Middle school great time for students to enter PJA
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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While parents seeking the academic excellence of a Blue Ribbon School, small class size or a Jewish environment enroll their children in all grade levels at Portland Jewish Academy, middle-schoolers have developmental needs that make the day school especially appealing for that age group, according to PJA Principal Patricia Schwartz.
"Middle school is an important time developmentally when adolescents' social, physical and emotional needs are served very well in small schools where students have structure but also have an opportunity to explore and develop a strong concept of who they are before they move into more challenging situations," said Schwartz.
The smaller environment was exactly the reason Marianne and Jeffrey Braunstein decided to move their daughter Leah to PJA when she began middle school three years ago.
Though Leah did well at Forest Park Elementary School, Marianne said that her daughter hesitated to engage in classroom discussions. Marianne praised the public school teachers for recommending a smaller environment for Leah.
"We felt that smaller class sizes would enable her to more effectively participate in school and help her develop those skills sets before moving into even larger classroom settings" in high school, said Marianne. "Also, I feel that the smaller environment allows teachers to be more engaged on multiple levels of a teenager's life."
For those seeking a strong academic program, PJA's claim to academic excellence is proven by its status as the only Oregon school recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education as a Blue Ribbon School in 2005. The honor was based on scoring in the top 10 percent of the nation on standardized tests over five years and other criteria including teacher turnover and student attendance.
So when Garrett Raff and his family moved to Portland from Florida last December, they didn't look any further than PJA for an academically challenging school. His parents Steven and Keely Raff said they found PJA on the Internet, made inquiries and heard positive feedback. Though they gave Garrett the option of looking at the public middle school, when he visited PJA "he loved it and didn't even want to go look at Jackson."
"Garrett initiated wanting a good solid academic environment," said his mother Keely. "He had been disappointed at the public middle school in Florida and felt he was not learning or being challenged."
Neither academics nor the small class size was the deciding factor for the Braunstein's when they decided to enroll their son Joshua at PJA when he begins sixth grade next fall.
"Other than encouraging his Jewish identity, there was no strong need to have him attend the PJA over East/West Sylvan," said Marianne. "Both have excellent academics and it was not clear that a smaller environment would necessarily be better for Joshua. However, we had been pleased with the education Leah received and thought that it might be in his best interests as well."
Leah lobbied strongly for her brother to attend PJA telling him he would receive a better education in smaller classes where the teachers are more engaged. After spending a day shadowing at PJA, Joshua decided his sister was right, so he will begin middle school at PJA in September.
Some parents express concern about enrolling their children in a Jewish day school with a limited background in Hebrew and others worry about whether their children will be accepted into a social group where many of the children have been friends since kindergarten. Neither of those concerns is an issue according to admissions coordinator Linda Singer.
"Kids here a long time love having new classmates arrive," said Singer.
And Hebrew is offered at various levels enabling students to enter regardless of their past Hebrew experience.
Both the Braunsteins and the Raffs said that Hebrew has not been an issue.
Both families also said that the school and students had been very accepting and helpful in the transition.
Singer matches new families with buddy families before the school year begins and assigns a student as an ambassador to show the newcomer around on their first day.
"PJA went out of their way to help with this by setting us up with a fabulous buddy family that introduced themselves to us before the school year and supported Leah in her transition," said Marianne, noting she was very pleased with the school's support for Leah's transition and doesn't think the school could do any more when Joshua begins in the fall.
"He references his to-be-made 'PJA friends,' just knowing that they will accept him as they did Leah," said Marianne.
Garrett had the same experience.
"We have been very pleased with the receptiveness of the students, their kindness, acceptance and most importantly their inclusion of Garrett into their group," said Steven. "He's made several good friends who he now socializes with outside school. ? The teachers also took a personal interest in Garrett and have been guiding him both socially and academically."
Both families said they consider PJA an excellent option for middle school and encourage other families to consider the school and whether it meets their needs.
"It has been a wonderful experience where our son has blossomed," said Keely. "The greatest gift any parent can ask is that their child be happy. Garrett would come home from school in the first few days, and even to this day, and say how much he loved going to school."
For information or a tour, call Singer at 503-535-3599.