These are good times for Cohen-Hillel Academy, the K-8 private Jewish school located next door to the JCC in Marblehead. After years of seeing the student body shrink and the relevance of Jewish Day School as a concept questioned, a “renewal” is underway behind the leadership of Head of School Amy Gold, who took over last fall.
Gold doesn’t initially come across as a high-powered chief executive – which could be a key to her prowess. She’s not an imposing figure physically, and she bubbles with a charming girlishness over the mission she’s engaged in. But the more you talk to her and those who work around her, the more you understand that she is firmly in command – at the controls and putting in place a vision that she brought to the school when she arrived last fall.
There were some great things going on at the school before Gold’s arrival, explains board president Ariel Berger. “The building blocks were there. As a parent, I can tell you that the kindergarten and first grade experiences were incredible.“
Before, though, from Berger’s perspective, the pieces weren’t all pulled together into one cohesive package and marketed to the community. “Now you know you’re going to a school where attention is paid to detail, where there’s follow-through,” said Berger. Amy repeats something that her mentor used to say, continues Berger, “and it’s something I see reflected now in the school, ‘Any day you’re not getting better is a wasted day.’”
Last year, Gold was introduced to the community as someone who had the experience, knowledge and fortitude after 18 years at the Rashi School in Braintree – the last eight as associate head of school – to grab hold of what was going well at CHA, re-engineer the weaker parts, and then wrap it all up in a bow and present it to the community.
To start growing the student body meant rebuilding excitement about the academics and the atmosphere at the school, brick by brick, explains Gold. “I brought in new teachers on the middle school level, there had been several years of a revolving door,” she explained. “That creates lack of continuity in curriculum and people don’t feel secure.”
She also rebuilt the academic program at the school, “by bringing in some new curricula, but also putting a new emphasis on professional development, and having teachers talk about their practice and meet with me to talk about their actual teaching. The teachers were hungry to learn and to do new things, so we’ve provided ongoing support for them throughout the year.”
There was also a push to get the school current on technology, “in terms of the infrastructure – we had to invest in improved bandwidth, as well as hardware,” she added. Teachers all got their own laptops while upper school students all have an iPad.
“I also put together an online working environment where parents could access content and curriculum and see photos and video of their students, and teachers could interact with students, posting assignments online for kids to access.” Gold said. ”The way students collaborate and turn in assignments is different now,” because of the technology.
“My third graders just did an ocean unit,” explained Gold, talking about the power of technology as a learning tool. “The culminating event for the parents to come see was an ocean movie, which they made using scratch videos, they wrote their own scripts, it had research and action photos and everything all together – and that was their learning experience. Technology opens up doors.”
Physical changes to the building were also important, offers Gold. “The painting was most important. We changed the whole pallet of the school,” she said. At the same time, the school tackled rebranding, with a new logo, which was “biting off a lot,” says Gold. “But I felt it was really necessary, helping people to understand the value proposition of Cohen Hillel. It was saying, who we are, what it means to be a 21st century day school and a small school and what’s the value. I’ve got to shine a light and have people say, ‘I get why you send your child to Cohen Hillel Academy.’”
People do seem to be seeing the light. The board and others invested in the community say they are thrilled to see that in just one year the school’s shrinkage has been stopped and that next year will begin with a student-body that will be at least 21% larger. “The numbers are still growing – the number of new students will be even bigger by the end of summer,” assures Diane Knopf, the director of community engagement at CHA.