Atlanta Jewish Academy students, from left, Dan Jutan, Eliott Dosetareh and Mia Azani, study in their classroom. The academy is a merger of Greenfield Hebrew Academy in Sandy Springs and Yeshiva Atlanta High School in DeKalb. Photo by Devi Knapp, Atlanta Jewish Academy

There’s a new cat in town.

The jaguar is the mascot representing the new Atlanta Jewish Academy, a merger of two longtime private Jewish schools in the Atlanta area – Greenfield Hebrew Academy lower and middle school in Sandy Springs and Yeshiva Atlanta High School in DeKalb.

Backers say the merger creates the only Jewish day school in metro Atlanta serving pre-K through 12th grade students.

“A family can come here knowing this is a full-service place,” said new Head of School Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, who moved from Florida to take the position.

Meanwhile, a very different kind of new school is emerging in Buckhead. The Atlanta Classical Academy opened this year with 450 students selected from 1,341 who entered a lottery to attend the new public charter school.

The school follows the classical education model, which follows Western traditions and has been popular with Christian schools, though organizers have said no religious material will be in the curriculum. Matthew Kirby, chairman of the school’s board of directors, said the school took “a very traditional, liberal-arts approach.”

The classical academy opened offering classes from kindergarten through eighth grade. Its organizers plan to add a grade each year until it reaches 12. Dr. Terrence O. Moore was hired as its first principal. He was the founding principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Colorado, which Atlanta Classical Academy is modeled after.

The new school is located at the Northside Drive campus of the Heiskell School, a private Christian school that closed this summer. It’s open to all students in the Atlanta Public Schools System, but it’s located in the North Atlanta High attendance zone.

Ian Ratner, chairman of the Atlanta Jewish Academy board, said talks of creating a new Jewish K-12 program have been going on for years. About two years ago, “a working group was formed to really get more involved in the analysis,” he said. The boards of both schools voted this summer to merge the schools.

Both Ratner and Hecht say there are numerous benefits to merging into one school.

Hecht said aside from operations becoming more efficient, a merger provides growth opportunities for faculty. “There’s more professional opportunity for steps up they can take in a larger system with a full school,” he said.

A full school also strengthens the community, he said. “Where I was a principal earlier, many of my students became my parents, and that speaks to a certain kind of continuity, and you build a community,” Hecht said.

Ratner explained that the K-12 model also helps students retain their Judaism.

“The less breaks in the system, the less opportunity to leave the Jewish system,” he said. “There’s a much smaller number of Jewish children in Atlanta in high school than are in elementary school. What that says is that all of us aren’t doing a good enough job because we’re attracting kids into the elementary school but for some reason we can’t keep them engaged in high school.”

Ratner said the school’s enrollment picked up some this year, and that having a school from early childhood to 12th grade helps with recruitment efforts as parents won’t have to worry about where to send their children when it’s time to enter high school.

He said a study conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta a number of years ago called for lower and high schools in the community to align.

“That’s been buzzing around Atlanta for a long time, he said. “We’re just the first people to say we’re doing it.”

Ratner pointed to other successful private schools in the community with lower and high schools.

“One of the things about the K-through-12 model that struck me is that most of the leading independent schools – not necessarily Jewish schools – whether its Woodward, Pace or Paideia or Westminster, all have adopted this uniform K-through-12 model.”

Erica Gal, a parent with children in preschool and kindergarten at the school, said that continuity is what attracted her to Atlanta Jewish Academy. While it’s her second year involved with the school, she said that she was aware in the beginning of a possible merger.

“It’s important to us because we do see our involvement in the school and where we put our kids in terms of a long-term commitment,” she said. “As parents we’re thrilled and excited about the possibility of our kids growing up in this system that takes them from children to adults.”

Ratner said a full school also helps from a fundraising perspective.

“It gives you a much longer life of a family,” he said, “instead of the family starting in kindergarten and by the time they get to grade 6 or 7 they are already looking at different options. . . . You want families to develop that long-term fundraising relationship that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to get you on a program where you’re going to make a donation every year for the next 10 years.’ You get them bought into the programs. So from a fundraising and investment perspective it is absolutely the winning model.”

The school’s name, too, leaves space at the front, in case a major donor comes through during the school’s fundraising. Names were solicited from board and steering committee members, and then a survey was sent to the board, with survey results later analyzed. Possible names were categorized, but “academy” was a name that popped up frequently.

“‘Academy’ gives a sense of educational quality,” Ratner said. “‘Jewish’ identifies who we are.”

Right now the schools remain on their respective campuses. But the plan is for the high school to eventually move to the Sandy Springs campus adjacent to the theater arts building. The Yeshiva campus will then be turned into a sports complex, retaining its state-of-the-art gym, and adding a soccer field, baseball diamond and tennis court.

“I would not be shocked, when other schools see the energy that this kind of combined institute can create, if there were other similar mergers going up very quickly,” Hecht said.

Ann Marie Quill

Ann Marie Quill is Associate Editor at Reporter Newspapers.