Darko Academy finds a home

On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen or so school-age children were working together with adults to unload chairs, tables, boxes of pens and papers, board games, globes and books — lots of books — from a moving truck. The items — and the children — had arrived at the new home of their school, Darko Learning Academy in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. 

The work was necessary, but it also was, as school principal and Judaic studies teacher Rabbi Aaron Parry put it, “a very Montessori thing to do.” After all, the Montessori method emphasizes cooperation, hands-on learning and practical life skills — and Darko bills itself as “L.A.’s only Jewish Montessori elementary school.”

Darko got its start about four years ago, though the Montessori label is a more recent addition. 

“The main driving force behind starting Darko was my own personal school experience,” explained founder Rabbi Shimon Shain, now the school’s director.

Although Shain, a Brooklyn native and father of five who lives in Beverlywood, was eager to learn as a child, he admits he “found it difficult to stay interested and focused.” He resisted the emphasis on testing and test scores. 

“When it was time for my son, who has many similar character traits as myself, to start elementary school, we decided to home-school him so that he does not go through a similar experience,” Shain said. “As we were home-schooling, other local families who liked our approach to education started asking us if they can join in. That is how our school was born and how the school got its name Darko, which comes from the famous teaching of Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon): ‘Chanoch lanaar al pi darko — Educate the child according to his way of learning.’ ”

Darko also is an acronym. It stands for Discipline, Articulation, Respect, Kindness and Optimism, the five character traits that the school aims to develop and refine in every student, according to its website.

After meeting the past year and a half in rented space at the Chabad Israel Center on Robertson Boulevard, the school had intended to move to a new, roomier site near Carthay Circle this fall. Construction delays, however, meant the school’s 20 students had to instead meet at a private residence for the first few days of school. That’s when school officials discovered that another site, nearly move-in ready, had opened up: the old Gindi Maimonides Academy location on Pico Boulevard, just east of Doheny Drive. (Maimonides has a new building a couple of miles to the north, near the Beverly Center.) They moved into the space, which they are renting, on Sept. 17. 

Parry, who taught at Irvine Hebrew Day School last year — he liked the work, not the commute — suggests it all may have been serendipitous. After all, now the school has a spacious location with a capacity to grow to more than 200 students.

Currently, the 20 students enrolled at Darko range in age from 5 to 13. “We are mainly elementary,” Shain said. “But we also have a few middle school students who spend part of their time mentoring our younger students.” The school doesn’t bill itself as Conservative or Orthodox, but according to Parry, students and families are all “Torah observant.”

Darko currently has 20 students, but its new location has the capacity for more than 200.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Montessori method, Parry said, adding, “It is not loose and casual.” 

Darko students, like kids at other Montessori schools, enjoy a fair amount of choice, but it is choice with limits. Each child has goals for the week they must complete in various areas including math, reading, writing, history and science. On any given day, though, they can decide what they want to dig into first, then they have another level of choice. If they are studying geography, they may choose to work with a puzzle map, a globe, a book, or even on the Internet. The teacher is there to observe and guide and sometimes do small group lessons. 

Students also do a lot of hands-on learning that emphasizes practical life skills. 

“Let’s say they are going to cook,” said Ruth Luckoff, the school’s director of general education. “They have to plan what they are going to cook, what are the ingredients they need. After that, they go to the store and buy all the ingredients with a parent volunteer. When they come here, they have a lot of measurements. It incorporates science and math.”

They are even active when learning Hebrew: labeling objects in the classroom, for example.

“The truth is, it is very structured,” Parry said.

Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who pioneered the system, also espoused the importance of community and interconnectedness. “We shall walk together on this path of life,” she wrote. 

In keeping with this very Jewish value, Darko students participate in several community service projects over the course of the school year, often in conjunction with local nonprofits. They visit nursing homes, for example, package food for those in need or feed the hungry. 

Shain wasn’t familiar with Montessori when he started home-schooling, but when he began researching existing educational models and came across the philosophy, he was struck by how much it mirrored his vision. Last year, the school officially adopted the Montessori label. 

This summer, Darko sent Chayale Cohen, a Judaic studies teacher and social worker who helps students with social and emotional well-being, to intensive training at Netivot, a well-regarded Jewish Montessori school in New Jersey with programs from infant to middle school. 

Now that Darko is in its new home, Shain hopes to grow the school. 

“At our previous location, we were filled to capacity,” he said. “Now that we have a much larger campus, we plan on growing organically until we fill the entire campus, which has a capacity of 216.” 

