Now in its third year, Bais Yaakov of Western Monmouth County is still a small school, covering only three grades (kindergarten-second grade) and with just 20 girls as its total enrollment.
But Sara Sonnenschein, 38, now seven months into her position as the school’s first full-time principal, said there is nothing small about Bais Yaakov’s mission.
“We are here to educate these girls for life, to provide them with tools that enable them to have a fulfilled existence that also produces a positive impact on society,” said Sonnenschein, a resident of Lakewood.
“We want to help them develop abilities needed to achieve their dreams,” she added.
Sonnenschein, an admirer of Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggested that it is never too early to learn the principles espoused in his book — such as to be proactive, put first things first, think win-win, and seek first to understand and then to be understood.
At the same time, she emphasized, it is vital that the students have fun.
“Learning should always be fun,” Sonnenschein told NJJN during a recent visit to the school, which is housed in the basement of Freehold Jewish Center. “That’s why we use lots of visual aids, encourage the girls to engage in role play, and motivate them, when possible, with contests and prizes.”
The local Bais Yaakov was born in the mind of its menahel, or executive director, Rabbi Baruch Sher, about five years ago, but its roots go even further back. “My maternal grandmother started a school for girls in Baltimore in 1941,” Sher told NJJN.
“She began with two students, and it has grown into an institution that now has 1,400 students. That school grew along with Baltimore’s Orthodox community, and I saw the same kind of opportunity here,” he explained.
At the Freehold school, the plan is to add a grade each year, with the school ultimately offering from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Working together with his father-in-law Rabbi Chaim Veshnefsky, spiritual leader of the Jewish Learning Center of Monmouth County, located in Manalapan, Sher figured that a girls’ school was a necessary element for a community that hoped to attract young families. After three years of operating the school, he is sure he was right.
“Most of our students come from Manalapan,” he reported, “although we also have some from Lakewood and Staten Island.”
Today, the school employs six teachers, three for Jewish studies and three for general studies, as well as the principal and a school secretary. “Our staff infrastructure is small enough so that we all must perform multiple functions,” said Sonnenschein.
For example, she doubles as the music teacher. It doesn’t hurt that she studied piano when she was young and, when she was in seventh grade, played at a Carnegie Hall recital.
Since her arrival at the onset of this school year, Sonnenschein has introduced some innovations at Bais Yaakov. “We now have two bulletin boards across the hallway from each other,” said the principal. “One, titled ‘Dive into the Sea of Knowledge,’ contains pictures and short educational items about a specific topic. (The evolution of the automobile — not exactly a stereotypical girls’ area of interest — was the subject when NJJN visited the school.)
The other board, headed “Because I Am Alive,” features photos of the students participating in a variety of non-academic activities, including dancing, gym, sewing, soccer, and cake decorating.
Sonnenschein also uses ordinary wooden tongue depressors for an anything-but-depressing purpose. She has written the name of one student on each of 20 sticks. Every day, one of the sticks is sent, as a kind of classroom subpoena, to summon a single student to her office, where she connects with that designated child on a one-to-one basis.
“I try to reinforce all the things that girl is doing well, and to encourage her to keep up the good work,” said Sonnenschein.
The Bais Yaakov teachers, as well as the students, have seen a few changes since Sonnenschein arrived. In one instance, after having monitored a class, the principal observed that the students had had to remain seated for too long while listening to a story. She recommended that the teacher have the girls act out some of the scenes, thus getting them to move around and to appreciate the material from a new perspective.
A strong believer in continuing professional education, Sonnenschein also has scheduled monthly sessions for the teachers to hear Torah lessons from a visiting rabbi.