Phoenix Hebrew Academy students took their MAPs assessment in January.

On most weekday mornings, Morah Lakie Blech makes breakfast for her family, gets her three children ready for school and heads out the door. When the weather is temperate, the kids grab their bikes, even the youngest, who is three and new to riding without training wheels — though Blech brings the stroller should it become necessary — and they walk to Phoenix Hebrew Academy (PHA).

Blech, an Orthodox Jew, lives close to her synagogue, Congregation Beth Joseph in Phoenix, so she can walk there on Shabbat and holidays. Conveniently, her shul shares space with PHA, where her children go to school and where she is the director of innovation.

After arriving, but before heading to her desk, she takes the kids to their classrooms where their teachers and friends welcome them and it’s clear they’re happy to be there.

“Sometimes, there are those crazy parenting mornings and someone spilled cereal on the floor, and we have to recenter before leaving, but then we’re going to school and I know that I’m dropping my kids off and going to work and I’m so happy I get to see this beauty every day,” she said.

Before taking the director role seven months ago, Blech was a PHA teacher and had been for six years. Like many on staff, she is in it for the long haul. She believes there is such low turnover due to the school’s focus on what’s best for the child, both in terms of education and “teaching them to be good, wholesome people and the next leaders of our community.”

An eighth-grade girl told Jewish News that her favorite thing about the school is that “everybody’s always connected and helping each other.”

There have been a few significant new additions to the school and modifications to the curriculum. The old adage, the more things change the more they stay the same, rings true for PHA — at least when it comes to its “PHAmily” atmosphere, as Blech calls it.

Rabbi Baruch Harris became head of school seven months ago and noticed right away the close-knit nature of the school.

“It’s the kids playing with each other, supporting each other and being there for each other. It’s just a beautiful family and to have that feeling with uncompromising academics — both the Judaic and the general studies — is just perfect,” he told Jewish News.

There could be some big changes on the horizon.

PHA, the first Orthodox day school in Greater Phoenix, is composed of five non-descript buildings built more than 40 years ago. This year, the school has 180 students, close to its highest possible enrollment. If growth continues, the school may have to turn students away for the first time. That’s one big reason a plan for a new building is in the works.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the administration and board were considering expansion but priorities had to shift away for a couple of years to keep the students and staff safe.

“They just had to realign things and said, ‘First, let’s everyone be safe and then we can restart and redraw and rebuild,’” Blech said.

Still, the priority is education and ensuring that “we have continued excellence internally, and then focus on the external building,” she said.

A few internal developments are already underway.

Harris and Fred M. Graef, general studies principal, introduced some changes to the curriculum when they arrived at the school. In the weeks leading up to the first day of school last fall, emails were sent to parents about the Wonders’ series for reading, grammar and spelling; the Saxon math series; and the New Generation Science standards, their benefits and how they align with state and national educational standards.

“Our role is to educate the kids in a way where they can integrate into the world with their Jewish values and their Jewish learning to be functional members of the greater society,” Harris said.

When people ask him about his educational philosophy, he counters that they should spend time walking around the school, seeing his actions.

He invites anyone to walk into a classroom and see the kids writing algebraic equations; or into the science center where kids are learning to fly drones in an obstacle course and learning to design and program their own drones; or to come on Tuesday when it’s “PI day” and the kids will eat pie and then learn the area of their pie based on pi; or any of a host of other things.

“We can empower the kids, teach them how to do things and protect them too. Our goal is to create students who are capable of making decisions in a world where they will have to mesh their Jewishness and their Americanness,” he said.

This is the first year in a while that the school has spent a significant amount of time and money researching, buying and implementing better curricula and stronger programs, said Alyssa Zupnick, the preschool director.

“That only benefits our student body,” she said.

She’s been gratified to see more parents getting involved as well, joining the parent-teacher organization and coming to student presentations.

“Anytime we can get parents in the door is a win for us,” she said.

The new leadership at the school is committed to being at the forefront of Orthodox Jewish education in Arizona and the nation.

When Zupnick joined the PHA administrative staff five years ago, after having taught at PHA for seven years, there were 24 students in the preschool. That number has doubled and the administration has talked about adding classes, even adding younger students.

“We have goals and aspirations for the future that we didn’t really know that we could have until we saw that we were successful with what we already have,” Zupnick said.

Yona Weitzner, a preschool teacher in her sixth year, is excited about the growth and direction of the school.

“Getting bigger and stronger is beautiful and it will be wonderful to get more kids,” she said.

The teachers had professional development to learn how to incorporate the new math and language arts curriculum.

Kerry Lynn, a general studies teacher, is in her fourth year at the school and admitted that the first year could be tricky implementing new things and making the right adjustments.

“The first year is hard to gauge if we’re going in the right direction, but next year will give us a truer picture. The curriculum they’ve chosen is strong, and the kids are rising to it so far,” she said.

Lynn, who is not Jewish, came from the public school system. It was a difficult transition at first but she soon adjusted once the parents saw what she could do as an educator, she said.

“There was that balance — they had to establish trust in me, and I had to learn how to teach around the culture — but I always liked the small community and the family connections that we have here. Now, I just can’t even think about leaving because I’m so connected with these kids and their families,” she said.

Those teacher-student connections are powerful, as are the student-to-student relationships.

“You will often see an eighth grader go and hug their first-grade teacher and then go to those young kids and help them with anything they need,” Blech said. “Kids are playing together in this amazing atmosphere and it’s beautiful.”

She is excited about the educational direction of the school and what the future will bring, but she’s also happy with where things stand now. “The kids are happy and it’s just a great place to be,” she said. JN

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