Monday was a day of firsts as 70 young children spent their very first day of school at the brand new Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital’s Kay and Robert Schattner Center South Campus.
“It’s all so new. The paint is still drying,” said Naomi Reem, head of school.
JPDS-NC kicked off its 25th year by opening a new campus, about a mile south but still on 16th Street in the District. The new school is home to prekindergartners and kindergartners and will also house first-graders beginning with the 2014 school year. The north campus is the school for 250 first-through-sixth-graders.
The new campus originally was the home of Steven Himmelfarb’s great-grandfather. “My great-grandfather built this house. This was his home,” said the father of a fifth-grader at JPDS-NC. “I never saw it when he lived here,” he said, adding, “A lot of it is original, and a lot of it has been changed for functionality.” Himmelfarb is a trustee of the school and a member of its facilities committee.
The D.C. resident couldn’t contain his enthusiasm on opening day. “I didn’t sleep last night like it was my first day of school. Today is hard for me to imagine, but it feels incredible to see this part of JPDS and the active Jewish community.”
Many of the children seemed particularly happy as they started their Jewish community day school education, eating snacks and walking single file from room to room. Their eyes glazed over as they scanned classrooms filled with art supplies, puzzles and even praying mantises in cages.
The kikar room is the central square where the students put away their coats, book bags and lunch bags. It has centers for dress-up, building and reading. The sadnah, workshop room, is where the students will be conducting their science, technology, engineering, art and math “big-scale projects,” explained Ronit Greenstein, communications manager at the new campus.
To go from the classrooms to the sadnah, the students must step outside and walk past the parking lot. Within about three months, that paved blacktop parking lot will be totally transformed into a green playground space, with room to run, kick a ball, climb, cross a bridge and act on a stage.
“It’s a natural landscape,” Reem said.
“Opening the Kay and Robert Schattner Center South Campus is the realization of our vision of advancing Jewish life in Washington,” Reem said. “We are thrilled to expand access to the JPDS-NC student experience, one that is anchored in the principles of intellectual excitement and inquiry, as well as Jewish life, the acquisition of Hebrew language and our deep connections to Israel. More than that, the school is built on a foundation of living our Jewish values in an engaged, close-knit community.”
The need for a larger space is due in part to an increase in the population of young families in the District and the nearby Maryland suburbs. “This expansion makes it possible for us to serve the needs of the community and to contribute more significantly to the vibrancy of Jewish life in the nation’s capital,” said Greg Shron, president of the school’s board of trustees.
“JPDS-NC is a model of success and is among the leading Jewish day schools in the country,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, the Jewish community day school association.
A lot of the planning for the new school, which counts its students as unaffiliated, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews, was left to the facilities committee. Kimberly Berger of Bethesda headed that committee and is the mother of a kindergartner as well as a fourth- and sixth-grader.
The idea to expand began three years ago, and it took about 18 months to find the right place. The building they chose was the former home of the Washington Latin Charter School.
“We purchased it about one year ago,” she said of the all-white building, and then hired an architect to convert it to fit their vision.
“It was actually 67 days of renovations. Most people don’t do their kitchen in 67 days,” she said of the $2.5 million renovation. Funds for the purchase and renovation of the school included a lead gift from Robert Schattner, a longtime supporter, in the form of a challenge grant.
JPDS-NC raised more than $5 million for the expansion and is still fundraising for tuition assistance and the new playground.
The older facility also had work done this summer, including a new science lab and spaces for small group work. Also, office space for student-support services was added. Beginning with the next school year, that building will house second- through sixth-graders.
Berger credits the school opening on time to “everybody believed in what we were doing.” She already is content that it was all worth it now that she witnessed so many first day smiles from parents and children alike.
While 70 students in one prekindergarten and three kindergarten classes may not seem all that large for the new campus, “a good handful” of students, especially prekindergartners, had to be turned away, noted Sindy Udell, director of admissions. She stressed that students didn’t have to pass any tests to get in. Instead, school officials chose the student body by trying to have the same number of boys as girls and finding “a good group of kids. We wanted to create a nice community.”
While the students and 13 teachers were beginning their new school year, a group of parents were upstairs, where the first-grade classrooms will be, sharing bagels, coffee, fruit and “tea and tissues.”
“It’s a way for new parents to talk to returning parents,” Greenstein explained. Many of those parents are alumni themselves.
Maia Magder of D.C. was chatting with other parents after dropping her son off at the north campus for first grade and her daughter in the prekindergarten class downstairs.
“We’re so excited. She was excited to ride the bus. She’s excited to have her own campus,” Magder said.
JPDS-NC is the only Jewish day school in Washington, D.C. Approximately 60 percent of the school week is spent on general studies and the remaining 40 percent is split between Judaic studies and Hebrew language. The average class size ranges from 16 to 18 students.