Not Your Zayde’s Jewish day schools

Producing confident leaders, attracting passionate teachers

Prizmah image
A group of girls perform a dance activity on Bernard Zell’s 35,000-square-foot athletic field. Photo courtesy of Bernard Zell.

This fall, Rachel Nasatir is headed to one of the city's top high schools. In June, she graduated from Lakeview's Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, a place she has called home for the past eight years. 

"This school is such an amazing place, so it's sad to say goodbye," she said.

While at Bernard Zell, she took advanced math classes even tackling statistics, played the part of Rafiki in the school production of The Lion King , and went rafting along the Jordan River during a two-week class trip to Israel. 

Add another accomplishment to that list-surviving the city's competitive high school admissions process and getting into her first choice, Jones College Prep. "I'm excited about starting a new school," she said. "I don't know where I'd be without my math teacher, Mr. Daar." 

Nasatir is among the nearly 90 percent of Jewish Day School students who apply to the city's selective enrollment high schools and get accepted, according to Prizmah, Center for Jewish Day Schools. Many are outperforming their public school peers on standardized tests like MAP and the ACT. When it comes to reading, 96 percent score above the national average on the MAP test, compared to 86 percent of CPS students. In math, 95 percent score above the national average compared to 79 percent of CPS students. 

"It's not your Zayde's day school; it's not the day school of 20 to 30 years ago," said David Goldenberg of Resolute Consulting, Inc. in Chicago and JUF board member.  "These schools are academic powerhouses."

Yet, many young Jewish parents in the Chicago area are unaware of this academic excellence. In 2017, Resolute's Goldenberg and Kelsey Larson interviewed over 100 young Jewish parents in the city and suburbs as well as Jewish education leaders about their perceptions of Jewish day schools. The results were surprising. When it came to top school choice criteria like character development and Jewish values, parents gave high ratings--but not on rigorous academics. 

College-bound Lexi Levin, of Highland Park, sings the praises of former teachers at Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago. "I don't think I'd be going to Cornell University if it weren't for the academic confidence that Schechter gave me," she said. "They taught me how to think, how to ask questions." 

Sixth grade English instructor, Roberta Chernawsky, taught her how to be a strong writer. "I entered the year with an assignment on loose-leaf paper with a note at the bottom saying, 'I need help with the ending.' By the end of the year, I was writing pages and pages of essays on my own," she recalled.

Since Levin graduated from day school, 21 st Century learning and STEM education have become a priority. 

In 2016, Solomon Schechter's academics earned the Northbrook school a National Blue Ribbon Award. "This award is a real indicator of how we're strengthening our curriculum," said Linda P. Foster, CEO/Head of School. 

The school's J-STEAM initiative, which integrates Jewish studies, science, technology, art and math, is a big step forward. There's also the new Innovation Studio (think the Genius bar at your local Apple store). Equipped with a 3D Printer, iPad Pros, Chromebooks and dry erase walls, it's a place for collaboration, creativity and experimentation, said Foster.  

At Bernard Zell, teachers and students are excited about M'Kom Drisha, a new, state-of-the-art science lab and new coding and circuitry classes. "We have the goal that every student will know how to talk to computers by the time they graduate," said Beth Sanzenbacher, a Science Instructional Coach.

Cortney Stark Cope, Director of Admissions at Chicago Jewish Day School, isn't sure what jobs will exist in 20 years. But she's confident that CJDS students will have the life skills to be successful. "They know how to advocate for themselves, how to solve problems, how to readjust when things they don't go their way and how to have grit," she said. 

When the school relocates to its new Irving Park campus in 2018, it brings a track record of success built over the last 14 years. "We've had kids go to great high schools like Whitney Young, The Latin School, Lane Tech, and Jones College Prep," she said.

Student-driven, experiential learning, and multi-age classrooms are integral to Akiba-Schechter's philosophy. "We are committed to teaching students and not subjects. The children become leaders of their own learning, are constantly supported, and stretched by their peers and Judaism and learning come alive for them and our teachers," said Dr. Eliezer Jones, Akiba's new Head of School.

Parents from Israel, China, and Japan have heard about the school's stellar academics from colleagues, said Carla Goldberg, Akiba's Director of Early Childhood. "But we also want to find families who have not thought about Jewish day schools but should," she said. "In the city of Chicago, what a wonderful option to have." 

Check out, a new website launched in April 2017, that features the four participating schools-Akiba Schechter in Hyde Park, Bernard Zell in Lakeview, Chicago Jewish Day School in Edgewater, and Solomon Schechter. Find school data, videos, and photo galleries at any of the participating schools.

Jennifer Brody is a freelance writer living in Chicago.  

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