A principal’s speech to high school students


Three years ago, I wrote a version of this column. Because it went viral — often listing me as the high school principal who actually gave this speech! — I am revising it and publishing it here. I believe that if every school principal gave this speech, America would be a better place.

To the students and faculty of our high school:

I am your new principal, and honored to be so. There is no greater calling than to teach young people.

I would like to apprise you of some important changes coming to our school. 

First, this school will no longer honor race or ethnicity. I could not care less if you are black, brown, red, yellow or white. I could not care less if your origins are African, European, Latin American or Asian, or if your ancestors arrived here on the Mayflower or on slave ships.

The only identity this school will recognize is your individual identity — your character, your scholarship, your humanity. And the only national identity this school will recognize is American. This is an American public school, and American public schools were created to make better Americans.

If you wish to affirm here an ethnic or racial identity — or a national identity other than American — you will have to attend another school. This includes after-school clubs. I will not authorize clubs that divide students based on any identities. This includes race, language, religion, sexual orientation or whatever else may become in vogue in a society divided by political correctness. Those clubs just cultivate narcissism — an unhealthy preoccupation with the self — while the purpose of education is to get you to think beyond yourself.

Your clubs will be based on interests and passions — clubs that transport you to the wonders and glories of art, music, astronomy, languages you do not already speak, carpentry and more. If the only extracurricular activities you can imagine being interesting in are those based on ethnic, racial or sexual identity, that means that little outside of yourself really interests you.

Second, I am uninterested in whether English is your native language. My only interest in terms of language is that you leave this school speaking and writing English as fluently as possible. The English language has united America’s citizens for over 200 years, and it will unite us at this school. It is one of the indispensable reasons this country of immigrants has always come to be one country. And if you leave this school without excellent English-language skills, I would be remiss in my duty to ensure that you will be prepared to successfully compete in the job market. We will learn other languages here — it is deplorable that most Americans only speak English — but if you want classes taught in your native language rather than in English, this is not your school.

Third, because I regard learning as a sacred endeavor, everything in this school will reflect learning’s elevated status. This means, among other things, that you and your teachers will dress accordingly. There will be a formal dress code at this school. And you will address all teachers by their title, not by their first name. They are your teachers, not your buddies.

Fourth, no obscene language will be tolerated anywhere on this school’s property. If you can’t speak without using the f-word, you can’t speak. By obscene language, I mean the words banned by the Federal Communications Commission, plus epithets such as the b-word, even when addressed by one girl to another, or the n-word, even when used by one black to another. It is my intent that by the time you leave this school, you will be among the few your age to instinctively distinguish between the elevated and the degraded, the holy and the obscene.

Fifth, we will end all self-esteem programs. In this school, self-esteem will be attained in only one way — the way people attained it until decided otherwise a generation ago — by earning it. One immediate consequence is that there will be one valedictorian, not eight.

Sixth, and last, I am reorienting the school toward academics and away from politics and propaganda. No more time will be devoted to tobacco, caffeine, sexual harassment or global warming. No more classes will be devoted to condom-wearing and teaching you to regard sexual relations as primarily a health issue.

And there will be no more attempts to convince you that you are a victim because you are not white or male or heterosexual or Christian. We will have failed if any one of you graduates from this school and does not consider him or herself inordinately lucky — to be alive and to be an American.

Now, please stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country. As many of you do not know the words, your teachers will hand them out to you.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Kadima and Heschel West merge middle schools


Two Jewish days schools in the West Valley are merging their sixth through eighth grades to form a middle school with a wider range of classes and a more diverse pool of friends.

Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills and Heschel West in Agoura will open the new Kadima Heschel West Middle School with 150 students in September 2007 on Kadima’s Evenhaim Family Campus.

“I think this is one of the most visionary and strategic community events that has happened in a long time,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School, which features many Kadima and Heschel West graduates. “Sometimes we adults get so caught up in our own ego needs and institutional needs we forget that our first order of business is to serve our children.”

By pooling resources and combining two small programs into a larger school, administrators say they can enrich academic offerings and give students more social opportunities.

Both Heschel West and Kadima have experienced sustained growth in the last few years, and this marriage is not a result of either school being weak or needing help, administrators say.

The idea took form after Kadima and Heschel West lay leaders began to meet to compare notes on budgetary and governance issues, and at one Starbucks meeting last year they tossed around the idea of a joint middle school dance.

