He­brew’s home­room

D.C.’s sec­u­lar Sela Pub­lic Char­ter School im­merses its stu­dents in the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Is­rael

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY PERRY STEIN

Denise Lock­ett, an African Amer­i­can and Catholic grand­mother, sat in the lobby of a Dis­trict char­ter school wait­ing to de­liver lunch to her 9-year-old grand­son.

“I’m Kobe’s savta,” she said with a grin, us­ing the He­brew word for grand­mother to in­tro­duce her­self.

Kobe, her pre­co­cious grand­son who watches Is­raeli car­toons on YouTube in his free time, was in He­brew class, where stu­dents learn to write from right to left in the Mid­dle East­ern lan­guage.

“Mah shlom­cha?” he asked a school vis­i­tor, us­ing the He­brew greet­ing for, “How are you?”

At Sela Pub­lic Char­ter School in North­east Wash­ing­ton, stu­dents in preschool through fifth grade spend hours each week learn­ing He­brew — the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Is­rael and a lan­guage as­so­ci­ated with Ju­daism.

But the school is not re­li­gious.

It’s a pub­licly funded, sec­u­lar char­ter school that re­flects the de­mo­graph­ics of the Dis­trict’s school­child­ren. More than 70 per­cent of the stu­dents are black, sim­i­lar to the fig­ure city­wide in pub­lic schools. About 16 per­cent of the 180 stu­dents at the preschool and el­e­men­tary school are white, with most iden­ti­fy­ing as Jewish. Nearly 10 per­cent of stu­dents are His­panic. A small per­cent­age are Asian.

Kobe and his class­mates revel in sur­pris­ing peo­ple with what they know — and in teach­ing their fam­i­lies and neigh­bors some­thing new.

To cel­e­brate Kobe’s re­cent birth­day, his mother learned how to sing “Happy Birth­day” in He­brew. And Syd­ney Harris, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, said she was at a gas sta­tion in the Dis­trict when she heard a woman speak­ing He­brew.

Syd­ney thought the woman was speak­ing to her, so she re­sponded in He­brew.

The woman was shocked.

“Most of the time, peo­ple are re­ally sur­prised and in­trigued be­cause they don’t think that peo­ple in D.C. can speak He­brew,” Syd­ney said. “I’m proud that, for once, peo­ple don’t have to teach me some­thing. I can teach them some­thing.”

But He­brew can be seen as some­thing of an im­prac­ti­cal sec­ond lan­guage for stu­dents to mas­ter, es­pe­cially in a coun­try where Span­ish and Chi­nese are the most com­mon lan­guages spo­ken at home other than English.

There are no pub­lic He­brewlan­guage schools in the Dis­trict for mid­dle or high school stu­dents, so grad­u­ates of Sela would have to en­roll in a pri­vate Jewish day school to con­tinue learn­ing the lan­guage, which some Jewish stu­dents have done.

While the school is try­ing to re­cruit more stu­dents to fill its class­rooms, there’s a huge de­mand in the city for more Span­ish- and Chi­nese-lan­guage im­mer­sion op­tions. That has oc­ca­sion­ally raised the ques­tion of whether pub­lic money should be used to pay for a He­brew-lan­guage school in Wash­ing­ton, some Sela lead­ers ac­knowl­edge.

How­ever, Jes­sica Lieber­man, one of the founders of Sela and a cur­rent board mem­ber, said even if stu­dents aren’t us­ing He­brew in their ev­ery­day lives, they are still gain­ing the in­tel­lec­tual ben­e­fits that come with learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage.

As a new mother, Lieber­man, who spent time liv­ing in Is­rael, opened Sela in 2013 with a group that wanted to see more for­eign­lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion op­tions in the city.

