First-graders work on an activity during Susan Choi's General Studies class at the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach. (KEVIN CHANG, HB Independent / February 27, 2014)

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As public school districts in Southern California begin to implement the Common Core State Standards in the classroom, one private school in Huntington Beach can claim that it has been focusing on critical thinking — an aspect of the new educational criteria — for 45 years.

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood in the northernmost portion of the city is the Hebrew Academy, an 11-acre campus that caters each year to about 300 students in preschool through high school students from across the Southland.

"We have a family as far as Carlsbad who attend," said Nicole Levy-Gray, director of marketing. "We have a lot from L.A. and the Valley. We also have a lot from Long Beach and Irvine."

Families have dozens of other religious-school options in Los Angeles and Orange counties, but Rabbi Avrohom Popack, the assistant principal, said parents are drawn into the Hebrew Academy's ability to offer traditional Judaic studies as well as a comprehensive general studies program.

"It's a high-quality program on the general studies side, but couple that with a dynamic, genuine, Jewish experience," he said. "The children have the best of both worlds."

Common Core standards aim to develop students who think critically rather than just memorize and regurgitate facts. Administrators at the academy said such a philosophy has been exercised at the school since it started in 1969, not simply for academic reasons but because it's part of the Jewish culture.

Director of Admissions Alexandra Greenberg explained that every letter in the Hebrew Torah has a significance, a numerical value and a reason for being in a specific spot on the page. The students are challenged to consider why the words and letters are placed as they are.

"Some parents question why we're spending so much time on Judaic studies," she said. "Well, it's your heritage, your culture; it's tradition, life lessons and history. But studying Hebrew actually crosses over into critical thinking for regular studying."

Middle and high school Jewish history teacher Chaya Sufrin said students spend weeks studying and dissecting portions of the Torah and often will have different or conflicting ideas on what the passages mean.

"The rabbis don't always come to a conclusion, and sometimes the students have to come to the conclusion on their own or come up with more than one conclusion," she said.

The students also participate in a lot of hands-on activities. Each classroom has a SMARTBoard, which allows the children to be interactive with their assignments. Younger students, like their kindergartners, also bake about once a week as part of math and science instruction, Greenberg said.

"They learn about fractions through measuring and how yeast reacts," she said.

Principal Megan Carlson said the academy is starting a specialized learning program for its middle school students that allows them to work alongside professionals in various industries, like engineering and business companies.

"We can go way beyond the Common Core," she said. "They need to have a lot of strong critical thinking skills; they need to have a lot of strong organizational skills, mathematical skills and writing skills. We teach that. And they learn it not just because they have to, but because they want to because they want to be successful with the companies with whom we partner."

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Foundation and roots at the Hebrew Academy

Enrollment at the academy has been consistent throughout its 45 years in Huntington Beach and it's all thanks to a strong tradition, Carlson said.

"The strong traditions that the Jewish people have, I think, really builds foundation and roots here," she said.

Many of the parents who have enrolled their children at the academy are also alumni. Elyse Lites, 31, of Long Beach graduated from the school and now has two children who attend. She chose the Hebrew Academy because the campus fosters high academic standards and a sense of community.

"It's definitely something special to know that my kids are here learning from teachers that were here when I was here," she said. "I also have friends of mine that were classmates who are now teaching here and are teachers of my children. That just amplifies that community feeling."

Sufrin, 33, also an alumni, finds it interesting to be teaching in the same classrooms where she once sat as a student.

"It gives me a really good perspective on how my teachers felt when I was a student, and now I can really sympathize and empathize with my students," she said.

She has four children attending the school and recently embarked on the unique opportunity of having her oldest son, a sixth-grader, as one of her students.

Sufrin lived in New York when she had her first child and decided to move back to Southern California because she wanted her children to get the same education she received.

"The Hebrew Academy has the unique situation where they really do a good job of blending traditional Jewish values with high academic standards, which was what I was looking for," she said.

Annual tuition ranges from $14,550 to

$16,500.