Hillel Day School Head Steve Freedman is preparing Metro Detroit youth for the 21st century.
By Cassie Kunze
Photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
Steve Freedman is paving the road for the modernization of traditional school systems to help children better prepare for the future. “The world that they are going to enter is very different than the world I grew up in,” says Freedman, a West Bloomfield resident and head of Hillel Day School. “If schools continue to look like and prepare students the way they did 20 years ago, then we’re failing our kids.”
Holding the position for 16 years, Freedman, 60, is the longest running head of Hillel based in Farmington Hills. In 2014, he led a $13 million project that transformed Hillel into several dynamic learning spaces. One of the spaces is an IDEA Collaborative that features a prototyping studio, where students craft designs using computer programming software and build them in a Makerspace studio using tools such as 3D printers.
Amy Schlussel, director of advancement at Hillel and a former Hillel parent, says Freedman is changing the way educators approach the classroom. She explains about 20 percent of students do well following a traditional approach to learning, and it is the responsibility of educators to foster the strengths of the other 80 percent. Schlussel says Freedman has assumed this responsibility and, whereas traditional schools are content-driven, Freedman has reshaped Hillel’s curriculum to be skills-driven.
She adds that under Freedman’s leadership, students are discovering their passions in an environment that encourages collaboration and communication. “We introduce kids to coding and many go on to get internships and jobs at Google,” Schlussel says. “Because of our greenhouse, kids now want to study the genetics of different seeds in farming.”
Schlussel says Freedman is a change agent who has gained international recognition. She says over 200 educators have come to learn from him, including educators from China, India, Israel and Harvard’s School of Education.
Freedman shares his objective is to provide the environment, resources and role models to help children grow in a way that builds confidence. He adds that he is aware the new model is still a work in progress and he encourages feedback. Hillel’s teachers were involved in the design of each community, he says, and he strives to empower them. “My job is to set the conditions for other people to soar, and I get out of their way,” he says.
Apart from his work at Hillel, Freedman also serves on the Independent Schools Association of the Central States Review and Accreditation Committee, a membership-based nonprofit that provides accreditation, professional development and support services to schools. Freedman, who was elected to the position, meets with the committee four times a year to review the reports of schools and new applications for accreditation.
Freedman shares he loves to give back through his role on the committee. He believes schools need to be held to a high standard, as it not only reflects well on the educational enterprise, but it better serves students. He says he is proud Hillel is an ISACS accredited school and works diligently to continually evolve Hillel’s standards.
Freedman recently announced he will step away as head of Hillel at the end of the school year to spend more time with his family. Hillel alum Jonah Erlich, 21, says Freedman’s legacy will continue long after he’s gone. Freedman’s “impact will be maintained,” Erlich says. “Not just the policy changes and the construction of buildings, but the mindset and culture of forward thinking.” As a University of Michigan junior, Erlich says one of the most valuable skills he gained at Hillel was a sense of self-confidence and understanding of his value as an individual to effect change.
With four children and a grandchild of his own, Freedman says it is essential for kids to grow up understanding who they are and how making moral and ethical decisions will help them succeed while having a lasting impact on others. If his students were to take away one thing, he says he hopes they learn “the world can be an awesome place and they have an important role in it.”