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Effort fails to open new Jewish day school in Pinellas County

CLEARWATER — Hopes of starting a new day school two months after Pinellas County's only Jewish day school closed have disintegrated.

A group had planned to open Tampa Bay Jewish Academy in Clearwater on Monday, but they were not able to attract enough students.

"It's very unfortunate," organizer Robby Cicco said. "The Pinellas County Jewish Day School closed late in the year, and we weren't able to get the enrollment."

Having such a school is vital for a number of families in the community.

"It reinforces the foundation you establish at home for Jewish identity," said Susan LeVine, whose children attended the Pinellas County Jewish Day School.

It's not just the quality secular education and Jewish studies that are important, Cicco said, "it's the camaraderie and socialization."

The Pinellas County Jewish Day School closed after 30 years in the community. It happened because of low enrollment, according to officials. But some parents said they chose not to enroll their children because they were worried about the school's financial problems.

There was a lot of "ill will" about the former day school, which rubbed off on the new effort, said Cicco, who wasn't involved with the Pinellas County Jewish Day School. His son is starting kindergarten this year.

A few weeks before the Jewish day school closed, more than 100 parents, educators and Jewish leaders met to discuss opening a new school. Parents of more than 75 children had expressed an interest.

But, over the next several weeks, enthusiasm dwindled as numbers shrank.

With the future of the new school unsure, parents were desperate to find other options or keep spots at private schools, Cicco said.

And, after the organizing group decided the school could include only kindergarten though second grade the first year, more families looked for other options.

By mid July, the group had a commitment of about 10 students for the new school, which was going to be housed at Congregation Beth Shalom. And that was well short of the 30 or so they needed to break even.

"It all kind of faded away," Cicco said.

Some parents, like LeVine, chose public schools.

More than 20 Pinellas students ended up at Hillel School of Tampa, with the help of scholarships from the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, said its executive director, Bonnie Friedman.

Friedman said she worked with community members to explore various opportunities for a day school. And she spoke with the head of Hillel School to see if there was a possibility of a satellite school in Pinellas in the future.

Amy Wasser, head of Hillel, said there has been no formal dialogue about that.

But, she said, "Hillel is always open to working with the community on both sides of the bay to make sure there are opportunities for Jewish education for the students of our community."

Cicco said he's not giving up on the quest to open a new Jewish day school.

"My hope is to keep trying for next year," he said.

LeVine wished her children could have graduated from the Pinellas County Jewish Day School. But she's confident her children, who are going to three different schools, will be fine.

"I'm looking forward to them mixing with the real world," LeVine said. "I think it's important they know they're Jewish and they are a minority, and they'll meet all kinds of different and wonderful kids."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Effort fails to open new Jewish day school in Pinellas County 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 7:58pm]
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