When Yeshivat Noam first opened its doors in 2001, it was the kindergarten students — the upperclassmen, so to speak — who ran through the building, checking that every door had a mezuzah.
“We like to refer to them as our pioneers,” said Rabbi Chaim Hagler, principal of the Modern Orthodox school located in Bergen County. “They’ve kind of been eighth graders now for nine years.”
Next week, that first kindergarten class will pass another milestone, as it becomes the school’s first graduating class. The school, which opened with 57 students in nursery, pre-K and kindergarten, will enroll 715 students this fall from pre-K through eighth grade.
“We never anticipated the school growing at the pace it did,” said Rabbi Hagler. “By the second year there was a waitlist for the pre-K class.”
Yeshivat Noam’s dramatic growth is particularly striking because many other day schools and Modern Orthodox yeshivas in the New York area and beyond are struggling.
Marvin Schick, a consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation, said that one Modern Orthodox school in the New York area is on the brink of closing and that even relatively stable institutions like Manhattan’s Ramaz have had to make cutbacks. Nationally, major schools in Memphis, Atlanta, Baltimore and Los Angeles are struggling with declining enrollment and financial crisis.
“I don’t want to say the day school model is broken, but it’s under extraordinary stress,” he said.
While some of Noam’s growth can be credited to the fact that each year it has added a grade, Schick said it also has the advantage of being located in a growing Modern Orthodox community. Other factors contributing to its success, he said, are its young, enthusiastic faculty and parents.
The school, which has campuses in Bergenfield (pre-K and kindergarten) and Paramus (grades 1-8), draws most of its student body from Teaneck, Englewood, Bergenfield and Fair Lawn. Ten years ago, when it became clear that the major existing schools in the area were full, community leaders began working to establish another option for the burgeoning Jewish community. After parlor meetings, group discussions and a year of searching for a location, the school opened its doors in September 2001.
With Rabbi Hagler at the helm from day one, the school experienced rapid growth, outgrowing its original building in just two years, and purchasing the building next door. Later the school rented out space at the Teaneck Jewish Center and Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., before moving to its newly renovated location in Paramus. “It took us three to four years to realize the pace at which we were going to continue to grow,” said Rabbi Hagler, whose four children attend the school.
The school is coeducational, but the classes are single-sex starting at fifth grade. The eighth grade though, is all boys; after starting out with 14 boys and three girls, the girls left one by one until they had all departed by third grade.
For many parents, Rabbi Hagler, who is being honored at this year’s annual Yeshivat Noam dinner, was a significant attraction. “He was young, vibrant, energetic — it was a real fresh beginning,” said Gabrielle Altman, whose four children attend Yeshivat Noam. Her oldest, Isaac, is in the graduating class.
Gabriel Barishansky joined the class in the second grade, when he switched from the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey. Though his parents weren’t unhappy at YNJ, which their two older children graduated from, “sometimes you just gotta go with your gut,” said Sara Leah Barishansky, Gabriel’s mother, “and Rabbi Hagler’s amazing.” The family’s younger children attend Yeshivat Noam as well.
The school’s policy of what is known as “differentiated instruction” was a big factor for many parents. Classes are not tracked, but students within each class work in small groups based on their abilities.
“Once you track a class, then they’re locked into that for the year,” said Rabbi Hagler. “It’s our strong philosophy that children grow and change throughout the course of the year.” He also noted that children’s strengths and weaknesses “are not across the board.”
This practice has been at the school’s core from the outset.
“We had a strong educational philosophy; we were going to create a school built on that mission, built on those goals,” said Rabbi Hagler, as he pulled a folded, yellowed piece of paper from his wallet. Written 10 years ago on Ramaz stationery, where he was then headmaster of the lower school, the scribbled notes comprise much of what became the school’s mission today.
Another of the school’s core principles is parental involvement — and that was never more true that on opening day. Two days before the school was set to open in 2001, it became clear that the building was not yet ready. “We sent out an e-mail to our parent body: ‘all hands on deck,’” said Rabbi Hagler, “and 40 to 50 parents showed up.”
The Paramus building they currently occupy has been converted from an office building and warehouse into a bright, welcoming environment. Huge pictures of students line the wall just past the two-story glass doors. The first and second grade classrooms are the closest to the door, and student artwork lines the hallway. All the fifth through eighth grade classrooms are outfitted with smart boards and the whole building is carpeted.
Most graduates will attend either Torah Academy of Bergen County or the Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
After almost a decade of being leaders, the students are prepared for whatever lies ahead. “They have tremendous leadership skills,” said Rabbi Hagler. “They had the confidence to take all those risks.”
Associate Editor Julie Wiener contributed to this article.
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