Students from Kehila High School start the school year with a visit to an escape room.
School bells are ringing again in Nashville and the local Jewish day schools are reporting a record 150 students enrolled. That number includes Akiva School, Jewish Middle School (JMS), and Kehila High School (KHS). “These schools should be the feather in the cap of our Jewish community,” says Rabbi Saul Strosberg, founder and head of school at JMS.
Strosberg says while overall growth in the city is the backdrop, he believes what is driving the increased numbers is the challenges facing students and parents. “As an orthodox rabbi I want people to choose Jewish education, but people want it for many other reasons,” he says. Strosberg cites underfunding in the public schools and a lack of focus on the educational needs of students. And he says so-called “legacy private schools,” are simply too big to offer the personalized approach provided in the Jewish day school environment.
At Akiva School which provides k-6 education, enrollment has grown roughly 25% in the last eight years, with no signs of slowing down. Rabba Daniella Pressner, head of school, is happy but not surprised by the success. “There were a lot of people who concentrated on making Akiva a space where all kids could be accepted and make this part of their Jewish journey,” she says. And, says Pressner, nothing that happens at Akiva is accidental, “We are intentional about growth and work to create a culture rather than let it happen.”
This year Akiva is celebrating its 70th year, and while it remains rooted in Jewish values, Pressner and her faculty and staff always have their eyes on the future. “We’re always looking at where we want to be in 20 or 30 years, and then design backwards,” she says. She credits a high retention rate for faculty as another key element to the school’s success. “We have a very committed faculty and staff who all work to create a vision.”
At JMS, which provides education for grades five through eight, the growth has been slow but steady, topping out at 38 this year, with six of the eight Akiva graduates attending. According to Alene Arnold, co-head of school at JMS, the pace is helpful, “The gradual growth is helpful from a planning perspective. We are able to strike a balance between a curriculum that is rigorous but tailored to the needs of the individual student. We know what’s coming our way.”
Arnold says as the school grows, there continues to be consideration about just how big is big enough. “We want to remain small and individualized,” she says, “We need to think about what the optimal class size is and be deliberate about staffing.” A top priority at the moment is fine tuning the admission process. The school accepts students who are not Jewish, but Arnold says it is the Jewish values that remain a draw for parents across a diverse spectrum. “Jewish values are so beautifully generalizable. We are community based and inclusive.”
One of the things that drew a wide array of parents to JMS was its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Jenny Cheng is both a parent at the school, and a board member. “The school handled the pandemic well. It prioritized in person learning without compromising safety,” she says. But as the pandemic wound down, Cheng says it became clear there were other factors that account for JMS’ growth. “It is an appealing option to people moving to town. It is smaller, more personalized and has great academics.”
For Bridget Pounds’ son Carson, JMS provided a high level of academic rigor, and a safe nurturing environment the family did not find in their local public schools. “Carson was the only Jewish child in his school and he experienced some antisemitism from other students. So, when my cousin told me about a new Jewish middle school starting, we toured JMS and decided to make the change.” The Pounds’ also enrolled their younger daughter in Akiva at the same time. “We just didn’t want our kid subjected to antisemitism.”
Pounds says there were many other benefits for Carson when he began JMS. “He is not very social, but within the first year he was a completely different kid. He as more confident and able to express himself and to participate. Someone always listened to him,” she says.
Kehila High School is the new kid on the Jewish day school block. Now in its second year, the school has eight students, up from its original six. Strosberg calls the founding class “Jackie Robinsons.” “It takes tremendous courage and talent to lead the way, for the parents too,” he says. The Pounds family is one of those pioneers. Carson Pounds is now in the 10th grade and his mother Bridget says the school continues to provide opportunities for specialized experience. “Carson wants to be a lawyer and last year his teacher arranged for the class to visit court,” she says, “Not only does he get to be who he is, but he is nurtured for those things.”
This year, with the addition of 10th grade, came the addition of a college counselor. Strosberg reports the school has retained the services of Janet Schneider who recently retired from a long-time role at University School of Nashville. “She is just as much about educating parents as students. She knows what to stress in the high school years and is focused on getting it right.”
Cheng says the school’s small size is a key part of its overall appeal. “The faculty and staff it attracts are focused on building and developing. It’s a terrific, unique experience.” She also says Jewish schools are echoing the changing Jewish population in America. “They are becoming more diverse, more international. They reach across the denominations and appeal to Jews of color and Jews not of color.”
Shira Sackett is the lead math and science teacher at KHS. She says the school’s small size allows for deeper teacher/student relationships. “We really get to know them, which allows us to have high expectations and to understand how they learn,” she says. Sackett says the addition of a college counselor will be key to the school’s growth, “As a high school we have to have in mind what’s next for the students. She [Schneider] has wonderful ideas about what college guidance looks like for each student.”
Looking toward the future of Jewish day schools in Nashville, those involved are planning for bigger and better facilities. JMS currently meets on the grounds of Congregation Sherith Israel but is quickly outgrowing the space. Strosberg says there are plans to expand the Akiva campus to include JMS. And even farther into the future, the hope is to have one integrated Nashville Jewish day school for k-12. Cheng says, “We have a very educated, intellectual community. It takes a lot of investment, and leadership is so important. The vision of a k-12 pluralistic Jewish option is the dream.”
While the dream continues to develop, students keep moving forward. Pressner keeps in touch with former students and says the seeds sown at Akiva bear fruit down the road. “Across the board, wherever they go, our students are known as leaders, thinkers, people willing to ask questions and take risks.” Arnold has been with JMS since the beginning. She says her first class consisted of six students, now all heading off to college. “One of the most validating things is that our graduates, at a variety of schools, all come back saying they were very prepared.”