Parents often wonder about their children's education, but that's one worry Amy Dishell has put to rest.
"My child wakes up every morning and cannot wait to go to school," Dishell said about her daughter, Jessica Csanky, 9.Csanky attends the Jewish Community Center Elementary School at Congregation Kol Ami, 2425 E. Heritage Way. The school currently has 92 students in grades 1-6 - and parents are so enthusiastic about it that talks are under way about adding two more grades.
There is also discussion about constructing a new school building.
These aren't just Jewish parents, either. About half the school's population is non-Jewish.
Dishell, who is president of the school's advisory board, said she was initially impressed by the school's low pupil-teacher ratio (1:12 on average, lower in many classes) and an environment that fosters self-esteem.
Another big draw was the school's integrated curriculum, which offers a particular theme to be discussed and studied in hands-on projects at the same time in various disciplines.
The idea is to get students to see a connection throughout literature, math, science, art and other academic disciplines.
For example, third-graders recently focused on Antarctica and the Arctic. They read a book titled "Mr. Popper's Penguins" and heard a story by Jack London. They created two newspaper travel sections with each student writing an article about the Arctic or Antarctica. In art class, students made animal soap carvings and a penguin rookery. Another day, one student's father, who had made a scientific trip to Antarctica, talked about his trip.
"The thematic approach the curriculum takes is something I've seen my daughter embrace and flourish with," Dishell said. "There is a commitment to teaching children a love of learning. I see what she takes from here and how she applies it to her personal growth."
The school also emphasizes community service through a variety of activities. For example, students this month are decorating hats for patients in Primary Children's Medical Center and writing to lonely veterans at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.
The school was started by a handful of parents in 1991 in what was essentially a one-room operation with only 12 students.
These parents had liked the JCC's preschool at 2416 E. 1700 South so much, they wanted to continue its tradition, values and learning through elementary school.
Unlike schools in other communities that are connected to synagogues or other Jewish organizations, this is not a religious school in the traditional sense where students study the Talmud, for example.
At this school, the universality of Jewish values is woven into the program to help students develop understanding and tolerance. Jewish holidays are observed, but this is done in a multi-cultural context that also discusses the holidays and traditions of other groups.
Students also can choose to study either Hebrew or Spanish. And there is a brief Shabbat, or candle lighting ceremony, in each class each Friday afternoon. Once a month, the whole school participates in this together.
"One of the things we hope to do is build bridges between these Jewish and non-Jewish kids," said Robin Perley, one of the parents who helped found the school. "I think the non-Jewish kids when they leave the school will have a much deeper understanding that Jewish kids are just like they are. Hopefully, they will have a more tolerant way of looking at others.
"I really do believe we are building bridges that will last a lifetime," Perley said.
The schooling the students get isn't cheap, but it isn't the most expensive private school along the Wasatch Front, either. Tuition next year will be $3,900 plus $400 for kosher hot lunches, activity fees and membership in the Jewish Community Center.
"The cost is worth it," said Dishell. "For what we have to do without to attend here, we're willing to do that."
If you really want to size up a school, ask the experts: the students.
Aliza Leventhal, 11, a fifth-grader, said she just goofed off in her previous school so her parents decided to send her to the Kol Ami school. Teachers are strict in the sense that they want students to do well, but they're also friendly.
The teachers also make an effort to accommodate different learning styles and help students who run into difficulties, said Sarah Mulhern, 11, a sixth-grader.
"They're really good about making you feel comfortable here. Last year there was a girl who was a little behind in math, and they worked with her and now she's doing better. They'd take her aside for a half-hour every day and now she really is with us in math."
Mulhern, who is headed for another school next year, said younger students don't know what a good environment they're in right now.
"It's such an excellent school. We're just getting such a great education here and it is preparing us for everything," Mulhern said.
The fact that about half the population is not Jewish is never an issue, both girls said. What is important are the discussions about prejudice, stereotypes and understanding others. Leventhal, for example, comes from a family with Jewish and Catholic roots and said she has been made to feel welcome the entire time at the school.
"It doesn't matter what religion you are," said Leventhal. "We talk about Judaism in cultural studies, but we talk about different religions."
Added Mulhern: "It makes you aware of different religions. We'll say, `So what do you do when you celebrate this?' People ask about each other's traditions, but in a good-natured way."