The boldest experiment in American Jewish high school education and leadership, unknown to most of us, is taking place on a beautiful 100-acre campus in Greensboro, N.C., that has to be seen to be believed.

Since its founding 11 years ago, I’d read and heard about the American Hebrew Academy, the country’s only co-ed and pluralistic college-prep boarding school, dubbed by some “the Jewish Exeter.” (The Jewish Week’s education writer Carolyn Slutsky visited the school for a feature we published in 2008.) But only after visiting recently and speaking to, and with, its students, faculty and administration, have I come to appreciate just how impressive it is physically, educationally and conceptually.

“We’re an elite high school that doesn’t want to be elitist,” explained executive director Glenn Drew, who described the academy as “a new paradigm in Jewish education.”

But one with serious challenges in terms of attracting students.

Founded by Drew’s uncle, Maurice “Chico” Sabbah, a wealthy, self-made American businessman who made aliyah as a young man, returned to the U.S. to fight in the Korean War and later settled in Greensboro, the school is an attempt to blend the warmth and cultural depth of Jewish life best represented by summer camps, with the academic excellence of the finest New England college-prep boarding schools.

In addition to faculty in both secular and Judaic subjects, the academy offers a full-time Jewish life staff — the four rabbis represent Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Conservative and Reform streams — to provide experiences for all of the non-class time throughout the week, and Shabbat and holidays during the course of the 10-month academic year.

Drew noted that Sabbah, who died in 2006, was concerned about Jewish continuity and wanted the school to instill leadership skills in its students. Based on the model of several top secular prep boarding schools, the academy seeks to create an environment that encourages students to take an active role in their own education.

Classes are limited to 12 students; they sit around a large, wooden oval “learning table” with their teacher so that they face each other.

High-tech equipment includes computer stations around the desk, Smartboards and recorded lectures accessible to the students at any time.

“There are no chalk-and-talk presentations,” said Drew. Rather, the teachers engage students through the Socratic method, asking questions, encouraging them to take positions and defend them in class discussions.

Driven by Sabbah’s vision and financial support, the high school opened in the fall of 2001 with 77 students. Today there are 160 boys and girls enrolled, with 75 percent of them living on campus, and 25 percent day-students from the Greensboro community. (Some families have moved to the area to take advantage of the academy’s program.)

But for all of its remarkable amenities and offerings, from the kind of state-of-the-art sports facilities seen at top university campuses (there are 15 varsity sports), to Shabbat and holiday programs, to a full range of arts and theater programs, the school is facing an uphill battle to grow enrollment, Drew acknowledges.

A key issue is the reluctance of parents to send their children away from home for all but two months of the year. Only about 1 percent of American high school students attend boarding schools, and among Jewish families, with the exception of those enrolled in Orthodox yeshivas, the percentage is even lower.

Then there is the perception that boarding school is for youngsters with severe learning issues, addictions or other problems. The academy seeks high-achieving students with a strong interest in Jewish life.

Students, teachers and administrators at the academy believe that if only more people could see the campus, and what school life is like, class sizes would increase to the desired 100 per grade, rather than the current 40.

According to the academy’s literature, “92 percent of our families never even considered a boarding school — until they met us.”

“Our students are not being ‘sent away’ to school,” Drew says. “We think of it as being given opportunities not otherwise open to them.”

Indeed, experiencing even a day of campus life at the academy, from the natural beauty of the environmentally sensitive grounds to the lively classroom discussions to the inviting atmosphere of the student housing, one begins to understand the impact of a program that integrates academic study and Jewish living 24/7.

Students reflect the full range of a pluralistic Jewish community, from “just Jewish” to Orthodox. All meals are fully kosher, daily services are available, Shabbat services are held on campus, and every student takes Jewish studies classes (25 percent of the curriculum) plus three years of Hebrew language.

For many, the highlight of their four years at the academy is a 10-week trimester during junior year at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. 

The students I spoke with at lunch and during the day came from a variety of backgrounds, including small Southern towns and Manhattan yeshiva day schools. They were eager to discuss what they liked best about the program, most often mentioning the mix of students, the quality of the courses and the personal access of faculty, some of whom live on campus and are readily available to offer guidance.

The teachers “really care about us and want us to do well,” said one senior from the Washington area.

Tuition compares favorably to the leading day schools in the New York area, with day students paying $22,000, and boarders paying under $34,000 for the 10-month year, including room and board. (The actual cost per student is about $50,000 a year, with the balance subsidized by the school through its fundraising efforts. It has an annual budget of $10 million.)

Enrollment growth has come from teens outside of the U.S., who now make up about 20 percent of the student body. Most are from Mexico, but there are also students from other South American countries as well as Germany, Russia, Australia and Israel.

Drew explained that parents from those and other countries are attracted to the notion of a top-level academic program, a Jewish curriculum and environment, and the opportunity for their children to learn English. The academy offers English as a Second Language courses as well as a gap-year program.

“Our biggest growth will come from Russia,” said Drew, who makes several international recruitment trips a year, promoting the academy and meeting with parents of potential students.

A visitor to the campus quickly recognizes its international flavor, particularly in the cafeteria, where one hears a variety of languages.

“We want to create a cadre of global Jewish citizens,” Drew said, “leaders who share a common bond that continues through the years.”

It’s a daring vision, but then so is the academy itself. Time will tell if it becomes a major center of Jewish leadership education or a forgotten footnote, an experiment too radical to sustain its lofty goals.

Gary@jewishweek.org.