While the dance never happened, it eventually lead to the idea of a full middle school merger — an idea professional and lay leaders quickly jumped on and brought to fruition within just a few months.

“What this is really about is two institutions pulling themselves together and saying what is the best thing to do for our communities, and let’s erase superficial differences and see if we can build something that is far better than what we can do by ourselves,” said Barbara Gereboff, Kadima’s head of school.

Renewed attention has recently focused on the challenge of how best to educate 11- to 14-year-olds — ages when children’s bodies, emotions and intellect undergo more changes than at any other time other than the first three years of life.

Recent research has shown national standardized test scores plummeting between fifth grade and eighth grade.

In Los Angeles, Superintendent David Brewer has set up a task force to look at the question of the middle school years. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has begun to dismantle middle schools, reintegrating them into a K-8 format or grades 6-12 schools.

Jewish day schools have traditionally been set up as K-8 schools, but with smaller student populations than public schools, which could mean that an eighth-grader might be with the same 20 to 30 kids for 10 years.

“The right thing for the children is that they leave the nest of elementary school and go into a larger pool of students that is a more diverse population, where they can develop their own Jewish identity and their own understanding of the way their world works,” said Rabbi Yuri Hronsky, Heschel West’s middle school director, who will become the principal of the joint middle school.

He will be supervised by Kadima’s Gereboff, and Jan Saltsman, Heschel West’s head of school.

The schools unveiled the plan to parents, staff and students in mid-December, days after the boards approved the merger and after just a few months of negotiating between the executive committees of both schools’ boards. Administrators say no teacher jobs will be cut.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” said Mira Winograd, mother of Kadima seventh-grader Darren and fourth-grader Toby. “We were told about this at an assembly, and every single question I thought of asking was answered in a way that left me extremely comfortable. I didn’t hear one negative remark from anyone I was sitting with.”

Kids wanted to know what the new school would be called, what the new mascot and team colors would be and whether they would have lockers and hot lunches.

“For a while we’ve had under 30 kids and only one or two classes,” said seventh-grader Brian Hertz, who has been at Kadima since kindergarten. “Now with more people we’ll have more friends and their will be more people in our classes. It just feels like everything is going to be better.”

Hronsky, Gereboff and Saltsman have been working closely to craft the new program.

“The first thing we had to do was break down these perceptions of our differences and determine how we are alike,” Saltsman said.

One of those perceptions had to with religiosity. Kadima is a Solomon Schechter school affiliated with the Conservative movement, while Heschel West is an independent community school, dedicated to pluralism. (The joint school will not be affiliated with any movement.)

But it soon became clear that the schools had the same policies regarding Shabbat, kashrut and kippahs, and that they spend the same number of hours per week in prayer. The “academic” versus “developmental” labels also proved to be specious.

“Sitting across the table from Kadima was more about brainstorming than negotiating,” said Roger Bloxberg, Heschel West’s president. “It was like looking in the mirror.”

Kadima Heschel West Middle School will operate as an independent entity with its own board, staff, budget and bank account. A bus will run from Heschel West to Kadima, about 7 miles east.

The move solves a growing space problem for Heschel West. Founded 13 years ago, Heschel West has rented a campus since 1997 just off the 101 at Liberty Canyon. Heschel West opened its middle school two years ago, and has grown from 140 students in 2002 to 260 today.

Heschel West is planning to build a 750-student facility, which would eventually also house the joint middle school on 72 acres of land it purchased in 1997 near Agoura Hills in unincorporated Los Angeles County. In 2005, the county approved the project, but the Agoura Hills City Council is appealing that approval.

School officials are confident they will be able to move forward with the building, but in the meantime the joint middle school will be housed on Kadima’s West Hills campus, a four-acre site it purchased three years ago after renting for the previous 34 years of its existence.

Heschel’s ‘Visionary’ Principal Retiring


“You always have to wait for Shirley,” the receptionist at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School announces to the people congregated in the office.

Inside, Shirley Levine, the school’s founder and head, confers with her assistant. She meets briefly with three teachers who have interrupted with an urgent student matter and apologetically fields several phone calls.

Between appointments, Levine attempts to straighten the stacks of papers covering her desk and glances at the nearby security monitor that continually scans the school parking lot and entrance. Behind her the shelves overflow with books, student art, gifts from appreciative parents and awards.

Clearly, nothing indicates Levine is retiring at the end of July.

But on Sunday evening, May 18, more than 400 people gathered at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to honor her 32 years of service to Heschel. The tributes flowed copiously and wholeheartedly, hailing her as fabulous, inspirational, dedicated and visionary.

