Oasis

Elly Bycer (left), Tobi Rifkind, Raquel Schnitzer and Suzanne Sandler Ungar, members of the founding board of The Oasis School. 

Four years ago, it was only a dream: a Jewish community high school in Scottsdale for teenagers from all backgrounds and levels of observance. In 2018, three women — Tobi Rifkind, Raquel Schnitzer and Elly Bycer — came together to make that dream a reality. After two and a half years, they’re ready to share their plans with the community.

“We all believe, and anyone that we speak to feels strongly, that this community needs a Jewish community high school. So it was just a matter of time,” Rifkind said. “We got together and said, ‘Okay, let’s figure out what is in the best interest of the community, what type of school will serve the most Jewish families?’”

The name for the prospective high school, Oasis, builds on the idea of neve midbar, an oasis in the desert, offering students not only the ability to survive but to thrive.

Greater Phoenix has not had a coeducational Jewish high school since the Jess Schwartz Academy closed in 2012. Rifkind, who moved to Greater Phoenix four years ago, knew before she arrived that giving her children a Jewish education through 12th grade was a top priority, and a condition for her joining the community.

Most Pardes students, Bycer said, end up going to non-Jewish schools after eighth grade, whether that’s public schools, Catholic schools like Xavier College Preparatory and Brophy College Preparatory or a private school like Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley. While there are currently two Jewish high schools in Phoenix, Yeshiva High School of Arizona and Shearim Torah High School for Girls, both schools are Orthodox and single-gender. The board of The Oasis School wanted to offer a coeducational option that would appeal to Jewish students across the community, from Orthodox to Reform and unaffiliated.

“It’s something that just needed to happen,” Schnitzer said. “It’s a huge undertaking, and there is no guaranteed success. So I think it really took people willing to take that risk. And we’re those people.”

After two and a half years of careful research and hard work, the board finds itself at “a jumping-off point,” Schnitzer said.

The Oasis School secured its 501(c)(3) status and initial startup funding, put a business plan in place and consulted for the last five months with Dr. Bruce Powell, a Los Angeles-based educator who has consulted on the founding of more than 20 Jewish schools in the U.S. and Israel. With The Oasis School logo and website ready to launch, a possible location in the works and the search for a head of school underway, the board is tentatively looking at a fall 2021 opening date.

Finding the right head of school will be a “cornerstone” of the school’s success, Schnitzer said.

“Part of the challenges in creating a new school is you don’t have students to point to, you don’t have existing classrooms to go tour, you have ideas,” Schnitzer said. “And we have exciting ideas, we have an exciting, innovative educational model ... but really, it’s the head of school who brings that to life.”

The educational model that the board plans to use involves greater student autonomy and collaboration with teachers, project-based learning and an “integrated curriculum” that combines lessons on multiple subjects such as physics and art history.

“It’s exciting, and it’s an innovative form of learning,” Bycer said. “There are many schools across the country that are doing this now.”

The hope is that by taking the lead in their own learning and learning lessons in context, students will develop knowledge and skills that will last them a lifetime.

“‘Learning ‘stickiness’ is the term that we like to use,” Rifkind said.

According to board members, the only school that currently uses an integrated model in Arizona is the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy, a private school for gifted students operated by Arizona State University. Having observed classes at HYSA, The Oasis School board is excited to offer a similar experience, with the added benefit of a Jewish education.

“It’s a Jewish community school, so the educational model incorporates and integrates the Jewish life and learning and Jewish values as well,” Bycer said.

The plan is to open with a ninth-grade class of eight to 24 students, and add a grade each year after that.

The board of The Oasis School will pitch their plans to parents and students for the first time at Pardes’ annual high school informational session, which will be hosted virtually this year, on Thursday, Oct. 22. After two and a half years of hard work, they’re excited to share their vision with the community.

“We’ve been under the radar for a long time, mindfully working from the inside out to assure the community’s needs are met,” Bycer said.

The board’s biggest goal: doing what’s right for the community. It counts among its supporters Marty Haberer, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. “I have tremendous faith in the leadership of the nascent ‘The Oasis School’ and am excited to see their unique vision make a much needed contribution to the greater Phoenix/Scottsdale educational landscape,” Haberer said, via email.

“As someone who is blessed with a 12-year Yeshiva education, including four years at Yeshiva University High School in Manhattan, I know firsthand the value that a secondary formal Jewish education can have on a person,” Haberer added. “I carry that education with me every day of my life.”

Part of the challenge of establishing a new coeducational high school for the community, Rifkind said, is overcoming the painful legacy that followed the closure of Jess Schwartz Academy, which went through a series of attempted mergers and reopenings between 2010 and 2013, until efforts to save the school were abandoned altogether. Oasis hopes to be a source of continuity in the community’s story, board members said.

“People are skeptical. It’s a lot of pain and hurt,” Rifkind said. “There’s an emotional component of the community, because some of these parents or grandparents ... they went through it. And it was really very difficult.”

No matter what happens next, the board isn’t rushing into anything. If they can’t find the right head of school or decide that the school isn’t ready to open in fall 2021, the board is prepared to wait for the right moment.

“Our ideal is sustainability and longevity and something that really will last in the community and keep the community growing,” Bycer said. JN

To learn more about The Oasis School, visit theoasisschool.org.

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