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Growing Hillel Academy defies recession

Teacher Gloria Crystal uses Emma Aleph the hand puppet to help her  kindergarten students learn the Hebrew alphabet.THESE are happy days at Hillel Academy.

Despite the recession, Denver’s oldest day school is dealing realistically with the school’s finances, and is able to forge ahead.

Part of the good news is that enrollment at Hillel is 239, up 27% from 186 in 2005, when Rabbi Yitzchok Goldstein became principal. (He has taught at the school since 1999.)

Mordechai Hoffman became executive director in summer of 2007. Before Hoffman was hired, Hillel Academy was broken — and broke.

The school was in crisis mode, governed by a weary, and sometimes divided, board of directors which basically applied financial band-aids to keep the school open.


Inspired by Hillel Academy’s legacy and the potential to reclaim its greatness, a new crop of parent leaders decided to become involved. A new, leaner board of directors — only 11 members, led by Lazar Muller, board chair — commissioned a consultant to help restructure the school’s lay and professional administration.

The board hired Hoffman as executive director, who brought a business background, coupled with his experience as director of operations at Aish Denver.

“The parents wanted out of the crisis mode,” Hoffman explains. “The board recognized that the administration needed to be empowered to run the school, that the administration needed to be more board-directed and less board-managed.”

The new board also set up active committees “to help set up structures and systems so the administration could run the school on a day-to-day basis.”

Since 2007, Hillel Academy has paid off $350,000 in debts, and “expenses are much more carefully managed; cash flow is monitored and we now plan for the heights and troughs.”

Cash flow improved in part because tuition income has grown by 50%. Also, Hillel Academy bought and sold an investment property “as a way to limit the financial burden on the community,” said Hoffman.

“Without these changes Hillel would not have survived the current economic downturn.”

THE purpose of getting Hillel’s financial house in order has been to enable the school’s educational professionals to service the students and community.

Principal Rabbi Goldstein heads a faculty of 35. “We always had great teachers; now we have a great school,” he says of the turnaround.

He partially attributes the growth to students staying at Hillel Academy through eighth grade — a nod to its academic standards, and the fact that families are less transient. They stay in Denver longer.

He also credits outreach programs such as The Jewish Experience, Aish Denver and the Denver Community Kollel with bringing more families into traditional Jewish education for their children.

“Our school is able to meet the needs of a broadening Hillel community,” says Rabbi Goldstein. It used to be assumed that the typical Hillel Academy student lived on Denver’s West Side or that his or her father was a rabbi.

“That’s becoming less and less the case.” Actually, students from the East Side outnumber those from the West Side, and about a quarter of the student body comes from the Southeast.

The diversity in the student body profile has reinforced Rabbi Goldstein’s philosophy of educating and serving “the whole child.”“We strive to understand each child well and provide for his or her needs and where the family is,” religious and socially.

“We have a broader breadth of parents now, so we are having more social events for the parents so they can get to know each other.”

“The kids are really excited about what they’re learning. That’s the passion we want to see, starting with the teachers and spreading to the children.”

Because the philosophy at Hillel is to serve the “whole child” and meet each child’s individual needs, much of the teaching is done through small groups within each classroom. At any given time, two or more groups are working on different tasks within the same subject. Teachers have become quite adept at multi-tasking, Rabbi Goldstein notes.

“The students learn to work with others and learn social skills as well as discovery,” the principal explains

Hoffman adds that the small group approach allows for “flexibility within each classroom.” In fact, there are usually several different grade levels being taught within a classroom, “but in the social structure of the grade that [the students] are in.”

Hoffman half-jokingly asserts that Hillel Academy has moved away from the “frontal learning model — that is, when the teacher sits in the front of the class, and the kids fall asleep in the back.”

In the middle school grades — six through eight — five different math levels are taught simultaneously in each grade.

Math and writing receive the most emphasis in the lower grades and are integrated into other subjects, such as social studies and science.

Science is taught hands-on, and social studies is project-based, according to Rabbi Goldstein.

Art is also integrated into the classroom.

Judaic subjects in all grades are also taught in small groups as the ability and experience levels for students vary widely.

Rabbi Goldstein explains that “manipulatives” are used as a means of teaching Hebrew and other Judaic subjects. This involves non-traditional, tactile and other sensory-based learning materials such as blocks, beans, sand, music, art — almost anything — to help a child grasp a language or theological concept.

“That’s the way kids learn . . . again, it’s the whole child,” he says.

NOW that Hillel Academy is back on improved financial and firm academic footing, the board and administration are daring to pursue items on their wish list for the future.

At the top of that list is a capital campaign to upgrade and expand the school’s 45-year-old building or to purchase another facility.

The administration has made some systematic upgrades to the facility each year, including updated office technology, but the building is inadequate in size and design, the administration says.

Two classes are in trailers on the school property; two grades are split; three grades meet in trailers on the Chabad House property a block away across a busy street, and science is taught in the library.

The classrooms themselves are not conducive to optimum teaching and learning, although Hoffman and Rabbi Goldstein are impressed with and proud of how the teachers and students have succeeded under the difficult physical conditions.

“We see this as not only a challenge but an opportunity,” says Hoffman, “to continue building upon six decades of operations as a landmark in Denver, and upon 3,500 years of Jewish education in order to bring Hillel Academy into the 21st century.”

Those nearly six decades will be celebrated Tuesday, Feb. 8, at Hillel Academy’s 59th anniversary dinner at BMH-BJ.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Larry Hankin

IJN Associate Editor | larry@ijn.com


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