Prepared to Lead
At Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, students learn to create, collaborate and discover their place in the world
by Bill Donahue

Students often look to the future with a mix of uncertainty and fear, unsure of their place in the changing world around them. At Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic coeducational day school in Bryn Mawr, students from all levels of Jewish observance learn to engage the world in a safe, supportive and challenging environment built to help them flourish, both in college and afterward.

Barrack is truly an uncommon place, where students in grades six through 12 discover a safe haven for exploring a variety of academic disciplines with fellow students of diverse backgrounds. Founded as Akiba Hebrew Academy in 1946, the school has continually sought innovative ways to shape students into inquisitive, resourceful leaders eager to “repair the world” in accordance with the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam.

The newly opened Innovation Lab is a fine example. Barrack has always had a reputation for its strong math and science programs—it has been teaching engineering for more than a decade, for example, before most private schools ever considered such a thing—yet the administration decided to leap forward by expanding its teaching capabilities in technology and the arts. When the Innovation Lab opened its doors at the start of the school year, the school moved closer to its goal of becoming a “center of excellence” for education in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), according to Darin Katz, Ph.D., the school’s academic dean, who also teaches chemistry to 10th grade honors students.

“What we’re doing now has allowed us to elevate the level of science and technology education we provide to our students and teach them critical 21st century skills,” says Katz. “In the Innovation Lab, students will learn some very important skills from each other: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication—all of the things that happen organically when you have students learning together and engaging with each other.”

Arthur Maiman, a science teacher for more than 25 years, joined Barrack earlier this year to shape the school’s STEAM program. He had been leading the STEAM program at Scheck Hillel Community School in Miami when the opportunity to “build a STEAM program from the ground up,” as he says, arose at Barrack. He was instrumental in creating the design and workshop-style feel of the Innovation Lab, which includes six 3-D printers, a 3-D scanner and a robotics program, as well as a fabrication center to facilitate project-based learning.

“We had an alumnus come by recently who is in the chemical engineering program at [the University of Pennsylvania], and when he saw what we were doing here, he said, ‘This is how we spend our day [at Penn],’” Maiman says. “What we’re doing here is essentially like a pre-engineering program.”

Barrack has a multiyear plan for getting students engaged with STEAM and the Innovation Lab. This year was about “building excitement,” Maiman says, which the school succeeded in doing; more than 75 students—approximately 20 percent of the entire student population—enrolled in some sort of STEAM class this year. So far, the lab has been used as a teaching tool in classes ranging from chemistry to music and the arts, and Maiman believes the opportunities are endless. Going forward, the school plans to develop an engineering track for interested students, as well as add more STEAM electives to the curriculum.

“Many students choose not to participate in science and technology because they have no exposure to it and they feel intimidated,” Maiman says. “Kids who want to go into a technology and science setting in college need to be prepared earlier on, so we have a responsibility to get them ready early. If we’re not getting them ready now, by college it’s too late.

“I want our students to leave here feeling they are very well prepared to conquer anything out there related to technology, to feel like it’s something they are not afraid of but are intimately familiar with,” he continues. “Down the line I would like to see students coming out of here and taking a leadership role in technology fields and making a real difference. I’d like to see students beginning their own startup companies with ideas and projects they started here.” 

Whereas the STEAM initiative represents a newer distinction, one of the most vital aspects of a Barrack education has been in place for decades: the Resource Department. Approximately one-quarter of Barrack students participate in the program, where two full-time staffers and three “half-time” staffers provide learning-support services to help students thrive emotionally, socially and academically.

“Some students have organizational challenges or need help with their executive functioning skills, and we also provide curricular support, mostly in English, history, social studies and math,” Katz says. “The academic environment at Barrack is very challenging; it’s a dual curriculum, meaning most students will take eight academic majors, whereas in other schools it’s five or six. The Resource Department makes it possible for all students to enjoy the benefits of a Barrack education.

“There is no stigma at all for students in our Resource program,” he continues. “It’s the opposite, in fact; some students ask to be placed in the Resource program for learning support, which I think is a remarkable statement about the school’s culture.”

Matthew Dorsch can attest to the department’s value. A Barrack alumnus from the Class of 2005, Dorsch found his enrollment in the Resource program to be incredibly helpful. In fact, when his parents dropped him off for his first day of college at the University of Pittsburgh, the very first thing he did was utilize his Barrack planner—a tool he learned about through the Resource Department—to prepare for the days and weeks ahead.

“[Alumni] come back here all the time, sharing their stories about how the things they learned here helped them stay organized and gave them the tools they needed to succeed in college,” says Dorsch, a Resource teacher who earlier this year became chair of the Resource Department. “Some students are here from sixth through 12th grade, and some are here for short stints. Sometimes they are working on a paper in English class and need to organize their thoughts, sometimes they need help deciphering difficult [Hebrew] texts, sometimes they just need a quiet place to study. … The goal is to help students become independent learners, to help them find their passion, and to help them be successful.”

Whether or not they require learning support, Barrack students benefit from the challenging yet nurturing environment that fosters a true sense of community. One-hundred percent of Barrack students proceed to institutions of higher learning, while 85 percent of graduating seniors matriculate to their top choice of college or university, including some of the top-tier Ivy League schools. Alumni include prominent business owners, civic leaders and media personalities, as well as young men and women who have gone on to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.

“We have created an environment where students from all backgrounds, from all levels of Jewish observance, can feel completely safe and comfortable here,” says Katz, whose two children attend the school. “This is a place where students can be who they are and feel loved for who they are, and feel validated by their fellow students for their inherent gifts and the things they want to pursue. They can receive the most outstanding education, both secular and Judaic, in a place that feels like home.

“What we want from all our graduates, more than anything else, is to leave Barrack prepared to make the world a better place.”

Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
272 S. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

Photograph by Jody Robinson