But, as Levine herself teaches the students, actions speak louder than words.

Thus, a bigger tribute to Levine’s success is the fact that Heschel alumni are now enrolling their own children in the school.

A bigger tribute is the fact that many Heschel teachers and staff remain at the school for 10, 20 and even — in the case of kindergarten teacher Lee Shaw and Admissions Director Doritt Diamond — 31 years. And that former Heschel students Larry Kligman and Mayan Benami teach there.

And a bigger tribute is the fact that the synagogues that rented classroom space to Heschel during its early peripatetic years — Stephen S. Wise, Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Hillel — now host day schools of their own, validating Levine’s belief in the importance of a combined Jewish and general studies education.

Heschel began when a group of parents in the San Fernando Valley, under the leadership of Mark and Ellie Lainer, sought to establish a community Jewish day school, a novel idea in Los Angeles, but not in Mexico City where Mark Lainer had grown up. The group tapped Levine, then a full-time consultant with the Los Angeles schools, for advice. “It soon became clear that Shirley was the person to head up the school,” Mark Lainer said.

Heschel opened a year later, in fall 1972, with three kindergartens on three synagogue campuses, with about 50 children combined. It added a grade each year, with Levine writing, implementing and constantly perfecting the curriculum.

Today, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, with nearly 500 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, sits on a three-and-a-half-acre site in Northridge. And Levine is still diligently working to improve the school.

“The times have changed dramatically since 1972,” said Doug Williams, board of directors president for the past five years and a Heschel parent, “but Shirley has maintained the integrity of her original program.”

And that program aims to give children an exemplary and integrated general studies and Judaic education, with an emphasis on accommodating the individual learner. “Shirley’s mark on education is understanding that one size does not fit all,” said Rabbi Jan Goldstein, who served as Heschel’s rabbi-in-residence for 20 years.

Levine also believes that teaching should be developmentally appropriate as well as experiential, personally involving the child in thinking, problem solving and creative activities.

“The thing I’m most proud of is how we treat kids. We respect them and we teach them to respect themselves,” she said.

There are parents who disagree with Levine. Many would like to see school uniforms. Others object to calling teachers by their first names. But all agree that she always has the children’s best interests — educationally, developmentally and Judaically — at heart.

In their best interests, she believes, is the need to transmit Judaism as a vibrant way of life — and a responsible one, requiring students to perform tikkun olam, to make a difference in the world.

She also sees a need for students to meet and reach out to other cultures.

“Once you learn who you are, you can accept the beauty of other cultures,” she said.

She is especially proud of the third-grade exchange program with the Navajo Indians in Arizona that began in 1980 and incorporates pairing up Navajo and Jewish pen pals who learn about the other’s way of life and visit each other’s school.

But not in the students’ best interests are the changes she has witnessed over the years. She worries about the media’s negative impact on children and the rise in learning difficulties. She believes parents are busier now, spending less time with their children, relegating certain parenting tasks to teachers and struggling with increased tuition costs.

Levine herself grew up in a labor Zionist family with immigrant parents. As a young girl in Cleveland and then Los Angeles, she attended cheder, where she learned to read and write Yiddish so she could communicate with her grandparents living in Poland.

She credits her parents with giving her a deep respect for the dignity of every human being and a love of learning. Her father often reminded her, “You can lose wealth, you can lose everything, but you can’t lose your education.”

And Levine has dedicated her life to transmitting that respect and love of learning to hundreds of Heschel Day School students.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people.”

Luisa Latham, who served as Heschel’s director of Judaic studies for 25 years, elaborated.

“Shirley Levine is the quintessential text person,” she said. “You can really read out of her actions, out of the passion she has, what it means to be an educator.”

And what will this “quintessential text person” do upon retirement?

“I haven’t made any commitments yet,” Levine said. “But whatever it is, I will be available to Heschel always and forever.”

Honoring Dedication


Shirley Levine is a woman with many admirers. She was the founding principal of both Abraham Joshua Heschel Day Schools in Northridge and Agoura and has been dedicated to their success for more than 25 years. Just speak with one of the many parents whose children attend one of the Heschel schools and he or she will be quick to list her talents.

“She is so extraordinary,” says Ellen Smith, a parent with two children at Heschel West in Agoura. “She knows what has to be done and is tireless in accomplishing whatever is needed for our children.”

