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Hebrew charter school to open in NYC

February 1, 2009 9:42:01 AM PST
The south Brooklyn neighborhod of Mill Basin is a racially diverse mix, with immigrants from Asia, a number of Spanish-speaking countries and the former Soviet Union. Backers of a new charter school specializing in Hebrew set to open there in the fall say all of those ethnic and religious groups will be attracted to the academic institution, not just Jews.

But while the school's organizers say they will offer top-quality instruction without crossing church-state boundaries, critics say public schools should not celebrate one particular culture.

"They're trying to transmit cultural values and identity, and that's not the purpose of a public school," said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

The Hebrew Language Academy Charter School's school will open two years after the debut of a controversial Arabic-themed public school, also in Brooklyn, and as school districts around the nation grapple with issues of religion and culture.

The Hebrew school's board chairwoman, Sara Berman, said her school "will be the finest example of what America is today."

Berman said the school's rigorous curriculum will attract students who reflect the student population of the area, which has a substantial number of Jews but is three-quarters black, Hispanic and Asian. She said Jewish and non-Jewish students alike will benefit from learning Hebrew.

"We really believe that learning a second language helps children in other ways besides the language itself," she said, citing studies that suggest that language instruction stimulates brain development.

The state Board of Regents approved the Hebrew charter school on Jan. 13 with one dissenting vote.

Regent Saul Cohen, who cast the no vote, said in an e-mail that the student population of Community District 22, where the school will be situated, "is 74 percent minority. I doubt that many of the minorities would be interested in this school."

One opponent of that view is Maureen Gonzalez-Campbell, a veteran educator who has been chosen as the principal of the Hebrew charter school.

"Any opportunity for your child to learn a second language, whether it's Hebrew or any other language, is beneficial," said Gonzalez-Campbell, who is African-American and speaks no Hebrew herself.

Gonzalez-Campbell, 48, is currently deputy superintendent of schools in Mount Vernon, N.Y., just north of New York City. She took that position after a long career in the New York City public schools including a five-year stint as an elementary school principal in the Far Rockaway section of Queens.

She said parents will be attracted to the charter school's low student-teacher ratio and academic rigor.

The Hebrew charter school, which does not have a site yet, is due to open with 150 students in kindergarten and first grade and will grow to 450 in grades K-5 by the fifth year.

Like other charter schools, it will be taxpayer-funded. But it expects to raise additional money from private donors and has commitments of $500,000 a year from philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and $250,000 a year from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Steinhardt, the father of Berman, the school's chairwoman, founded the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in 1994 with the goal of revitalizing Jewish identity.

But Berman said the charter school will not promote the Jewish religion, instead using secular texts to teach modern Hebrew.

Berman, whose own children attend a Jewish day school in Manhattan, is a former parenting columnist for the New York Sun, a now-defunct daily that led the opposition to the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the Arabic-themed school.

That school opened in September 2007 after its first choice for a principal, Debbie Almontaser, was forced to resign over comments she had made about the word "intifada." Critics said Almontaser should have condemned the use of the word, which commonly refers to the Palestinian uprising against Israel, on T-shirts made by a youth organization. Almontaser has sued to get the job back; the lawsuit is pending.

Controversy arose more recently in Minnesota, where The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last month over the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a Muslim charter school with two campuses in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

The ACLU contends that the Minnesota school violates the constitutional separation of church and state by permitting prayer sessions during school hours and by giving preference to Muslim clothing rules. Female teachers, for example, have to be covered from neck to wrist and ankle.

Berman and Gonzalez-Campbell expect their school to avoid such flare-ups.

"I hope this school is a model of tolerance and community affiliation," Berman said.

The school will teach subjects like science and math in English.

Every student will learn Hebrew, and the language will be integrated into subjects like music and art.

Gonzalez-Campbell said each classroom will have an English-speaking teacher and a Hebrew-speaking one and a maximum of 25 students.

There will be lessons on Israeli culture as well as state-mandated subjects like American history.

"The children will be learning the scope of the social studies curriculum," Gonzalez-Campbell said. "It's just that they will have a parallel learning curve where they will heighten their understanding of the Hebrew language and culture alongside of that."

The school will not be the nation's first Hebrew charter school.

The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., prompted fierce debates when it opened in 2007. It serves kosher meals and its director is a rabbi, but an expert hired by the district deemed Ben Gamla's lesson plans "entirely appropriate for a publicly funded charter school."

The Brooklyn Hebrew school's applicants satisfied the New York state regents that they will not violate the U.S. Constitution, but they have not silenced their critics.

Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an op-ed piece in the Daily News that she objected to the Hebrew school for the same reasons she objected to the Khalil Gibran school two years ago, because a public school should not be "centered on the teaching of a single non-American culture."

"We don't send children to public schools to learn to be Chinese or Russian or Greek or Korean," Ravitch said. "We send them to learn to be American."

Marc Stern, acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, has similar concerns.

Stern said that despite claims by its founders to the contrary, the school is designed to appeal to Jewish students, and he said that while the school appears to be in compliance with the law he opposes it philosophically.

"If our whole public school system looked like that, with a feminist school and an Afro-American school and a Greek culture school, what happens to the idea of a common school?" Stern asked.

"They have a right to do this. I have some doubt about its wisdom but that's as far as I can take it."


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