Jun 27, 2010

Hebrew Charter Schools

The big debate in the religious public the past 2 weeks has been how to relate to mixing Sefardim and Ashkenazim in schools, in light of the school in Emannuel that has been holding strong to the headlines recently.

If you wonder whether or not you should send your kids to school with Sefardic kids, what would you say about sending them to school with kids from all sorts of other denominations - Asians, Muslims, Hispanics, and African Americans!

No, I am not talking about public school, but a new type of school in Brooklyn, written up by The New York Times, called the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School. They are funded by public funds, and therefore have to be open to the public. While state officials were at first skeptical, thinking they would just pose as being open to everyone, the school has really taken everyone by surprise and has been open to everyone and has excelled.

The kids all eat kosher food from a kosher caterer, but in terms of learning about religion, or even just about Israel with no religion involved, is a legal minefield.

Walking along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, they make out the lettering on kosher food shops and yeshiva buses, showing off all they learn at the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Midwood, where they both attend kindergarten.

Ask Aalim his favorite song and he will happily belt out:

“Eretz Yisrael sheli yaffa v’gam porachat!” — My land of Israel is beautiful and blossoming! — and then he continues in Hebrew:

Who built it and who cultivated it?

All of us together!

I built a house in the land of Israel.

So now I have a land and I have a house in the land of Israel!

Aalim and Aalima are not Jewish. They worship at a mosque affiliated with the Nation of Islam. But at the Hebrew Language Academy, they fit right in.
But as the school’s first year draws to a close, its classrooms are filled with a broad range of students, all seeming confident enough to jabber away as if they were elbowing their way down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Perhaps surprisingly, the school has become one of the most racially mixed charter schools in the city. About a third of the 150 students are black, and several are Hispanic.

The school’s organizers say it has been so successful that they plan to help create dozens like it, pledging to spend as much as $4.8 million next year to seed schools in Phoenix, Minneapolis and Manhattan Beach, Calif., in addition to one set to open next fall in East Brunswick, N.J.

But despite its diversity, the school still faces scrutiny over how it will handle religion and the complicated politics of the Middle East.

Will this school become trendy and give the Day School a run for it's money? That is not likely, though some parents say they chose this school instead of a religious day school.

Each class has both an English and a Hebrew teacher. (There are three classes each in kindergarten and first grade, but the school plans to expand through the 12th grade.)

Students receive at least an hour of Hebrew instruction daily — the hallway is filled with ear-piercing shouts as the students learn that chicken is called auf and a cow is a parah.

“At first my life felt a lot like being the teacher in Charlie Brown — all I would get is blank stares,” said Elana Weinberg, the twins’ Hebrew instructor. “Now they answer back without even thinking too much.”

There are reminders of Israel everywhere — blue-and-white flags adorn the walls of one classroom, and another class often watches an Israeli children’s show. The students celebrated Israeli Independence Day this year. (In the parlance of 5- and 6-year-olds, the day was known as the country’s “62nd birthday,” and prompted a project of construction-paper birthday cards.)

The school has not yet ventured into politically sensitive territory; nobody brought up the recent Gaza blockade. But provocative questions are certain to come as the students get older. Aalim recently asked his father, Willie Moody, to explain why the Jews and the Palestinians “hate each other.” Mr. Moody responded: “I don’t even understand that. Just wait until you’re older.”

Ms. Berman said the school planned to train teachers how to deal with discussions of Israel, which she said would involve an evenhanded approach.

Although the school cannot inquire about faith, many of the white students are Jewish. A few wear yarmulkes, and several parents acknowledged that if it were not for H.L.A., they would have sent their children to a Jewish day school, which can cost more than $20,000.

“For us this was a really good alternative,” said Marlyn Gaba, who has a 10-year-old son at East Midwood Hebrew Day School and a daughter at H.L.A. who also attends a religious after-school program. “You can’t compare a couple of hours of religious instruction after school with the half-day he gets every day, but what I like is that she is learning the language and pride in Israel.”

At the start, a few parents pulled out their children, alarmed, as Maureen Campbell, the school’s principal, put it, “at the diversity.” But most remained.

The money quote though is why some of the non-Jewish families wanted to send their kids to a Hebrew school like this:
Some parents who are not Jewish said they applied because they were simply eager for their children to learn a second language. But others gave reasons the school would be unlikely to cite in its recruitment brochures.

“By going to school with Jewish children, they are going to be getting a good education,” said Mr. Moody. “In that community there’s no foolishness when it comes to education.”


  1. “In that community there’s no foolishness when it comes to education.”

    There's plenty of foolishness. Some spend $15,000 on a mediocre education. Others send to schools that hardly prepare a student for the world, and almost ensure them living life of poverty. And others skirt the line, teaching one way and living a different way. Lot's of foolishness to be found.

  2. but what they teach they teach with no foolishness.. :-)


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