The San Diego Jewish Academy prides itself on helping its students achieve academic excellence through its personalized academic pathways, stressing the importance of social responsibility while developing strong Jewish identities.
SDJA is the only Jewish day school in the country to win the 2018 U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School award for being an exemplary high performing school. SDJA’s Golda Meir Lower School was the only private independent school in San Diego to receive the award in over 25 years.
SDJA is now hoping to bring more students into the SDJA family with its Open Door program, offering half-price tuition for ninth graders and kindergarteners.
“Open Door can be an absolute game changer for San Diego Jewish Academy to welcome families in the area who felt our school was beyond their reach,” says Chaim Heller, head of school. “Now, more students can benefit from the world-class SDJA educational experience. Critically, we also will have more resources to continue to hire the best teachers and to offer more tuition assistance for all students at any grade. Everyone wins with this model as more families experience our welcoming, strong and vibrant community.”
Currently there are 450 students in the K-12 school, including 173 in the Maimonides Upper School program.
“Our school is growing and bucking the trend of Jewish day schools,” said Keri Copans, director of admissions. “Our goal is 800 students and we’re on our way.”
In the upper school, students benefit from intimate class sizes and a core group of teachers that knows the students very well. Sara Hanson, chair of the humanities department, teaches everything from freshman English to AP literature so she often has the students two to three years out of their four high school years.
“We form such a relationship with these kids,” Hanson said.
The ninth grade team of teachers as well as sports coaches get together once a month to talk about what is going on with each individual student, how they are performing in school, their learning styles, what their motivations and interests are, and who might need an extra tap on the shoulder. The group work continues throughout high school.
“Here you’re known, you’re not invisible,” Hanson said, noting the team works hard to ensure every upper school students feels supported, challenged and cared for.
Three days a week, the school day ends with a Pod period where teachers from each academic department are co-located throughout the campus and upper school students designate which subject they will spend additional time learning—almost like a college professor’s office hours. Students can also opt to use the time for silent study, arts, music, exercising or shooting hoops in the gym.
“We teach students starting in sixth grade to be advocates for their own education,” Copans said.
It also teaches them to be comfortable talking to an adult, Hanson said—which students do a lot at SDJA. And once they have gone, alumni often stay in touch due to the connections they have made.
“We’re family,” said Scott Kahn, dean of academic affairs. “It sounds like a marketing line except for the fact that it’s the truth.”
Michael Quigley, head of the upper school, said SDJA takes a holistic and student-centered approach to education. They make sure everything they do has an impact on student knowledge and their capacity to grow as human beings with a focus on social and emotional learning as well as strong academics, an “individualized learning experience that is aligned with their Jewish identity, curiosity and interests.”
“We don’t have meetings here, everything is a conversation,” Kahn said.
Kahn said he has conversations with students about course selection, goals, activities and their college and career aspirations. Conversations are driven by the students, Kahn said—sometimes instead of talking about college they want to talk about their stresses or concerns and they have the space to do so.“
We try to know who they are, where their talents and strengths lie, and use that to build core schedules,” Kahn said.
With those conversations, Kahn said they are able to structure a program for each student that is meaningful and appropriate.
“No one is slotted into courses. They’re not a number,” Kahn said. “Every kid’s program is as rigorous as they wish to make it.”
The students’ ownership of their education continues into the classroom and learning space—students take leadership roles in student government and committees, field trips and service learning.When they take a field trip, the students do their own research and come up with the activities that they will participate in. Participating in service learning with Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), students decide where they want to direct their efforts to impact their community and the world—this year SDJA students decided to focus their service learning on the issues of homelessness and hunger.
A theme repeated throughout SDJA staff is that they are running the program that they didn’t have themselves—Copans said she often hears parents on tours say “I wish I could go back to school” and that’s something that makes her most excited about the Open Door program.
“We want more students to have this opportunity,” Copans said. “It’s a gift.”
“It’s an investment worth making,” agreed Quigley of the value of an SDJA education.
The school will host a lower school open house on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 9 a.m. and “A Taste of the First Grade” on Thursday, Dec. 6 from 8-9 a.m. On Friday, Dec. 7 SDJA will host “Hitting the Mark,” an event to learn more about grades 6-12 from 12:30-2 p.m. RSVP to the events at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (858) 704-3717.
San Diego Jewish Academy is located at 11860 Carmel Creek Road in Carmel Valley. For more information, visit sdja.com
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