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VOL. 39 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 9, 2015

Akiva looks to broaden geographic reach

By Kathy Carlson

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First graders work to master a Chromebook at Akiva School.

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At Nashville’s Akiva School, each graduating class creates a gift for the school and future students: framed artwork, a mosaic, a treehouse or a garden.

What makes the gift-giving tradition noteworthy is that the graduates are sixth-graders, and currently 75 students attend the K-6 school.

Akiva is Middle Tennessee’s sole Jewish private school, one of only a handful in Tennessee. Some large American cities support many Jewish private schools, with individual schools for Orthodox or Reform families.

“In Nashville, we’re it,” says Lynn Heady, Akiva’s head of school. “We’ve had to be very pluralistic.”

That was a real plus for Evan and Sandy Nahmias, who moved their family to Nashville last December from Memphis. “We figured the best way to get to know the Jewish community was to go to a Jewish day school,” Evan says.

The family had toured the school before the move, and sons Elliott and Leeds had their choice of finishing the school year at their public schools in Memphis or starting at Akiva at midyear. The two boys chose Akiva, Sandy says.

“The community is great. You get to know everyone in the whole school, not just your grade,” says Elliott, who came to Akiva as a sixth-grader and now attends Montgomery Bell Academy.

Leeds, now in third grade, “has a good-sized class with a bunch of boys he’s bonded with,” Sandy adds.

Akiva dates to 1954 and draws students from 20 different zip codes in and around Nashville, including rural communities in Robertson and Sumner counties.

Some families have moved here from across the United States and around the world. Enrollment is up this year from 52 students last year, and it is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

One parent must be Jewish for a child to attend Akiva, but families don’t have to belong to a synagogue. Those who are affiliated with synagogues are distributed pretty evenly among Nashville’s five synagogues.

Classes at Akiva are project-oriented; these students have participated in the “tall tower” challenge.

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“We know there are families out there that want to come to Akiva, but we’re only in one location,” explains Erin Coleman, Akiva parent and board member. The school, which is located between Belle Meade and Bellevue in western Davidson County, is looking into providing bus service for students as a way to make the Akiva experience more accessible to families.

“We teach them that success is all about asking questions,” Heady says. “Kids are allowed to make mistakes (and then ask) how do you fix it.”

Students are taught how to get the information they need, how to think about the information, how to use it to solve the problem they’ve identified. It’s a different paradigm of learning, she adds.

The curriculum includes general studies – classes in math, reading and other subjects students would be taught in a secular school – along with Jewish studies.

Hebrew is taught through immersion-type classes. Jewish studies classes are also taught in Hebrew and cover holidays, traditions and Torah. Central to learning Torah is asking questions, so that’s why curiosity is such an important part of the educational philosophy and method at Akiva, Heady says.

“The faculty is so faithful, engaged and seriously works towards preparing every students for their future,” she continues. “They are focused on the skills and dispositions needed for success. … I’ve never seen this many good teachers (under one roof), and I’ve been around a lot of schools.”

Akiva graduates have gone on to attend Nashville and Williamson County public schools, magnet schools and private schools such as MBA, University School of Nashville, Ensworth, Harpeth Hall and Battle Ground Academy.

Heady says middle school principals and teachers tell her that Akiva graduates often fill leadership roles at their new schools.

Heady became Akiva’s head of school last school year after retiring as head of Micah Children’s Academy, a preschool at Congregation Micah in Brentwood. Previously, she had retired from the Williamson County School System as its director of teaching, learning and assessment.

This year, she adds, Akiva is boosting its science and math offerings, ensuring that math textbooks better align with the school’s philosophy of using curiosity and questions to guide learning. Students learn the engineering design process; classes are project-oriented.

Nurturing the mind, spirit and body are part of Akiva’s strategic plan, Heady says. To this end, the school hired a physical education teacher this year to provide more rigorous physical education classes and a wider emphasis on both individual and team sports.

The learning process is structured but creative, says Coleman, whose oldest child is in first grade.

She recalls the kindergarten students’ Humpty Dumpty exercise last year, in which they had to try to figure out how to keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped one foot.

None of the contraptions worked the first time, so the students went back to the drawing board and worked up other approaches. The next time, two of the three approaches protected the egg, she notes.

In addition to low-tech science projects like ramps built with blocks and egg-dropping experiments, there’s high tech as well.

Fifth- and sixth-graders get their own computers, Heady says, and there are enough additional computers to go around for the younger students. The school is developing a computer coding class for students, building on a student’s suggestion.

“I’ve always liked computers and I thought about learning how to code,” says recent graduate Elliott Nahmias.

After some research, he presented a proposal for a coding class at the school as part of a program for fifth- and sixth-graders to develop community-impact projects.

The school is moving forward with the idea.

“I don’t think you’ll find a school in Nashville as loving and community-driven as Akiva, (with) all of the building up of a student and excellence in academics,” Coleman says.

Her family moved to Nashville from Baltimore four years ago, and having a Jewish day school was a relocation requirement, she adds.

“From my own experience of watching my oldest, it’s amazing to see the camaraderie among all the students. … It doesn’t matter what grade they’re in, they’re all friends and it goes beyond the doors of the school.”

Last year, she says, her daughter had a difficult practice session with the swim team.

“One of the fourth-graders came up to her. He was the brother of one of her friends from preschool. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Batya. I’ve been swimming and it used to be hard for me.’

“I don’t know if he would have said that to her had they not been at Akiva. The camaraderie there is awesome. Akiva really fosters community among its students in a big way. It allows students to look beyond their differences and focus on community.”

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