TORONTO — As of next September, Greg Beiles, the curriculum consultant at the Toronto Heschel School will take over as head of school, replacing Gail Baker, who is retiring after 13 years in the post.
The announcement, made late last month in a letter emailed to parents, detailed Beiles’ experience with Heschel, having been employed there for the past 17 of its 18 years.
In an interview with The CJN, Baker said Beiles has “seen [Heschel] grow from the beginning days until now to maturation. He is a passionate Jewish educator and he is completely committed to the philosophy and the vision and mission of this school.”
Equipped with an undergraduate degree in Jewish studies, a bachelor of education from the University of Toronto, as well as a master’s of education from U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Beiles has evolved from a third grade teacher in 1997 to elementary division head in 2000, to the middle school director a year later, and finally in 2004, to the role of curriculum consultant.
Beiles is also a PhD candidate in U of T’s department for the study of religion, and last year, he received an Emerging Scholar Award from the Network for Research in Jewish Education in New York.
Following the announcement last month, Beiles spoke about being chosen to take over for Baker, one of Heschel’s co-founders, and what the future holds for the arts-based, non-denominational school, which boasts an integrated curriculum that combines Judaic and secular subjects with a strong focus on social justice.
“Having worked at Heschel for 17 of its 18 years, I have had the privilege of working with all of the founders. I’ve been a student of the school as much as I have been a teacher here. It only makes sense that someone who has grown up with the school, who knows its philosophy and institutional history intimately, would be able to lead it into its next stage of growth,” Beiles said.
“The school has a very unique educational philosophy… The feeling, I think, is that it would be difficult for someone from the outside to get the school… I think they felt I had the most experience, teaching across all the disciplines, and I really know the curriculum really well. I know the teaching methodologies really well. I have a good sense of the philosophy and the vision of the school.”
Beiles said he sees Heschel as a “renaissance Jewish school” that combines art, science and religion, but added that he’s careful to stay away from education trends.
“This whole craze now about having computers everywhere in the classroom –that’s a trend. Computers are a tool, like a pencil or an inkwell. Of course our students have access to computers. They’re the tools of the day. But basing an educational philosophy on computers is like basing it on a pencil,” he said.
“We have always been a research-based school. We draw much of our pedagogical direction from research done… at the Harvard [Graduate] School of Education. And of course, we’re inspired by the teachings of Rabbi [Abraham Joshhua] Heschel, who emphasizes awe, wonder and the importance of self-discipline in his vision of education.”
Rather than get caught up in trends, Beiles believes it’s more worthwhile to focus on refining the school’s fundamental principles.
“You know the expression, ‘God is in the details?’ We want to keep working on making the practices that we’ve adopted work as well as they possibly can.”
Baker, who said that she loves the school “deeply” and expects to stay connected with it despite her retirement, said tuition and enrolment will likely remain the biggest challenges facing Beiles, and Jewish day schools in general.
“To help families work around that has been a big challenge for the school and for day schools in general. People are selecting to not even come through the doors and when you ask them, it’s, ‘No, I’d love to, but it’s just too expensive.’ They won’t even start to entertain that possibility. So we’re always looking for ways to accommodate families, and I think that will remain something that he’s going to have to focus on,” Baker said.
Apart from the affordability issue, Beiles said another challenge is attracting a diverse student body.
“You want to make sure your school is reasonably diverse and you’re able to attract Jewish kids from different backgrounds. I mean, for Heschel, our whole philosophy is rooted in pluralism, which means we want kids from different Jewish backgrounds, streams of observance and that sort of thing, but also we’d like to have some socio-economic diversity,” he said.
Although Heschel experienced a significant drop in enrolment a few years ago – Beiles guesses that it may have dropped to as low as 185 students, from a high of around 300 – the school has been enjoying a steady increase since then, with a current student body of about 235 and growing.
“Our retention levels are extremely high. I don’t have the number at my fingertips, but they’re in the high 90s, I think. In the last few years, we’ve had very few kids leave and enrolment is strong. Not just enrolment into the early years, but we’re also picking up kids in the lower elementary as well. We might even gain next year, despite the loss of a big graduating class,” he said.
Baker said she’s also encouraged by the school’s growing population and high retention rate. “He’ll need to be actively involved in keeping that going as we go forward,” she said.