a current student.