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.
October 6, 2015

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.” 

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