By Sue Botos
The seeds for Birchwood School were planted when a small group of parents decided to start a school that not only offered their children outstanding academics, but encouraged the work habits necessary for personal success. Nearly 30 years later the school, like its namesake tree, has become firmly rooted, and founders Charles and Helene Debelak hope it keeps growing.
“Need best describes what we did and why we did it,” remarked Charles Debelak during a recent visit to the school in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. He said that the family had tried public, private and suburban schools for their two children, but felt none of them supported their philosophy about developing good study practices and character.
“The children had also picked up some bad habits,” he added.
In 1984, when the Debelaks’ children were in first and third grades, the couple, who have a background in gifted education, joined with friends to begin Birchwood, renting out space from a former church school. Today, about 180 children in preschool through eighth grade attend Birchwood, located in the previous Ascension Catholic Church School at the corner of Puritas Road and West 140th Street. Classes include core areas, such as math, language arts and science, plus “special programs” in study and research skills and creativity. Each school day opens with a “morning inspiration,” where teachers read stories to the students about famous people “whose lives model admirable character.”
Children also gain an appreciation of cultural diversity, as each classroom provides a type of world “snapshot.” During this visit, students representing a variety of backgrounds in Esther Chen’s kindergarten class were making gingerbread houses as holiday gifts for classroom helpers.
In addition to a mix of urban and suburban children, Debelak said, about 60 percent of students have parents native to Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South America, representing a variety of faiths including Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Islamic. Debelak noted that friendships have blossomed between students whose nationalities have traditionally been at odds.
It’s this diversity that is part of the reason why Birchwood, now in its third location, has not abandoned the city for the suburbs. Debelak said the urban location makes it more accessible to mid- and lower-income families and keeps the school’s tuition lower than comparable independent private schools. Graduates, he continued, are accepted at prestigious high schools throughout the area, some receiving scholarships.
“We like the modesty,” said Charles Debelak of the school’s pleasant, no-frills atmosphere. “You’re here to learn. We don’t allow iPads or cellphones. There’s a time to do what you want and a time for academics,” he stated.
Helene Debelak added that technology is used at the school as a learning tool rather than entertainment. “(Technology) can never replace critical thinking. We use it with a lot of discrimination,” she stated.
While a challenging curriculum is a Birchwood signature, Helene Debelak commented that some gifted students need extra incentive. “If a child has no challenge, they won’t do the work,” she stated, adding that with input from parents, a lesson plan is developed for each student, some requiring acceleration or enrichment. “We keep them (with their age group) as much as possible for their social and emotional well-being,” she stated.
Most of Birchwood’s advertising is word of mouth. “Parents seeking a challenge for their children look for us,” Helene Debelak stated.
Rocky River residents Dave and Linda Miyares were searching for just that for their son Benjamin, a kindergartner. “The most important thing was the subject-specific teachers,” said Linda Miyares, noting that the same instructor teaches a subject to several grade levels. “They let him work ahead. He needed to be with children his age, but they let him go to his ability,” she said.
Tina Stefanski, also of Rocky River, agreed that the school provided a challenge for her daughter Bridget Long, a fourth-grader, as well as a low 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio. She added that faculty and staff welcome parent input and respond promptly to any questions.
When the Debelaks began Birchwood, they looked upon it as a labor of love, and not a business. “We had no intention to make it permanent. But it began to spread because of the quality education we offer,” Charles Debelak stated. Both Debelaks still teach at the school, and have set up a board of directors to put a strategic plan in place that looks to double the size of the school. They hope that what started as a sprout will continue to grow.