Global Politics

Hebrew Immersion Charter School in New York

By Nina Porzucki

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New York boasts a huge diversity of ethnicities. At the city's public schools, that's reflected in the rapidly increasing number of English language learners.

There are also several new dual immersion schools, some of them charter schools. Dual immersion schools offer instruction in two languages: English and one other.

The other language might be Spanish, or Chinese. Or it might be a much less widely spoken language.

And it's when a school takes on one of these smaller languages that critics fear the school may be catering to a single ethnic group and reinforcing cultural isolation.

Take the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, in Brooklyn, NY.

During first grade music hour, students fidget at their desks. The music teacher, a young man with a guitar and a furrowed brow, calls the class to attention and begins a song– not just any song.

It's the Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem.

The Hebrew Academy Charter School is the first publicly funded Hebrew immersion school in New York City. When the school opened two years ago the city already had charter schools specializing in Spanish, Greek and French.

But the idea of teaching Hebrew, a language linked to Judaism, initially raised eyebrows.

"There is absolutely no religion taught at the school," says Sara Berman, the founder and board chair of the Hebrew Language Academy. For Berman, linking Hebrew to Judaism is an old-fashioned response. "When you walk into a Greek dual language school you don't think, I wonder if these children are really Greek Orthodox?"

Berman is also the daughter of the Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who sponsors programs connecting young American Jews with the state of Israel. But according to Berman, her school isn't specifically about Israel or Jewish identity. It's about learning a language with a long and rich cultural history.

"Hebrew is an interesting language because over the past century and a half there has been a revitalization of Hebrew," says Berman. "It is both a classical language and today, certainly a completely modern spoken language."

Hebrew may be a modern spoken language, but modern Hebrew is only spoken by about five million people worldwide. Creating a school dedicated to such a niche language worries Richard Kahlenberg, an education scholar at the Century Foundation. "There is a danger with charter schools that they will balkanize our country," says Kahlenberg. He believes that charter schools aimed at one particular ethnic or religious group risk deepening divides between Americans of different backgrounds.

Kahlenberg cites examples of ethnic charter schools in Minnesota, where there are Somali and Hmong charter schools. Those types of schools "contradict the purpose of public education in America to educate children of all different backgrounds about what it means to be an American in a democratic society," says Kahlenberg.

However, James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, which advocates for charters in New York City, does not think this is an issue in New York. For Merriman it's all about offering a quality education. The school, he says, must be willing to accept any child who applies. After that, it's not the language that matters but the instruction.

"There is such a need for high quality seats that if this school is getting kids literate not just in one language but in two and getting them ready to move on in life that's a pretty good thing," says Merriman.

A good education is what motivated Willie Moody when he sent his two children to the Hebrew Language Academy. "I'm happy that they have this chance to be exposed to another language especially the Hebrew language, because it's deeply rooted in black people's history," says Moody.

Moody says he has been amazed at his children's progress. So, too, he says, are strangers who overhear them speaking Hebrew on the subway.

The neighborhood surrounding the school is a racially diverse mix of Americans as well as immigrants from the Caribbean, Russia and Israel. The students are as diverse as their neighborhood according to first grade English teacher Joelle Vilani. "We have children who come from Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia. You name it we have it here."

There has been little opposition to the Hebrew Language Academy. In fact, the school has been immensely popular. This year there were four applicants for each vacant spot.

Sarah Berman's inbox has been flooded with requests from parents across the country for more information about the Hebrew dual language program. So many requests came in that this past year Berman helped establish a Hebrew Charter School Center. The Center advises parent groups about how to start their own Hebrew language charter.

Already, a school has opened in New Jersey. Charter applications are in the works in San Diego, Minneapolis, and a second school is being developed in New York. Berman aims to start 20 Hebrew immersion schools within the next five years.

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