Stu­dents are be­ing ex­posed to a dif­fer­ent part of the world through Sela, Lieber­man said. Each week, stu­dents have an hour-long class that teaches them about Is­raeli cul­ture, food and dance. While Sela is the only pub­lic He­brew-lan­guage school in the Dis­trict, there are sim­i­lar char­ter schools in New York, Min­nesota and Cal­i­for­nia. The schools are af­fil­i­ated through He­brew Pub­lic, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes He­brew-lan­guage char­ter cam­puses and pro­vides in­struc­tional and plan­ning re­sources to schools.

“We re­ally fo­cus on the im­por­tance of study­ing a sec­ond lan­guage, just be­cause of the cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment you get from it,” Lieber­man said. “And any­time you learn a sec­ond lan­guage, it’s much eas­ier to learn a third.”

In­side Sela, there are signs in He­brew, book­shelves filled with col­or­ful books in the lan­guage and Is­raeli mu­sic and danc­ing.

Some fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing Kobe’s, were at­tracted to the school be­cause of its smaller size — along with the chance to learn an­other lan­guage. Kobe’s cousins also at­tend the school now.

Other fam­i­lies lan­guished on wait­ing lists for spots in Span­is­hand Chi­nese-lan­guage im­mer­sion char­ter schools but still wanted their child to learn a for­eign lan­guage. So they en­rolled in Sela.

Al­li­son Blotzer, a par­ent of two young stu­dents at the school, said she never ex­pected to have He­brew-speak­ing chil­dren. Her hus­band is a na­tive Span­ish speaker who uses the lan­guage at home, so she wanted her chil­dren to be ex­posed to an­other lan­guage. But they got locked out of French- and Chi­nese-lan­guage schools dur­ing the school lot­tery, which places chil­dren in schools through­out the city.

“It wasn’t a top choice when we did the lot­tery, but we feel very for­tu­nate to have been matched with Sela,” Blotzer said. “My kids are lov­ing He­brew.”

In preschool, stu­dents spend the en­tire day learn­ing sub­jects in He­brew. Mean­while, el­e­men­tary stu­dents have morn­ing assem­bly in He­brew and an hour-long class learn­ing He­brew each day, said Joshua Bork, the head of the school.

In lan­guage-im­mer­sion schools — Sela’s up­per grades don’t tech­ni­cally qual­ify — stu­dents learn their core sub­jects in the for­eign lan­guage each day.

Bork said Sela is try­ing to move to that model but needs to re­cruit more stu­dents to be able to pay for the ad­di­tional in­struc­tors who can teach core sub­jects in He­brew. He said He­brew is a pho­netic lan­guage, so it also helps stu­dents as they are learn­ing to read English.

The school has a mid-level qual­ity rank­ing, ac­cord­ing to the D.C. Pub­lic Char­ter School Board.

Bork said the rank­ing does not re­flect the achieve­ments of its stu­dents. Sela has so few stu­dents in the up­per-el­e­men­tary grades that if a small por­tion of those stu­dents’ test scores do not im­prove, it greatly af­fects the school’s as­sess­ment, ac­cord­ing to Bork.

Car­mit Ro­mano-Hvid, the He­brew co­or­di­na­tor at Sela, is an Is­raeli na­tive who taught He­brew at a univer­sity in Den­mark. But she has never taught the lan­guage in a school like Sela.

“It shows how you can teach lan­guage and con­nect it to the cul­ture, with­out in­vok­ing re­li­gion,” she said. “These kids are cu­ri­ous, they want to learn a new lan­guage, and they want to learn about other parts of the world.”


At Sela Pub­lic Char­ter School in North­east Wash­ing­ton, stu­dents in preschool through fifth grade spend hours each week learn­ing He­brew. On a re­cent day last month, Kyra Adi­gun, top, a fourth-grader, an­swers a ques­tion in He­brew, while in an­other class, above, stu­dents dance and sing Is­raeli songs.


Third-graders Sha­heme Mar­shall, left, and Amir Wil­liams work on a He­brew writ­ing as­sign­ment at Sela Pub­lic Char­ter School, the only pub­lic He­brew-lan­guage school in the Dis­trict.

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