Published on August 17th, 2017 | by WMJledger0
‘Reimagining, rebranding, remarketing’
Heritage Academy on hiatus; set to reopen as a center for Jewish Learning
By Stacey Dresner
LONGMEADOW – Citing declining enrollment and the financial challenges this created, the Heritage Academy board of directors announced earlier this month that they would suspend operations for the day school during the 2017-2018 school year.
But the leaders of Heritage stress that the plan is not to close the school for good, but to reopen Heritage as a center of Jewish learning for the whole community.
“Somebody posted ‘Heritage Academy is closing.’ We are not closing,” said Head of School Michelle Konigsburg. “The school is going on a hiatus. They are going to use the year to re-envision what Jewish education should look like in a Jewish community.”
“We’re going to be reimagining, rebranding, remarketing the school,” added Bob Kahan, president of Heritage, “with the expectation of starting a K-only class in the 2018 -2019 year, then a K through first grade, which Lander-Grinspoon Academy did a number of years ago.”
There are also plans to open the Center for Jewish Learning in January, a community afterschool Jewish academic program. The program will be designed for all Jewish children, grades K-7 in the Pioneer Valley, across denominations and affiliations, and for those unaffiliated.
According to Kahan, the Heritage board had voted in June to keep the school open for the next school year if “sufficient funding” to operate was found. But by August, that funding was not there and enrollment had dropped even further.
“We did not have sufficient enrollment to make the school work and that entered into it,” Kahan explained. “The final denoument was in August. There was a realization that because of demographic issues, the school was getting smaller and that with the small numbers it was not possible to give effective education as presently constituted.”
At its highest in the early 1990s, Heritage Academy’s enrollment was at around 145 after dropping to around 50 in the early 80s, Kahan said.
“But there has always been an ebb and flow,” he said.
Between 2012 and 2016, Koneigsberg said, enrollment was at around 60 students. It fell to around 50 in 2016, then 40 in 2017.
At the end of the last school year, five students graduated, leaving only around seven students in the Heritage middle school program.
“We knew we are capable of delivering a middle school curriculum but because the number of students was so small, we would not be able to give a middle school experience,” Konigsburg explained. “It left just a few kids, so the board decided that it would not offer middle school this year. We would offer middle school curriculum if any child wanted to stay but we could not offer middle school.”
By the end of the 2016-2017 school year, with funding up in the air, the estimated enrollment for the next school year was at 19. Still, the board did not at that time decide to close the school.
“There were assurances that we were going to open the school even as late as the end of the school year,” Konigsburg said. “There was the decision that we would go forward; the board decided if there were enough students that had an interest and an investment in the school then that the school would open.”
But over the summer, things did not seem to be looking up.
“As the summer progressed it became evident that the enrollment was not increasing, that there were students and parents who weren’t making full commitments, and there was an uncertainty about how many students would actually be here on the opening of school,” Konigsburg said. “It just became an irresponsible decision to use the limited resources to maintain a full fledged school program given the circumstances. It seemed better to utilize the time to rebrand and re-envision.”
Parents were apprised of the low enrollment throughout the summer. After the board made its decision to suspend operations this coming school year, Konigsburg notified parents through email and follow-up phone calls.
“We made the offer to help families find alternative schooling for their children if they needed our help. We are looking to figure out how to create for them – the children who left us – a Judaic content supplement afterschool in the interim,” she said.
To that end, the Heritage board will work with the entire community to “reimagine” the school.
“We’re going to work with the area institutions, the rabbis, the congregations, and identify the Jewish children that are in the area,” Kahan said. “The area has had demographic challenges and we are going to work with them towards insuring that Jewish day school education is the preferred method of educating young Jewish children and go from there. It is an entire rebranding, remarketing, reimagining of how Heritage is perceived in the community,” Kahan reiterated. “The entire community has been very supportive and wants Heritage to succeed,” he added. “We are certainly working with the Federation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. LYA (Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy) has said they will be glad to support us in any way. The entire community — everybody — is a winner of Jewish education succeeds.”
“We’re very pleased to work with the current leadership of Heritage and to support them and their future vision for the school,” said Robert Marmor, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass.
Heritage Academy was founded in 1950 in the former Kodimoh Synagogue building in Springfield. By the late 1960s, the school was based in the Wessen House in Springfield, before its current building on the campus of the Jewish Community Center was built in the 1980s.
Kahan is the parent of two grown children who attended Heritage Academy and he served on the board as president from 1986-1988. He came back onto the board last year and asked by the board to serve as president.
“I was a 20-year board member thereabouts and a former president…I saw that there was a need to try to rebuild Heritage and that is what I got re-involved for,” Kahan said.
“We want to reinvigorate the leadership and restructure the board,” Kahan added. “We are very lucky this year, we have a new board – three-quarters of the board is new…They have been meeting since June almost weekly. They all have given a great deal of themselves and are working very hard for the school. We all want to have community Jewish day school education be re-established in the lower valley.”