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Diversity, curriculum set West Park's Birchwood School apart

Birchwood School

Birchwood School

Birchwood School

Birchwood School founder and head of school Charles Debelak (right) and wife Helene Debelak, Birchwood's director of curriculum

Birchwood School

Helene Debelak's reading class at Birchwood School

Helene Debelak's reading class at Birchwood School

Birchwood School

Birchwood School

Birchwood School

Math Cafe a Birchwood School

Math Cafe a Birchwood School

One of the first things greeting visitors to the Birchwood School is a map of the world. While unremarkable at first blush, the map quietly reveals much about this small organization that caters to the early education through middle school set. Red pins dot the map, indicating origin countries of Birchwood's students.
 
Predictably, there are several tacks in Ohio and the United States, but then the grouping extends to Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina. Ethiopia is tagged. Dozens of pins pepper India, Europe and Asia. Even far away Kazakhstan has a pin.
 
"We would get one family from India and another family from Korea," says Birchwood founder and head of school Charles Debelak, adding that word-of-mouth advertising spreads through diverse communities. "We have a large Middle Eastern population. We have a large – and growing - African community." Considering the school, which opened in 1984, currently has just 202 students in pre-K through grade eight, that diversity is just one of many attributes that set it apart.
 
Perhaps one of the most subtle and notable differentiating qualities at Birchwood is that, while so much of education these days swirls in a sea of electronics and testing, the curriculum at Birchwood is informed by a solid mission to develop character, a hard work ethic, self discipline and compassion.


 
"When parents come in - and usually it's because their children are not sufficiently challenged - they'll say, 'Where the heck have you been? This is it. This is what we're looking for,'" says Debelak.
 
Another departure includes Birchwood's curriculum format. While most grade school children spend the entire day with one teacher in one room, it's different at this school.
 
"How interested can an individual be – a teacher that is – by five different subjects?" poses Debelak.
 
Hence at Birchwood, kids in grades one through eight move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. In each room the teacher specializes in their respective subject.
 
"We let our teachers specialize in what they love," says Helene Debelak, Birchwood's director of curriculum and Charles' wife. She's also the reading teacher.
 
"When the children come to my room," she adds, "there's a whole room that oozes the love of reading. Its full of books. The teacher loves to read." And she has an exacting command of her subject. She can quickly assess a child's reading level and pluck the very best book from the shelf that matches it. That same subject focus, energy and passion defines the daily educational experience at Birchwood. "The students move from a math world to a history world to a science world throughout the day," says Helene.

Helene Debelak's reading class at Birchwood School
 
"You wouldn't ask a volleyball coach to coach a football team," adds Charles, which is why he doesn't ask his science specialist to teach reading or vice versa.
 
"They're not going to know how to cultivate talent," he says, referencing his own math classroom, where in grade five, he can work on any number of levels, whether a student's abilities match with a basic common core level math or high school algebra.
 
So focused is the school's committed staff of nearly 50 that they have little time to promote the hidden gem nestled in the heart of West Park. Hence, many Clevelanders and northeast Ohioans know nothing of Birchwood.
 
"We offer something you're not getting anywhere else in Cleveland," says Charles, "but we go under the radar."
 
While the private independent school is housed in a former Catholic Church building, it is not religiously affiliated. To that end, it celebrates no religious holidays amid it's student body, which includes those of the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and evangelical faiths among others. Birchwood also accepts vouchers from the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, the maximum amount of which for K-8 is currently $4,250, although the actual scholarship amount is dependent upon a number of factors. Forty-four of Birchwood's 202 students currently take advantage of the program, which is available only to those living within the city limits.


 
"Cleveland residents have an opportunity to get quite a big support for their education," says Charles. "It's great. It works well from both sides."
 
Along with area schools such as Hawken School, Hathaway Brown School and Gilmour Academy, Birchwood is a member of the Cleveland Council of Independent Schools. Tuition at Birchwood averages $10,000 per year.
 
"Sure, it's tuition," says Helene, "but it's half the price of the elite private schools."
 
To be sure, tuition at University School in Shaker Heights for the 2016 – 2017 school year ranges from $21,000 for kindergarten to $29,600 for grade eight. At Gilmore Academy in Gates Mills, the tuition range for the same grades is $21,575 to $27,950. At Birchwood, which is located in a solid Cleveland working-class neighborhood, the range is $8,700 to $13,500.
 
"We're Clevelanders," says Helene. "Chuck grew up in Cleveland. We want a choice in Cleveland for the kids and for the city."
 
She continues: "Our founding mission was to be in the City of Cleveland and offer a quality education without the frills: no swimming pool, no fancy stuff, just high-end academics and strong character building catering to a wider population."
 
"Sixty percent of our children are those of immigrants," adds Charles, noting that many of them want better for their kids than what they had. He recalls one father who hailed from Syria who rebuffed Debelak when he noted the humbleness of the West Park schoolhouse.
 
"He said, 'I went to school for 12 years with a dirt floor,'" recalls Charles. To that end, Birchwood's modest surrounding neighborhood and utilitarian facilities send a certain message to students and their families.
 
"It just gives the presentation that we don't care about anything except your intellectual development and your character development," says Charles.
 
"With that, there is no limit to what you can do in life."


Birchwood School is a Fresh Water Cleveland sponsor.
 

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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