He­brew Char­ters

Dual lan­guage schools with di­verse pop­u­la­tions keep spring­ing up.

Forward Magazine - - Education - By Em­me­line Zhao Fol­low Em­me­line Zhao on Twit­ter, @em­me­linez

In a coun­try where residential ZIP codes have long dic­tated public school zon­ing, the ed­u­ca­tion re­form move­ment in re­cent years has also brought to the fore­front a no­tion of school choice in which fam­i­lies can de­cide where to send their chil­dren to school on public dol­lars, re­gard­less of where they live.

Char­ter schools, which are pub­licly funded but pri­vately run, have ex­panded across the coun­try, most no­tably through large net­works like KIPP Public Char­ter Schools, As­pire Public Schools, In­sight Schools and IDEA Public Schools. Con­gru­ently, states are in­creas­ingly pres­sured to al­lo­cate more public dol­lars to­ward pri­vate school vouch­ers or char­ter schools in the face of parental fears that the Amer­i­can public ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is on the de­cline.

From the 1999–2000 aca­demic year to the 2012– 2013 aca­demic year, the to­tal num­ber of public char­ter schools in Amer­ica grew to 6,100 from 1,500, mark­ing an in­crease to 6.2% from 1.7% as the com­po­si­tion of public schools that were public char­ter schools, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics.

With that na­tional char­ter growth, a hand­ful of He­brew char­ter schools have sprouted just within the past sev­eral years, par­tic­u­larly with the sup­port of the He­brew Char­ter School Cen­ter. The New York City-based not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded in 2009 to foster the growth of He­brew lan­guage char­ter schools and to pro­vide re­sources and as­sis­tance to con­tinue im­prov­ing and ex­pand­ing those schools.

The first HCSC- sup­ported school opened in Brook­lyn in 2009, with about 150 stu­dents in kinder­garten through first grade. For the 2015– 2016 school year, the cen­ter is ex­pect­ing to serve about 1,700 stu­dents in pre-K through sixth grade across nine schools in Brook­lyn; Man­hat­tan’s Har­lem; New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Los An­ge­les, and Min­neapo­lis. The goal is to open 30 schools within the next decade to serve more than 12,000 schools an­nu­ally, HCSC Pres­i­dent and CEO Jon Rosen­berg said.

HCSC schools seek to ed­u­cate stu­dents in a sec­u­lar, He­brew-lan­guage par­tial-im­mer­sion en­vi­ron­ment that is fo­cused on di­ver­sity. As a new mem­ber of the Na­tional Coali­tion of Di­verse Char­ter Schools, Rosen­berg said HCSC lead­ers be­lieve that char­ter schools play a key role in cre­at­ing in­te­grated schools of choice.

“There is grow­ing recog­ni­tion in the United States that you can teach mod­ern He­brew and about Is­rael in an en­tirely sec­u­lar public school con­text, in the same way that you can teach Man­darin at a school with­out em­brac­ing Bud­dhism, or Greek with­out a school be­ing a Greek Ortho­dox school,” Rosen­berg said.

But it hasn’t al­ways been easy to make it clear to the public that there is a dis­tinct sep­a­ra­tion of church and state in the pub­licly funded He­brew char­ter schools.

Lashon Academy — now a K-3 school — opened in Los An­ge­les’s Van Nuys area in 2013, to some con­cern in the com­mu­nity that the dual-lan­guage school would blur a line be­tween public and pri­vate schools, a com­mon crit­i­cism among char­ter school foes. Fur­ther, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween an ed­u­ca­tion in the He­brew lan­guage and Ju­daism is some­thing to which Lashon’s prin­ci­pal, Sara Gar­cia, still an­swers.

“We had par­ents on both end of the spec­trum. Some asked, ‘What do you mean you’re not teach­ing Rosh Hashanah or do­ing a Seder ac­tiv­ity?’ Oth­ers on the other end were just try­ing to un­der­stand what it meant to teach He­brew,” Gar­cia said. “We’re still ex­plain­ing to par­ents that we’re not a re­li­gious school. We don’t celebrate Jewish hol­i­days and don’t teach re­li­gion in any as­pect. But we teach the cul­ture of Is­rael and un­der­stand­ing Is­rael. Even if you go to a school that teaches Man­darin or Span­ish, it’s just the lan­guage.”

Lashon stu­dents re­ceive a core hour of He­brew in­struc­tion ev­ery day, while the rest of their course­work in sub­jects like art and phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion can be taught in He­brew. And it fo­cuses on serv­ing a di­verse com­mu­nity: the stu­dent body com­prises al­most 60% Is­raeli-Amer­i­can stu­dents and 40% His­panic stu­dents. At New York City’s Har­lem He­brew Lan­guage Academy, the stu­dent body is 40% white, 36% black, 20% His­panic and 4% mul­tira­cial. More than half of HHLA’s stu­dents re­ceive free and re­duced-price lunch.

