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Critical thinking is the norm at Hebrew Academy

It employed Common Core standards decades before the phrase became part of our educational system lexicon.

March 05, 2014|By Anthony Clark Carpio
  • First-graders work on an activity during Susan Choi's General Studies class at the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach.
First-graders work on an activity during Susan Choi's… (KEVIN CHANG, HB…)

As public school districts in Southern California begin to implement the Common Core State Standards in the classroom, one private school in Huntington Beach can claim that it has been focusing on critical thinking — an aspect of the new educational criteria — for 45 years.

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood in the northernmost portion of the city is the Hebrew Academy, an 11-acre campus that caters each year to about 300 students in preschool through high school students from across the Southland.

"We have a family as far as Carlsbad who attend," said Nicole Levy-Gray, director of marketing. "We have a lot from L.A. and the Valley. We also have a lot from Long Beach and Irvine."

Families have dozens of other religious-school options in Los Angeles and Orange counties, but Rabbi Avrohom Popack, the assistant principal, said parents are drawn into the Hebrew Academy's ability to offer traditional Judaic studies as well as a comprehensive general studies program.

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"It's a high-quality program on the general studies side, but couple that with a dynamic, genuine, Jewish experience," he said. "The children have the best of both worlds."

Common Core standards aim to develop students who think critically rather than just memorize and regurgitate facts. Administrators at the academy said such a philosophy has been exercised at the school since it started in 1969, not simply for academic reasons but because it's part of the Jewish culture.

Director of Admissions Alexandra Greenberg explained that every letter in the Hebrew Torah has a significance, a numerical value and a reason for being in a specific spot on the page. The students are challenged to consider why the words and letters are placed as they are.

"Some parents question why we're spending so much time on Judaic studies," she said. "Well, it's your heritage, your culture; it's tradition, life lessons and history. But studying Hebrew actually crosses over into critical thinking for regular studying."

Middle and high school Jewish history teacher Chaya Sufrin said students spend weeks studying and dissecting portions of the Torah and often will have different or conflicting ideas on what the passages mean.

"The rabbis don't always come to a conclusion, and sometimes the students have to come to the conclusion on their own or come up with more than one conclusion," she said.

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