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Decadal Deliberation

Seasoned Teachers Reflect on AJA

It has been a decade since Yeshiva Atlanta and Greenfield Hebrew Academy merged to create Atlanta Jewish Academy. Since this milestone, AJA High School has undergone significant growth. Some veteran faculty members have been a part of it all, supporting the high school as it grew. Having seen so much change, they have a unique perspective on AJA. 

“Although AJA has made great strides to improve, teachers still see aspects of the school that they believe can be ameliorated.”

Over the years, the High School’s many traditions have evolved. One of these traditions is Shabbat Dancing—a time during school on Friday when students and teachers sing and dance to Jewish songs. High School Principal Mr. Joel Rojek, who has worked at AJA for 21 years, commented on this tradition, saying that now is a “golden age of Shabbat Dancing” which is likely influenced by the incredible “buy-in” among students and teachers. In addition, High School Science Teacher Mrs. Catherine Brand, who has worked at AJA for 11 years, revels in the fact that Shabbat Dancing is much more organized now, so she knows when it will happen, and it doesn’t interrupt her planned lesson.

Shabbat Dancing, Onegs, Shabbatons, Mishmor, and Mishmeret are all long-lasting traditions in the High School. All of them date back to when AJA High School was Yeshiva Atlanta (YA), and according to Judaic Studies Teacher Rabbi Daniel Estreicher, who has worked at AJA for 47 years, “we even have more Shabbatons now.”

Traditions aren’t the only aspect of the high school that has undergone change; policies have evolved too. One such policy, the dress code, has undergone a plethora of adjustments. Mr. Rojek recounted that “we haven’t always had a dress code.” Before that, we had uniforms. Though he thinks “students like having the dress code better. . .with uniforms, it’s easier to hold students in compliance with the rules. ” Having seen uniform versus dress code policies first hand, it can be difficult for him to hear students’ complaints about the current dress code. When he hears students complain, he often thinks “perhaps you’re taking what’s good for granted” and not appreciating “how much more leeway you have in terms of what you can dress in.” 

In recent years, on top of the extra freedom acquired with the institution of a dress code, changes in the time allotted for lunch have also given students more freedom. According to Mr. Rojek, compared to previous years, “right now in the school’s history, [we] have a pretty long lunch,” which “can be a valuable time for students” to participate in extracurricular activities. 

Although there is more leeway now, discipline has improved to match the increase in freedom. Mrs. Brand noticed these “strides” and noted that discipline has become more consistent. 

One of the more recent changes that Mrs. Brand is very passionate about is a change in grading requirements. This year, guidelines surrounding dedicating a portion of a student’s grade to investment in learning ceased to be mandatory, so teachers can now choose whether to grade investment in learning. While Mrs. Brand thinks investment in learning is valuable, she approves of the decision to allow her to choose to include investment in learning, as her “personal philosophy” is not to include it as a part of a student’s academic grade. Still, she respects the fact that many teachers think otherwise. 

On a different note, Mr. Rojek noticed a vast change in the faculty’s partnership. Upon entering Yeshiva Atlanta, he understood that there was a division between the faculty members, with the Judaic and general studies teachers on either side of a fence and “the two sides. . . [not having] much to do with each other..” Since the AJA merger, however, there has been “more emphasis on treating the faculty as one,” and more overall unity, which he attributes to the fact that “. . . we look for certain personality traits” when hiring teachers. These cohesive traits allow the faculty members to work well with one another. 

Although AJA has made great strides to improve, teachers still see aspects of the school that they believe can be ameliorated. 

For one, Rabbi Estreicher thinks the school should be putting more emphasis on sending students to colleges that will help them further their Jewish life and observance.            

Mr. Rojek, striving for perfection, thinks that “everybody has a top two or three [electives] that are really appealing to” them and he would like to “kick that up just one more notch” by expanding the elective opportunities. Another thing he’d like to have more of is opportunities to “compete in contests or competitions or to engage with other schools in shared events.” Lastly, he would love to build a culture where students approach the administration with ideas “that would address an issue.” At the moment, he thinks this process stops at students describing issues within the school and doesn’t extend to students and faculty working together to explore solutions. 

 Throughout all the changes the high school has sustained, our most committed faculty members have remained. Many agreed that the students and their relationship with them is a large factor in keeping them at the school for such an extensive period of time. Mr. Rojek and Mrs. Brand both highlighted how rewarding it is to watch their students “grow and develop,” in Mr Rojek’s words. Rabbi Estreicher especially loves the opportunity he has “to inspire” and watch his students grow in their connection to Judaism.

Moreover, Mrs. Brand passionately highlighted the “value placed on teachers and students having relationships with each other.” Instead of it being a forced relationship, she can get to know her “students as people,” who are, “generalistically speaking, kind, compassionate, empathetic, intelligent, hardworking people that are going to improve the future.”

Additionally, support from both faculty and families have made significant impacts on AJA’s faculty members. Mr. Rojek credits some of his devotion to the school to the “supportive families. . . that really value education and want their kids to grow and to learn and to really get a lot out of their high school years.” Mrs. Brand celebrates the “overriding emphasis, regardless of who’s been in charge of the school, on giving the teachers the freedom to do what they want to do in their own classroom.”

Our veteran teachers all have varying opinions about the AJA high school, but many feel strongly that it has changed for the better in their time at AJA. They are passionate about continuing this streak of positive growth—growth that all community members will experience together as “we’re all part of a larger network,” in the words of Mr. Rojek.

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