By Steve Freedman

I arrived at Hillel Day School in 2003, and by 2005, I realized that education didn’t just need improvement, it needed to change.  Our students sat at desks, memorizing information, and regurgitating it on tests. Students were working out of textbooks, and workbooks, and filling in worksheets. There were some creative projects going on, but they were few and far between. Most projects were done at home, which, in many cases, meant parents were doing them.  Grades and performance were the focus. Students were certainly learning to achieve at schooling, but how much meaningful and authentic learning was taking place?

This question plagued me. So I began to research an alternative. I read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, and Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. Both books were quite impactful. Thomas Friedman wrote about the emerging global community that would bring people closer together, and fundamentally change our economy and the skills people would need. Daniel Pink wrote that the Industrial and Information ages were behind us, and that we were now in a conceptual age where skills such as creativity, empathy, and problem solving would be needed.

Over the next few years, thought influencers including Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, Daniel Pink, Thomas Sergiovanni, and Will Richardson continued to validate my premise that if teaching continued to look in the 21st century as it had in the 20th century we would be robbing our children of their future! The changing tools for success in a 21st-century workforce align with the skills children need now to succeed in school – and in life. I knew I had to affect meaningful change at our own school for the sake of our children.

With a new vision and dream of what Hillel could be, I began to bring the story to, and generate conversations with, our teachers, board members and parents. The guiding question was, “What do children need for a ‘this century’ education to best prepare them for the world they will inherit?”  This framed many fruitful discussions and inspired teachers to reflect on their practice, and to begin to take risks to grow and improve.

By 2010, many of our teachers began to focus on collaboration, projects, individualization, and integration. The traditional classroom began to feel confining. By 2012, I took the teachers through a visual and mental exercise to imagine what learning could look like at Hillel, through the lens of our mission. It was a powerful document that reflected much of the best practices supported in educational research. In their vision spaces looked very different, and learning looked different; it was more creative and hands-on. We determined to focus on seven essential skills, our 7Cs – Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Community, Core Jewish values, and Character. In our minds, these were essential to the success of each Hillel graduate.

After several presentations, the Board of Trustees ultimately embraced this progressive vision for Hillel, and I took our story to a local foundation, interested in Jewish education, to help us with our first steps, to build a comprehensive technology infrastructure, and to upgrade every aspect of our technology program to maximize this powerful tool. Our leadership team presented them with our compelling vision, and that, along with Hillel’s solid reputation in the community, persuaded them to partner with us.

In 2014, another philanthropic family with long ties to Hillel, approached us, based on what they had been observing and hearing about Hillel, and asked a simple, yet profound question, – “What transformative dream do you have for Hillel Day School?” With our vision, story and data in hand, we presented the donor with a master plan to transform the school into a 21st-century learning center.

11.5 million dollars later, the school has been completely reimagined and renovated. We now have the flexible and inviting spaces and tools to provide our children with skills-based, authentic learning experiences. All educational decisions are made using our 7Cs as our guide. We have flexible learning communities, each designed to be developmentally and age-appropriate, a maker space, proto-typing lab, green room for movie making, art studio, and greenhouse, all connected in our Innovation Hub.  These renovations, along with intensive professional development, have increased our faculty’s motivation to excel. They are an incredibly hard working team, and they are energized and inspired by the spaces, the new strategies they have adopted, and the obvious increase in excitement of our students. In fact, many children now arrive early to school and stay late to take advantage of the resources and inviting environment in which to work, reflect and relax.

Dreams just don’t happen. Through a laser-focused approach, staying on message, and by being a leader who is doggedly perseverant, Hillel has been transformed to better meet the needs of “this century” children. Hillel Day School continues to be on a journey to weave the elements of space, technology, project-based learning, Jewish values, and more to inspire our students – their curiosity, creativity and passions, to become lifelong learners and problem solvers, contributing to their communities and beyond.

Steve Freedman is the Head of School at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.

Read a recent article on the school in their local news.