MONTREAL — In its 100th year, Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools and its Bialik High School (JPPS/Bialik) is overhauling its curriculum and reducing or freezing tuition in an effort to stem declining enrolment.
The school, founded on the ideals of Labour Zionism in 1913 and notable for its respect for Yiddish, will in the future be taking a more “inclusive and pluralistic” approach to Jewish identity. It will put a greater accent on Hebrew competence and add Sephardi culture in its instruction.
After a months-long consultation with parents and other “stakeholders,” the board of directors on Feb. 5 announced a “new direction” for the school.
At the elementary level, JPPS will be instituting an enriched science program called S.T.I.M (Sciences, Technologie, Ingeniérie, Mathématiques), which will be taught in French, designed to meet a desire by parents, said JPPS principal Adina Matas.
Tuition is to be reduced to $5,000 for kindergarten and $6,000 for Grade 1, from the current fee of close to $8,000, she said.
Tuition will remain the same next year for the other elementary grades, and at Bialik, where fees are about $10,000.
JPPS’ enrolment was particularly hard hit by confusion over a Federation CJA-endorsed plan announced two years ago to merge JPPS/Bialik and United Talmud Torahs/Herzliah High School, said Matas.
“Three years ago, we had more than 100 students more than the 350 we have now, because of the instability,” said Matas. “Parents are telling us they want to know where we are going. They want things clear and transparent.”
Ninety per cent of those who dropped out – many also because of the rising cost – have gone to the public system, she said.
She said the Judaic component at the elementary level won’t change much, except for greater stress on speaking and reading Hebrew. Some Judaic subjects may be taught in English.
Yiddish, which has been reduced over the past decade, will be taught more for its cultural value rather than for language acquisition, Matas said.
As for JPPS’ orientation, she said, “We have always taught the traditions, the holidays, without imposing any philosophy. We believe there is a niche for a school in Montreal that is not religious. There are so many schools from different streams. We are the pareve one.”
For example, while kashrut is observed, boys will only be required to wear kippot during Hebrew and Judaic studies, as is the current practice.
JPPS/Bialik also hopes to stanch the drop-off after elementary school. Matas said that today, 55 to 60 per cent of JPPS graduates go on to a Jewish high school, whereas at one time, it was as high as 85 per cent.
Many parents are opting for non-Jewish private schools, and same-gender schools are especially popular right now, she said.
The big change at Bialik will be the addition – by 2014-2015 – of an international baccalaureate program for academically motivated students in grades 7 and 8, and enhancements to the French curriculum, including the opportunity for younger students in the English section to take courses intended for those whose mother tongue is French, said principal Ken Scott.
Courses such as history, geography and gym will also be taught in French in the early grades.
Bialik’s current enrolment of just under 460 students is considerably below the peak of years ago, said Scott, who came to the school last year after 33 years in the public school system.
Registration for next year indicates that trend will continue. At this point, the number of Grade 7 classes will likely be reduced from three to two, but Scott said he hopes these initiatives will turn that around.
Scott said Bialik is the first anglophone private school in Montreal to offer the baccalaureate program, but it can be found at a number of public schools, and he has experience running the program at two schools.
The program will be limited initially to about 25 students, but will probably be expanded to other grades over time.
The “reforms” to Judaic studies at Bialik include blending four courses – in Hebrew, Tanach, Yiddish and Jewish history – into one that’s compulsory for all students.
Sephardi heritage content will be increased, conversational Hebrew and ties to Israel stressed, and Yiddish more cultural than linguistic in approach.
The unified Judaica course is being developed by a team headed by Judaic studies co-ordinator Rabbi Shimon Fox, a former educational director of Israel’s Yeshivat Hamivtar and executive director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, who joined Bialik in 2011.
The board says the general goal is to be “intellectually open” in the teaching of Judaism, leaving room for discussion, while drawing on “shared values.”
Matas and Scott agree that the overall goal of this “new direction” is to make the schools a place where a broader range of families will feel comfortable sending their children.
Being “inclusive” will also mean greater acceptance of students with learning disabilities, Scott said. “We are not equipped to take children with severe autism, but we cannot turn our backs on those with reading problems, which affect up to 20 per cent of the population and is not equated with intelligence.”
Scott affirmed: “There is no doubt in my mind that this school has all the pieces to be a success if we put them together in a way that makes sense.”
Parent and board member Jamie Ross said in a statement that “curriculum enhancements such as these are very attractive to Jewish families seeking the right balance of academics, athletics, Jewish values and a variety of exceptional extracurriculars.
“One of the most important factors that concerns the community, according to the responses received in our stakeholder survey, is the need for our students to develop a strong Jewish identity, and deep connection to Israel. Our students will gain an enhanced appreciation and understanding of the relevance of Jewish values in our contemporary society.”