In July 2019, Rabbi Shimmy Trencher arrived in Stamford, Connecticut, to take up his new post as principal of Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy Upper School (BCHA).
Little did he know that less than a year later—in March 2019—he would undergo a “trial by fire” of sorts, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Connecticut schools and took learning online…putting his extensive experience, and his skills and talents as an educator and administrator, to an ultimate and unprecedented test.
Now, a year and half since he took over as head of BCHA Upper School, and almost a year since the entire pre-k through grade 12 school closed its doors (having subsequently re-opened), Rabbi Trencher looks back with pride at the success with which the school has weathered the storm, and looks ahead to a future that is increasingly bright.
A native of West Hartford, Rabbi Trencher is a graduate of the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield (which has since merged with the Hebrew High School of New England to become the New England Jewish Academy). A graduate of Yeshiva University, he holds a master’s in social work from the University of Connecticut.
Q: It’s no doubt been a long first year…one marked by challenges you could not have possibly anticipated. How are things going?
A: I would say school is going very well. I’m really proud of how the teachers and the students have really come together, making this year work in ensuring that learning is robust and the community continues to grow and develop.
In the spring, when we transitioned to distance learning, not one day of instruction was lost. We had a plan in place, so when school closed, by 8:45 the next morning students were in class. We ran an almost completely synchronous program, which means that students were receiving the same amount of instruction each day that they would have received in school.
Teachers were able to transition their classes to online learning extremely effectively. And because our class sizes are a little smaller than what you would find in many other schools, we were really able to engage students and maintain their attention and their interest, even though they were home. The feedback we received from both parents and students was 100% positive.
Of course, at the high school level it’s much easier to engage students in online learning.
Now, when colleges ask about what happened last year in terms of COVID, we’re able to say that we ran exactly the same program. We invested in a secure online platform for exams, and we were able to offer tests, quizzes and final exams. In addition to that, we ran many online social programs to keep the students connected.
Q: That was last spring. How is it now that you’re back in the school building?
A: We started school this year with three weeks of hybrid learning, so we got used to the protocols. Then we went to in-person classes. We had one week of virtual learning after we came back from vacation but, aside from that, we’ve been able to stay open.
Again, because of our class sizes and the way the building is designed, we’ve been able to run in-person classes. We do have some students who are at home because of health issues or issues with family members. And we’ve been able to include them in classes online.
Q: No doubt it’s been a tough year for teachers. How have they been affected?
A: It’s been a stressful period for teachers but, from my perspective, our teachers rose to the challenge because they were already incredibly passionate about meeting the needs of and supporting every single student in this school.
So, it really was a question of how do we take what we did before—which is working to support and develop each and every student—and transfer it to our new reality. That has introduced difficulties, but none that our motivated staff hasn’t been able to overcome. In this case it means one-on-one meetings in school in a different way—maybe with a shield up between teacher and student or maybe a little bit more distance and with masks. For students who are virtual, it means setting up virtual meetings, not just during the school day but after hours as well.
A nurturing student-focused environment like ours really allows us to meet the needs of each student, both emotionally and academically, in a much more effective and seamless manner. It means that teachers and advisers were reaching out to every single student to see how they were doing and to monitor their academic progress. They were in touch with them, checking to see how they’re doing emotionally and were in touch with their parents to figure out ways that we can support students more effectively.
Q: What feedback have you gotten from parents about how things are going?
A: We reached out to parents to get a sense as to how they felt about what occurred in the spring and how our school continues to work for their children. And what we’ve received is overwhelming appreciation from our parents. I’m proud of the fact that parents love the school and appreciate what we’re doing. We really do have relationships with every parent and every student.
Q: Has there been any positive take-aways from what transpired over the past year?
A: Over the course of the last year and a half we’ve really gotten clear on what makes us special as a school, the values and beliefs we hold, and what we believe education is all about. And we’ve sought to infuse those values into everything we do and to communicate them to parents, students, and prospective parents and students.
Now we’re really able to articulate that we are a school that provides the flexibility and the guidance to help every student maximize and optimize their high school experience. So, whether a student is interested in STEM, in medicine, in humanities, in politics, in psychology, in computer science, in Judaic studies and Hebrew, etc., we cannot only accommodate those students’ needs, we can really ensure that their entire high school experience is enriching, engaging and elevates them to the place where they know they’re going to be able to move forward in college and in life. And they can look back at high school as a place where they were nurtured and supported and really grew in the direction they want to.
Q: Despite the challenges of this past year, is there anything new and exciting to report?
A: Absolutely. Our staff has really been committed throughout the pandemic to not only making sure that we’re providing what we provided before, but also finding ways to enhance and grow our program. Which is why this year, in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic, we’ve added additional AP course offerings as well as nine mini-electives. We added studio art, a theater program, and a political discussion group. We added photography and web design and mobile app development and film.
Q: Has the pandemic impacted your ability to recruit new students?
A: Yes. I think we are dealing with what a lot of schools are dealing with. We know that when people come and they see what goes on in the school they fall in love; they immediately understand what the benefits are, in terms of being in such a warm, nurturing educational community. And so, throughout this pandemic, the inability to have people come into the building, to come and visit classes, has made it more difficult. What we’ve done to mitigate that is to create connections between students and prospective students, and connections between parents and prospective parents. We’ve been offering tours after hours and on Sundays that many families have taken advantage of, during which they actually can meet some of our students and see the building. And that’s been very, very helpful.
We also have students visiting classes virtually. I had thought that would not be effective—that students would not be able to really get a sense of what the class environment was like when Zooming in. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the feedback we received tells us that students do sense the warmth and the engagement and the rigor of the classes even through a virtual platform.
The range of students here is mind-boggling. We have students who are getting into Ivy League schools, and then we have students who would have been in a special ed program in a public school who are also getting what they need to move ahead. It’s amazing that they can be all together and be themselves and be part of a school community, and feel accepted and valuable. It’s a wonderful gift for the students.