On Nov. 5 at the Partnership in Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) Conference in Cambridge, Mass., Levine received unprecedented recognition for her leadership and unparalleled excellence as a Jewish educator among all educators in North America. For the first time in its history, PEJE presented an award for Distinguished Professional Leadership in the Day School World. The award was created with Levine in mind.

“This was our third conference of grantees. Ever since Heschel became a grantee, we’ve been trying to get Shirley to come, but this was the first year she was able to come out,” says Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the director of PEJE. “We felt that it was extremely important to recognize her contributions to this school.”

Though Levine was the inspiration for the award, Elkin is hoping that further opportunities for such recognition of other leaders in Jewish education will present themselves. “We may try to replicate it in the future. But that could be hard to do, because few people dedicate themselves to a school for 20-plus years.”
PEJE is a national initiative designed to strengthen the quality of Jewish day school education in North America. The goals of its Challenge Grant Program, in which Heschel is a participant, are to enhance the excellence of new day school initiatives and to increase universal Jewish literacy through access to quality Jewish day school education.

Levine was extremely honored by the award. “I had worked with PEJE in establishing Heschel West, so they knew my work.”

But this was her first opportunity to attend a PEJE conference; her lack of attendance in the past is further evidence of her dedication to her schools.

“It’s hard to get away from the schools. So I was just excited about being at the conference. They had a dinner and Rabbi Elkin was telling us about this wonderful woman who had done all these great things and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to meet this woman.’ I was looking around trying to see who it was,” said Levine.
Though a complete surprise to Levine, those who know her and her work feel it was completely deserved. In the Heschel West newsletter, assistant principal Rob Anker wrote, “This recognition confirms Shirley’s preeminent position as a leader not only for Heschel West, but also for all educators who aspire to excellence.”

Education Briefs


A highlight of the annual religious school educators conference sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education is always the presentation of the Lainer Awards. These cash awards, established in 1989, go to talented educators who help perpetuate Jewish traditions and values in a religious school setting. Most of the winners have an in-depth knowledge of Judaica, and have committed much of their professional lives to Jewish institutions.

Such is the case of Neal Schnall, longtime religious school principal at Valley Beth Shalom, and Dalia Frank, who has taught for over 30 years at Ner Tamid of South Bay. Then there’s this year’s third recipient, a spirited young woman who balances her devotion to Leo Baeck Temple with an equally strong dedication to the children of McKinley Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.

Candace Baker grew up in Brentwood, and was — she claims — the only dark-haired person at Palisades High School. Her family belonged to University Synagogue; she served as a day camp counselor for the Jewish Community Centers Association, and spent weekends working at Camp Swig. Her college career began at UC Santa Barbara, but — once again daunted by the preponderance of blondes — she transferred to UC Berkeley, graduating with a degree in urban studies. From there it was only a quick hop into the field of elementary education. “With my personality,” quips Baker, “there wasn’t much choice.”

In 1984 she began teaching kindergartners in Leo Baeck’s Sunday School program. A large part of her curriculum there is “Gefilte, the Wish Fish,” who leaves her students upbeat messages like, “Do not feel blue-ish; it’s great to be Jewish.” Baker freely admits that she’s not deeply versed in Jewish theology. Early on, during a period of self-doubt, she confessed to then-education director Linda Thal, “I don’t believe in God. You should fire me.” Thal’s answer: “Jews are supposed to question. Now go teach!” What Baker is adept at teaching is ethics, and “how to be a mensch.” This fits in well at Leo Baeck, where the congregation is philosophically committed to social awareness.

Because of Baker, there’s now a growing link between Leo Baeck families and the children of McKinley Elementary.

McKinley is one of the lowest-achieving schools in Los Angeles. Its students, all of them black or Latino, live well below the poverty line. But since her arrival there in 1985, Baker has never felt like an outsider: “It was easy for me from the beginning, because I’m funny.”

Her quirky personality has helped motivate children to learn English and produce award-winning art projects. Typically, Baker credits the members of Leo Baeck for some of her own classroom accomplishments. She cites the case of her “ritzy friend,” Susan Irving, whom she persuaded to come demonstrate quilt-making at McKinley. What started as a one-time visit has turned into a five-year commitment — quilts created by Baker’s students have been displayed at Barnsdall Park and at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Irving has also helped locate five computers for Baker’s classroom. And each year some 30 Leo Baeck members — including doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood writers — trek to McKinley for the school’s annual career day.

