Black and White and Hebrew All Over

HLA is a new kind of charter school

Black and White and Hebrew All Over
Olga Generalova

Black kids and white kids are sitting together in a building that used to house a private yeshiva.

It's not exactly what you'd expect to see when you walk into the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA), a public charter school in the largely Jewish neighborhood where Midwood meets Marine Park.

But in each kindergarten classroom, you'll find just that: tables of four children, with both white and black students seated at them.

Public shul: Many students at HLA are African-American.
Olga Generalova
Public shul: Many students at HLA are African-American.
Braids at HLA are more common than yarmulkes.
Olga Generalova
Braids at HLA are more common than yarmulkes.

Here's why that's so unusual in New York City: At "gifted" public schools, students are often nearly all white and Asian. At the city's poorly performing public schools, students are usually all black and Latino. Even charter schools, of whatever quality, are 95 percent black or Latino.

It's unusual to see relatively equal amounts of black and white students sitting together in any New York City public school. But then you see there's another unusual pairing at HLA: in the written material.

Every bit of written instruction—from the alphabet to science—is explained from left to right in English, and then from right to left in Hebrew.

At this school, kindergartners, only six months after being introduced to the language, are comprehending and speaking Hebrew aloud.

Aside from the Hebrew itself, this is part of a new language of charter schools in New York City. HLA is just one of several publicly funded yet privately run schools that raise questions about the separation of church and state. This is a touchy subject at HLA, which its administrators insist is not a religious school, despite its obvious ties to Judaism. Apart from that issue, however, HLA is closer to a true melting pot than most other schools in the city.

Male teachers are rare in New York City elementary schools, where 75 percent of teachers are female (and that imbalance is even higher in the lower grades). Black males are even rarer. But poke your head into HLA's cafeteria during gym class, and you'll find Qayyim Shabazz, a commanding man with an impressive beard and deep voice, instructing soccer in Hebrew. "He didn't speak any Hebrew when he started," the principal, Maureen Campbell, says. "He's just great with languages." (Campbell herself is a black woman who does not speak Hebrew.)

Upstairs, Esosa Ogbahan ("Mr. O") is leading instruction for his second-graders, discussing the disastrous events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Later, walking to the teacher's restroom (to flush a floater from the class fish tank), he speaks with the Voice about growing up as a black teenager during the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, when blacks and whites squared off against each other, hurling racial and religious slurs.

HLA is evidence that this is, in ways, a much different time. "I like being a part of solutions, of bringing people together," Mr. O says of HLA.

Beyond race, Mr. O says that he is excited to teach in a school that has an unusually high level of economic variety among its families. Generally, it's strange that a physician would choose to have his or her child educated in the same room as a child whose family is on public assistance—but that happens here.

"We're the most diverse public school in New York City," Campbell and her staff repeatedly claim. While that's a difficult thing to quantify, the numbers do show that 55 percent of families identify their children as white, 38 percent as black, 6 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as multiracial.

And you might not expect to see a black Muslim parent send a child to a school with the word "Hebrew" in its name, but New York is not the Middle East. "I don't know much about the situation over there," says Willie Moody, explaining why his two children come to HLA. He likes that his daughters study Hebrew, saying, "I can only imagine that this will help."

Other parents, as well as the staff at HLA, also echo that idealistic sentiment: that their work will help change the world and make it a better place.

Arleen Danon, the school's Hebrew Language education director, says that when she used to work at a private Jewish day school in Philadelphia, "we had a relationship with the local Muslim academy in town," and they would do joint programs together. She says she'd love to do something with an Arabic-language school in New York City—if there was one.

She didn't know that such a school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, already existed. Only a week later, however, the Department of Education would announce that it was, in effect, killing the school.

The comparison between the slowly dying Gibran academy and the expanding HLA is stark. While Gibran is closing as a dual-language, but non-charter, middle school, HLA plans to open two new schools in Harlem next fall. For all the peace and love expressed by staff and parents, charter schools are always in a fight for survival. They battle for the hearts and minds of not only their pupils but also of city education officials. It's a Darwinian education world, and only the schools deemed fittest will survive—as Gibran didn't.

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