But no matter its size, Shain’s goal for Darko remains unchanged: to be a school where every child can succeed, no matter their learning style. 

It’s an approach that has resonated with at least one Jewish celebrity. The musician Matisyahu, whom Shain considers a friend of Darko, penned a song for the school, available for listening at the school’s website, darkola.org.

“I know I love to learn,” he sings. “Darko, it’s the pathway to my soul. Darko, I won’t fit into the mold.” 

Preschool combines Jewish curriculum, Montessori method

At a table in the corner of Olam Jewish Montessori’s oversized classroom, a flour-covered 4-year-old chats nonstop as he mixes dough for challah. In another part of the room, a 3-year-old boy counts colorful Chanukah candles in Hebrew as he slowly places them in a menorah. A teacher is showing a third child a map of Paris while he toys with a model Eiffel Tower in his hands.

In the background, a beaming Robyn Farber can hardly believe what she sees.

“I’m still in a state of shock, it’s almost a surreal experience, said Farber, who founded the school for children ages 2 to 5 in September 2011. “When I walk through the doors and see the kids in the classroom, I pretty much come to tears.”

Her only regret is that her own children, ages 9 and 5, missed out on this unique Jewish learning experience.

Housed in Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation, Olam is Orange County’s newest Jewish preschool and the only one in the county that marries a traditional Judaic studies curriculum with the teaching methods of the famed Italian educator Maria Montessori. Pre-reading, math and number skills, science and social studies are intertwined with studies of the Bible, Jewish laws, and culture and holiday celebrations, all in keeping with Beth Jacob’s Modern Orthodox philosophy. A unit on the animal kingdom is combined with the story of Noah’s ark. Students recently celebrated Tu B’Shevat by planting flowers and herbs.

Although Montessori designed her child-centered method for teaching secular studies, educators at more than 30 Jewish preschools throughout North America have adopted her approach over the past 15 years as an alternative to developmental-style teaching. Farber said Montessori’s emphasis on respect, independence and nurturing a child’s innate desire for discovery make it the perfect medium through which to deliver Jewish education.

“To give children the independence about how they learn is parallel with Jewish education,” she said. “Torah lishma, learning for the sake of learning, is integral to both Jewish and Montessori teaching. Montessori education gives honor to the child when he learns for learning’s sake and not for rewards or grades or overpraising.”

Love for Israel and the Hebrew language are also integral to Olam’s curriculum, with students learning pre-reading skills in Hebrew as they do in English. Each of the multisensory language learning tools for which the Montessori method is known, like sandpaper letters and phonetic boxes that hold objects with single-syllable names, have their English and Hebrew equivalents in the multi-age classroom. Director Isabelle Harris, who taught children in Israel before moving to California, speaks to students in Hebrew only.

Olam Jewish Montessori is the culmination of a five-year quest by Beth Jacob parents for a preschool of their own.

With enrollment full at the local Jewish preschools, frustrated Beth Jacob parents found their children relegated to wait lists; many reluctantly sent their children to secular preschools.

Farber chose a Montessori school in Dana Point for her daughter. The experience was eye-opening.

“It was the most Jewish-like environment of any preschool I had seen, even though the school was not Jewish,” she said. “The kids were learning for the sake of learning. There was a real energy in the classroom.”

Farber was so impressed that she invited other Beth Jacob parents to observe the class. They liked the method but agreed that it would need a strong Jewish component if it were to be incorporated into a curriculum for their longed-for Jewish preschool.

The stars finally aligned for the would-be school when the building adjacent to Beth Jacob went on the market last year. With a shared parking lot between them to accommodate additional traffic, enough outdoor play space to meet California’s childcare facility regulations, and growing demand for services at the burgeoning synagogue, the building seemed to offer the solution congregants were looking for.

Anticipating the launch of the new school, its three teachers-in-waiting became credentialed in the Montessori method. Meanwhile, several Beth Jacob members donated the cash to purchase the building, which today houses the preschool, a Sephardic minyan and a community mikveh.

Additional funding for the school came from the Jewish Community Foundation; Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County; and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

Prospective parents often have a lot of questions about the Montessori method, and Farber said there is a lot of misinformation about with the approach is and isn’t. She welcomes parents to see what Olam offers and how it differs from other Jewish programs in the community. She hopes the school, which began with 11 students, will hit its capacity of 68 by September 2012.

“There has been a lot of excitement about the program,” she said. “Overall, people see it as something that has been missing from the community.”

For more information, call (949) 786-5230, ext. 201, or For more information, call (949) 786-5230 ext. 201 or visit olamjewishmontessori.com.