Baker is perhaps proudest that she has managed to involve her Leo Baeck children in the lives of their McKinley counterparts. Yearly, she collects mounds of “gently used” books from Leo Baeck students so that the McKinley kids can have their own classroom lending library. And last year she organized a Leo Baeck field trip to the McKinley campus where children from both communities enjoyed what she calls “Chanukah in the ‘hood,” complete with latkes, dreydels and a menorah. It’s important for all of them, she feels, to learn to respect other people’s traditions: “I don’t want them to be limited, like I was, growing up in Brentwood.”

Baker has always taught the McKinley children about Jewish festivals, along with holidays from other cultures. They particularly like Chanukah, when she kindles her menorah, turns off the lights and reads stories. As perhaps “the only Jewish person they’ll meet,” she’s highly conscious of being a good role model. She recalls one little boy, a beneficiary of the Leo Baeck book drive, happily sighing, “I love the Jewish people!”

Double Duty


A highlight of the annual religious school educators conference sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education is always the presentation of the Lainer Awards. These cash awards, established in 1989, go to talented educators who help perpetuate Jewish traditions and values in a religious school setting. Most of the winners have an in-depth knowledge of Judaica, and have committed much of their professional lives to Jewish institutions.

Such is the case of Neal Schnall, longtime religious school principal at Valley Beth Shalom, and Dalia Frank, who has taught for over 30 years at Ner Tamid of South Bay. Then there’s this year’s third recipient, a spirited young woman who balances her devotion to Leo Baeck Temple with an equally strong dedication to the children of McKinley Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.

Candace Baker grew up in Brentwood, and was — she claims — the only dark-haired person at Palisades High School. Her family belonged to University Synagogue; she served as a day camp counselor for the Jewish Community Centers Association, and spent weekends working at Camp Swig. Her college career began at UC Santa Barbara, but — once again daunted by the preponderance of blondes — she transferred to UC Berkeley, graduating with a degree in urban studies. From there it was only a quick hop into the field of elementary education. “With my personality,” quips Baker, “there wasn’t much choice.”

In 1984 she began teaching kindergartners in Leo Baeck’s Sunday School program. A large part of her curriculum there is “Gefilte, the Wish Fish,” who leaves her students upbeat messages like, “Do not feel blue-ish; it’s great to be Jewish.” Baker freely admits that she’s not deeply versed in Jewish theology. Early on, during a period of self-doubt, she confessed to then-education director Linda Thal, “I don’t believe in God. You should fire me.” Thal’s answer: “Jews are supposed to question. Now go teach!” What Baker is adept at teaching is ethics, and “how to be a mensch.” This fits in well at Leo Baeck, where the congregation is philosophically committed to social awareness.

Because of Baker, there’s now a growing link between Leo Baeck families and the children of McKinley Elementary.

McKinley is one of the lowest-achieving schools in Los Angeles. Its students, all of them black or Latino, live well below the poverty line. But since her arrival there in 1985, Baker has never felt like an outsider: “It was easy for me from the beginning, because I’m funny.”

Her quirky personality has helped motivate children to learn English and produce award-winning art projects. Typically, Baker credits the members of Leo Baeck for some of her own classroom accomplishments. She cites the case of her “ritzy friend,” Susan Irving, whom she persuaded to come demonstrate quilt-making at McKinley. What started as a one-time visit has turned into a five-year commitment — quilts created by Baker’s students have been displayed at Barnsdall Park and at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Irving has also helped locate five computers for Baker’s classroom. And each year some 30 Leo Baeck members — including doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood writers — trek to McKinley for the school’s annual career day.

Baker is perhaps proudest that she has managed to involve her Leo Baeck children in the lives of their McKinley counterparts. Yearly, she collects mounds of “gently used” books from Leo Baeck students so that the McKinley kids can have their own classroom lending library. And last year she organized a Leo Baeck field trip to the McKinley campus where children from both communities enjoyed what she calls “Chanukah in the ‘hood,” complete with latkes, dreydels and a menorah. It’s important for all of them, she feels, to learn to respect other people’s traditions: “I don’t want them to be limited, like I was, growing up in Brentwood.”

Baker has always taught the McKinley children about Jewish festivals, along with holidays from other cultures. They particularly like Chanukah, when she kindles her menorah, turns off the lights and reads stories. As perhaps “the only Jewish person they’ll meet,” she’s highly conscious of being a good role model. She recalls one little boy, a beneficiary of the Leo Baeck book drive, happily sighing, “I love the Jewish people!”