THA tidbits: Gifted, Orthodox tracks to expand

Jon Ben-Asher, Tucson Hebrew Academy’s new interim head of school, is off and running. He attended THA in the late 1970s and early ’80s and recalls being assigned to watch Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” as homework. “Cosmos” is back on TV, modernized and even more spectacular. So is Ben-Asher’s view of THA’s future.

“We offer a robust, challenging, kid-centered educational program and we want to keep that going,” he told the AJP. “Some things don’t need to be touched. But we have other opportunities. It’s important to meet the needs of all learners in our school.”

THA is planning two significant additions to its curriculum for the 2014-15 academic year. One new program is a “pull-out” model for gifted students, whom the school has identified through testing and observation. For example, students may be involved in cross-grade math classes, in small groups outside of or within their regular classrooms.

This gifted model, says Ben-Asher, involves “project-based, inquiry-based learning with a thematic approach,” using an integrated curriculum (math, science, art, social studies and language arts). Student projects may involve building a city, solving the energy problem or designing a plan to colonize another planet. “THA kids are well-versed in technology, which I’m sure the program will incorporate,” he notes. “I want to help THA be the best it can be. Even schools that are really traditional need to be nimble,” modernizing whenever they can.

Ben-Asher touts THA’s laptop program for students in the upper grades and its hands-on science program. Before joining Tucson’s only Hebrew day school, he was an elementary school teacher, and since 2003, has served as a vice principal and principal in the Tucson Unified School District. He has also been a Judaics educator at Congregations Chaverim and Anshei Israel, Hebrew High, BBYO and a private Bar and Bat Mitzvah instructor.

“There’s a sense of family at THA, a sense of connectedness. Nobody can beat us at that,” Ben-Asher says. “I want us to be able to compete with any school in town, having a rich offering for all of Jewish Tucson. Our mission is we’re a pluralistic school.”

THA’s second curriculum addition is an expansion of its Orthodox track. Currently, the Orthodox textbook-based track in Judaic studies is available for second through eighth grades. It will be expanded to kindergarten and first grade, with more possibilities throughout all grades. “We’re going to offer more flexible options during the day and extended learning opportunities, such as Mishna (the study of Jewish oral law), after school,” notes Ben-Asher.

“We’re also looking for opportunities in different subject areas. We’re exploring ways for enrichment and acceleration. I have a lot of learning to do next year,” he continues. “I want to reintroduce THA to the community. We’re very much here for all of Jewish Tucson. You don’t have to be Orthodox or affiliated with any synagogue” to be part of the THA family, Ben-Asher affirms.