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Fairfield County is rocked by the close of Carmel Academy

By Stacey Dresner

GREENWICH – The Fairfield County Jewish was caught by surprise two weeks ago when Carmel Academy in Greenwich announced that it will close its doors at the end of this school year, after serving as an independent Jewish day school in Fairfield County for the past 22 years.

According to a letter sent to the school’s families as well as the Greenwich and Stamford Jewish communities, Carmel Academy announced that it will be “integrating many of its families and elements of its program” with The Leffell School, a Jewish day school located in New York’s Westchester County, in time for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. 

In a phone call with the Ledger, Dr. Michael Kay, head of school at The Leffel School, clarified that Carmel’s use of the word “integration” does not connote a merger between the two schools. 

“There’s not a formal legal agreement [between Carmel and Leffell School],” he said. “Carmel Academy is winding down its operations as an independent school, so there will not be a school known as Carmel Academy next year.”

Nora Anderson, Carmel Academy’s head of school, cited “the current realities of finances and enrollment” as the reason for the school’s demise.

The administrators and boards of Carmel Academy and The Leffell School began working together recently to integrate Carmel families into Leffell, a pluralistic independent K-12 Jewish day school with 740 students.   

“We’ve worked together with them to, first of all, make it as smooth and easy a transition as possible for any of their students who want to be at our school, specifically integrating particular programs from Carmel and as much as we can, some of the realty positive elements of the Carmel ethos and culture into our school community,” Dr. Kay said. “We are going to automatically issue enrollment contracts to their families without requiring any particular application process. We’ve worked out for the families who receive tuition assistance a very smooth way to help them navigate that so that finances are not an obstacle. We have a donor from our community who stepped up to provide fully subsidized transportation from Connecticut to make that more attractive.”

Leffell will also make room for Carmel Academy’s PALS (Providing Alternative Learning Strategies) program that provides services for children with learning issues.

Carmel Academy was founded in 1997 as Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy (WFHA). The school opened in September 1998 with 24 students in kindergarten and first grade, adding an additional grade each year. WFHA’s first class of eighth graders graduated in 2006. In February 2011, Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy changed its name to Carmel Academy. 

Originally housed at Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York, the school moved to Temple Sholom in Greenwich in 2001. In 2006, it moved to 270 Lake Ave. in Greenwich, the 17-acre former campus of the Rosemary Hall private girls school.

The closing “wasn’t a shock,” said David Pitkoff, president of Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, a pre-K-12 Jewish school located on a sprawling campus in nearby Stamford. “It’s part of the problems of the day school tuition model that we have all been dealing with. The cost of education is very high and it’s harder and harder for families to commit those resources. We have to find a way to solve that problem.”

Pitkoff expressed sympathy to the entire Carmel Academy community, some of whom he knows personally.

“The first reaction is that it is just very sad when a day school closes. It’s just not a good thing for our community over all when a day school closes… If it was Bi-Cultural, where you put all of your heart and soul into a place, when a school closes it’s like a punch in the gut.

“A lot of people there who are very invested in the school and their children’s education are hurting,” he said. “From [Bi-Cultural’s] point of view if I had any message for them it’s that our doors are open and they are welcome here. We are not trying to recruit, but certainly we want them to know they have a home here too… We are here for them.”

Pitkoff said that although Bi-Cultural is Modern Orthodox, the school’s student body of approximately 350 students is very diverse.

“We are a community day school, so we really do embrace the entire breadth of the community,” he said. “We have plenty of families who are Conservative, plenty of families who are Reform, and plenty of families who are wmore religious students. 

Both Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy and Carmel Academy receive allocations from both the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, and the UJA-JCC Greenwich.

When asked if there is any push on the part of Federation to try to keep Carmel Academy’s students in Connecticut, the heads of the Stamford and Greenwich federations sidestepped the issue.

Diane Sloyer, CEO of the Stamford Federation, would not comment on the closing of Carmel Academy beyond saying that it was “sad for the community.”

Pam Ehrenkranz, CEO of UJA-JCC Greenwich, said, “Jewish education is a core value of ours at Federation and we are really sad about the developments.”

As for keeping Carmel students in a Connecticut day school, she said, “Our concern is that every child who wants a Jewish day school education get one. So, if they go to Leffell or if they go to other day schools, we’re very happy to hear it.

“Once everything shakes out from Leffell, we’ll take it from there. I mean, everything just happened this week. There are a lot of open questions. What’s going to happen to the campus? What’s going to happen to the families who want a Jewish education? What does it mean to be a community without a day school? What about the larger conversation about day school education in America? All of these questions are open,” she said.  

Pitkoff agreed that of paramount importance was ensuring that the students continue to receive a Jewish day school education. But he had an additional thought.

“Certainly, we hope they stay in the day school network; that would be probably the greatest loss if they left day schools altogether because of this,” he said. “I think the best case would be for New York families to stay in New York and Connecticut students stay in Connecticut and that way we strengthen both communities.”

Since the beginning of February, Carmel Academy and The Leffell School have been holding “coffees” with Anderson and Kay, as well as town hall meetings and parent meetings for Carmel Academy parents. In addition, a series of parlor meetings and group tours were held last week for Carmel Academy families.

Likewise, Bi-Cultural is reaching out to Carmel families through informational sessions, several of which were held last week. According to school administrators, BCHA is thriving and in recent years has introduced many innovative programs and positive changes to its curriculum and make-up – changes that include the creation of the state’s first Makerspace Junior especially geared to preschoolers; and the addition of a comprehensive high school which resulted from a merger with what was then the Jewish High School of Connecticut. In 2017, the school became the only day school in the country to be designated a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the Department of Education.

“The message from us is that we understand how hurt they must be — we really do — and we are really ready to welcome them,” Pitkoff said. “Our doors are open and hopefully they will feel as at home at Bi-Cultural as they felt at Carmel. It’s about the kids; it’s about the education.”

Main Photo: Carmel Academy in Greenwich, will close after the current school year. (Facebook)

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