That eth­nic makeup in He­brew char­ter schools might raise eye­brows. But char­ter lead­ers say the draw of He­brew-lan­guage schools to non-Is­raeli Amer­i­cans en­com­passes nu­mer­ous ed­u­ca­tional val­ues.

For fam­i­lies zoned to public schools that are ei­ther sub­par or sim­ply don’t meet their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tional needs, the no­tion of school choice and the prom­ise of aca­demic rigor are enough of a draw, Rosen­berg said. Fam­i­lies are also look­ing for racial and eco­nomic di­ver­sity and the op­por­tu­nity to learn a sec­ond lan­guage. Stud­ies have shown that bilin­gual in­di­vid­u­als are able to think

and ex­pe­ri­ence the world dif­fer­ently depend­ing on the lan­guage they use, and they can in­crease aca­demic achieve­ment and im­prove at­ti­tudes and be­liefs about other cul­tures. Specif­i­cally, HHLA also helps stu­dents de­velop a strong sense of so­cial and civic re­spon­si­bil­ity through the in­te­gra­tion of com­mu­nity ser­vice, said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s prin­ci­pal, Robin Nat­man.

He­brew is also a dif­fi­cult lan­guage; while it’s eas­ier than Man­darin or Ara­bic, it’s harder than Ger­man or French for English speak­ers, Rosen­berg said. As stu­dents learn He­brew, they also de­velop abil­i­ties to over­come chal­lenges, as well as open doors to op­por­tu­ni­ties that would re­quire He­brew.

“While He­brew is not one of the more widely spo­ken world lan­guages, it is spo­ken by mil­lions of peo­ple around the world,” Rosen­berg said. “It doesn’t make sense for ev­ery Amer­i­can stu­dent to learn Man­darin, de­spite China’s im­por­tance. Is­rael is a sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic power, with ex­cel­lence in tech­nol­ogy, entrepreneurship and post- sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, among other ar­eas.”

Even with the gen­eral suc­cess He­brew char­ters have seen thus far, there are a few wrin­kles to iron out at Lashon — as with any new school.

The ques­tion of ac­count­abil­ity is a per­sis­tent is­sue in the school choice de­bate, as char­ters aren’t nec­es­sar­ily re­quired to be held to the same stan­dards as tra­di­tional public schools. Many char­ter schools across the coun­try have faced scru­tiny, or been shut­tered, for mis­man­age­ment and poor per­for­mance.

But at Lashon, ac­count­abil­ity comes both from the top and in the class­room in a way that Gar­cia likens to the Com­mon Core State Stan­dards Ini­tia­tive. The school has lan­guage aca­demic stan­dards as well as growth, sum­ma­tive and for­ma­tive assess­ments given through­out the year to mea­sure pro­fi­ciency based on set bench­marks. A fi­nal as­sess­ment at the end of the year al­lows the school to track stu­dent progress year af­ter year. Even kinder­garten­ers tak­ing writ­ing ex­ams are ex­pected to be able to write a full para­graph by year’s end. And in the school’s first year, the grad­u­at­ing kinder­garten class rose to the chal­lenge, Gar­cia said.

While all stu­dents showed progress in He­brew lan­guage — since all the stu­dents in the school’s inau­gu­ral year started He­brew at ground zero — and the kinder­garten­ers and first- graders all im­proved read­ing lev­els, Lashon’s first year of sec­ond­graders strug­gled. Since the older stu­dents were at­tend­ing Lashon with other aca­demic ex­pe­ri­ences be­hind them, they en­tered at vary­ing lev­els of pro­fi­ciency, and Lashon ed­u­ca­tors had to fig­ure out how to best ac­com­mo­date all lev­els.

“But now that we un­der­stand our pop­u­la­tion, we can make tweaks and changes in our cur­ricu­lum and get a bet­ter hold on that,” Gar­cia said.

En­ter­ing its third year, HHLA uses na­tion­ally normed assess­ments to mea­sure stu­dent achieve­ment and drive in­struc­tion, Nat­man said. Stu­dents are for­mally as­sessed three to four times a year to help school lead­ers make data-driven de­ci­sions about cur­ricu­lum and in­struc­tion. That rig­or­ous in­struc­tion in He­brew and other sub­jects, Nat­man said, will nur­ture stu­dents to be­come com­pet­i­tive global cit­i­zens.

“He­brew is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing rel­e­vant in the tech world, and in in­ter­na­tional busi­ness, so our stu­dents hav­ing this pro­fi­ciency in He­brew, along with a knowl­edge of Is­raeli cul­ture, will be an as­set to them in the fu­ture,” she said. “We are cre­at­ing stu­dents who will easily and con­fi­dently be able to take their place in the global world of the fu­ture.”

Fresh Faces: Stu­dents at the young Lashon Academy, which is en­ter­ing its third year as a dual­lan­guage He­brew char­ter school in Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia.

COUR­TESY LASHON ACADEMY

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