January 19, 2020

Einstein Charter Schools expand to Beverly Hills

The Albert Einstein Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEA) marked the start of the 2015-16 school year with the opening of its new Odyssey Academy, a school serving kindergarten through fifth grades in Beverly Hills on the site of Temple Emanuel’s former day school. This will be the fourth California campus for the charter school. 

The school’s distinctive curriculum of foreign language mastery, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) courses and multiculturalism is the brainchild of founder Rabbi Mark Blazer, who made Jewish Journal headlines in August 2010 when the first campus (a seventh- through ninth-grade middle school) opened in Santa Clarita. Since then, AEA has opened schools in Huntington Beach, Agua Dulce and Westlake, Ohio. The organization also has home study programs serving families in Los Angeles, Santa Clarita Valley and Orange County.

Blazer, a graduate of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and former rabbi-in-residence, stresses that what originally started as a viable alternative for a Jewish day school serving Santa Clarita quickly expanded beyond the community’s — and even his — most ambitious expectations.

“Part of the reason why I went in the direction of founding Albert Einstein is that I knew [our community did not have] resources to open a Jewish day school in Santa Clarita,” he said. “What we ended up creating was a learning environment alternative that appealed to a wide variety of people, right in line with tikkun olam, or engagement in community service and working toward a better world.”

Although Blazer was confident his first AEA would be popular, he did not anticipate it would spark demand for more campuses at all grade levels and in other cities. However, during the first years in Santa Clarita, he and his fleet of educators, administrators and parents realized their model was replicable in other communities.

“What we ended up creating was a learning environment alternative that appealed to a wide variety of people, right in line with tikkun olam …” — Rabbi Mark Blazer, founder

“The rapid growth and instant success of all the schools has been a very rewarding part of the experience for me,” Blazer said. “What we have now is a network of schools that share the same vision and resources that stemmed from the original campus in Santa Clarita. In Beverly Hills, we knew we would be able to come into and become a part of a community offering the perfect scenario for opening up a campus. We were able to move into a facility that was literally turnkey, with a parent body ready to embrace us as we were offering Hebrew as one of the languages … in addition to Spanish, French, Arabic.”

Michael Fishler, chief academic officer and acting principal, said support from the Temple Emanuel congregation was instrumental in transforming the space, which had housed the temple’s day school for 30-plus years, into a functioning campus in time for the start of the 2015-16 school year. Although Odyssey Academy will employ the curricula originally created for the Santa Clarita schools, the Beverly Hills campus has unique attributes that will evolve with the incoming groups of teachers, parents and students, Fishler said. The school’s character will be further influenced by the diverse student body brought in through advertising in Spanish language newspapers as well as in newspapers serving non-Jewish communities near Beverly Hills.

“We say we are community schools, and that’s true in every sense of the term,” Fishler said. “We will take on the flair of the Beverly Hills community … elective courses will be different from other campuses, and this is where the community aspect comes in.

This is our only campus with a 300-seat auditorium, so we will have a performing arts program to put it to good use.”

Jami Bachrad, whose oldest child will be starting first grade at Odyssey Academy, is especially grateful that her family is involved from the start. 

“I think that the charter school world alone is fascinating and has so much to offer, bringing together the affordability of a public school and the autonomy and creativity of a private school setting,” Bachrad said. “The Albert Einstein curriculum model is also really compelling, with its approach to project-based learning, the focus on STEAM and the language component. I am thrilled this school is starting with Hebrew and expanding its language options, especially as a parent committed to having my children learn Hebrew.”

Bachrad is equally enthusiastic about the student body that will emerge over time. “I am hopeful the diversity will provide an even more rich learning environment,” she said.

Erica Cohen, a New York native, began her teaching career in Santa Clarita last school year with a class of fourth- and fifth-graders. This year, she’s looking forward to continuing her career in Beverly Hills overseeing a first-grade class.

“While I enjoyed working with older students, I am thrilled to be working with first-grade students,” Cohen said. “It is such an honor teaching them how to read. I am looking forward to using STEAM as part of our math and science curriculum, as well as project-based learning. We will also be applying ELA [English Language Arts] into the project-based learning, as well as encouraging the kids to demonstrate what they learned in the project room of our school and in the craft curricula.”

As of press time, all grade levels were filling quickly and there was a wait list for kindergarten and grades three and four. Fishler said that if the wait lists for those grades get long enough, the school will add sections.  

“We are not the same as everybody else, and if we were, why would we exist?” Fishler said. “We’ve built a national reputation combining traditional and nontraditional teaching methods, project- and inquiry-based learning, and world language. One of our main goals is to have our students be thoroughly multilingual by the time they graduate high school. All of our schools are focused equally on preparing our students for the 21st century, as well as [instilling] a love of learning. It all falls into a tikkun olam mindset that benefits everybody.”