Six years ago, when one entered Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, it felt vastly different than our current space. The once traditional and siloed building transformed over the course of a three-year renovation into a welcoming, bright school with flexible and creative spaces. Steve Freedman (former Head of School) and I, along with the Leadership Team, the architects (Fielding Nair International), and our generous donors, envisioned a school where space positively influenced student success, strengthened community, and gave the opportunity to bring forward each student’s tzelem elokim. Our vision included developmentally unique communities with moveable walls and student-friendly furniture, as well as collaborative spaces such as a mercaz, makerspace, art studio, and a greenhouse. Aligned with our mission, we believed these changes would help influence student curiosity, provide opportunities for each child to discover his/her strengths, and encourage creativity and risk-taking. We believed that the new space would bring out the best in our teachers and give them optimal opportunities to create differentiated units using project-based learning that integrated our new spaces, technology, arts, athletics, and our 7Cs: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, character, community, and core Jewish values. These changes have already proven to have had a positive effect on the environment at Hillel, especially the unity of our school, student engagement and success, and student connection to both themselves as Jews and to the Jewish people.
One of the first sights at Hillel Day School is the mercaz, an open and bright center of our school. Within this space, skylights provide natural illumination, intentional acoustics allow for a pleasant hum, and comfortable furniture lends to cooperative learning and flexible seating. There is an immediate sense of community created simply by the space itself, and taken further by the students of all ages who gather to collaborate, sing, present, and listen in this space. Our faculty contribute to this sense of community as well when they use this space to meet, discuss, and create together. The mercaz, however, is only one piece of our school that influences unity and community. Each Learning Community (K, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8) includes classrooms with see-through sliding doors, flexible seating and room configurations for independent or group work, and areas conducive for technology use. The kikarim, gathering spaces within each community, bring students and teachers together for events such as tefillah, students packaging goods collaboratively for tzedakah, and the 2nd grade Shuk where students sell self-made goods to the faculty and their family members. These shared spaces allow others to see learning and engagement taking place, helping to foster connections amongst the students and faculty. These enhanced relationships strengthen learning and mutual understanding, and contribute to a sense of unity of the school community.
Our philosophy at Hillel is every human being is unique and is made in the image of God. Individuality is celebrated, risk-taking is encouraged, and building on students’ interests is a priority. Space at Hillel is used to develop these qualities, enhance student passion for learning, and meet the needs of individual students. The makerspace, which is integrated into the curricula and is open for students before school and during recess, allows students to build, create, use technology, collaborate, problem-solve, and experience using new tools, equipment, and artistic material. The makerspace is part of the broader Innovation Hub, which includes an art studio, greenhouse, and a science lab. One example of how this space is used is the sixth grade Shark Tank unit, modeled on the TV show. The students research, plan, interview, and collaborate to come up with unique ideas to pitch to a group of community members and entrepreneurs at an evening event. Students use hand tools as well as the 3-D printer to create innovative prototypes as they bring their designs to reality. The sounds and smells of the construction fills the halls with anticipation and excitement. The space helps to generate motivation and support a variety of activities which energize different students – from science and technology to art, music, drama, and athletics.
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Our school and its space provide experiences to elevate students’ connection to our Core Jewish Values. Looking specifically at Kelal Yisrael, the Unity of the Jewish People, we believe that a strong Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish People increases one’s willingness to take action for the Jewish world beyond Hillel Day School. Our brand new, renovated Beit Knesset was changed to allow more unity between our students in a place of worship. We envisioned a more meaningful experience for everyone with new furniture that could be manipulated to allow for a traditional Torah service or a circle of students deliberating about what connects and divides the Jewish People. Outside of the Beit Knesset, an unspoken feeling of unity exists amongst the school community as we come together for Yom Ha’atzmaut, play carnival games on Purim, and celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat as a school. These experiences give students a sense of belonging, an understanding of who they are at their core, and connect students of all ages. From the youngest grades, each student at Hillel learns that he/she is an individual piece of an enormous story and that we all have a responsibility to contribute positively to the unity of our People. As students reflect on their journey at Hillel Day School they feel a deep connection to Kelal Yisrael and understand the importance of giving back to the Jewish community in high school and beyond.
The variety of spaces at Hillel Day School helps to open students’ eyes to curiosity. It provides them with opportunities to take risks and discover the strengths that may have otherwise been buried within each one of them. The renovations parallel Hillel Day School’s philosophy that each child is unique and can learn to his/her highest potential. Ultimately, however, the unity of our community, student engagement, and student’s identity as Jews becomes reality due to our amazing teachers. Their commitment to Hillel and our students, the relationships they build, and the actions they take to use Hillel’s space to unleash talents and activate student engagement is the true beauty of our building.