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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20 comments
Onetrickpony
Onetrickpony

I bet a huge percent of the Kids of color will be working for the Hebrew community in the future.

Dick L.T.
Dick L.T.

Nice story. Too bad the Gibran school is closing or relocating. It can be made to work if enough of the Arab business and education communities, Muslim and Christian, band together to realize it.

Woody
Woody

Also, you may want to take notice that pro-Jewish crowd caught onto this article and pushed it on Twitter as "Diversity at Hebrew Language Charter School". I wonder if the students (or their parents) have had a chance to see these Hebrew-Language videos from South Tel Aviv about "diversity" in the ethnocentric land of Israel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... btw, "Hebrew is more useful than Latin" - Sharon may have started to believe her own shtuyyot!

Woody
Woody

I don't doubt this school is great - I would send my kids there. However, the situation is not in a vacuum and there is either bias or blindness in this article.

The author claims that "it's a Darwinian education world" and Gibran didn't survive. However, the previous sentence says the schools have to win the hearts and minds of the city officials in order to succeed. Is what is happening here Darwinian? What's clear is Hebrew, a NATIONALIST language which has almost no international use, spoken by AT MAXIMUM 9 million people, is getting huge support. This is probably in part to such vacuous lines as "Israel is #1 on NASDAQ!" (now how helpful is that to your cushim children, really...). Meanwhile Arabic, probably THE most important strategic language to the US behind Chinese and spoken by 300 million, is NOT getting support? I can't imagine this is anything like the community center downtown being run out of town either? There is no real competition here - HLA succeeds because of the outcome of Islamophobia in society. This is only Darwin if we measured success according to "survival of the Zionest!"

Sharon Cohen
Sharon Cohen

My daughter has attended HLA for 2 years. It is a fabulous school! I could not be happier at the impact the school has made on my child! I am so happy to have been lucky enough to win this lottory! I always say that if I had a choice to win millions of dollars in a lottory, or a spot for my child at HLA...I would choose the latter! From the education to the administration, it just doesn't get better!!!

Kenneth
Kenneth

Great! I guess a Catholic charter school can't be far behind.......RIGHT??? Besides, Latin is far more useful in life than Hebrew (unless one wants to join the cult in Rockland County).

Susan
Susan

I'm sorry to say that your understanding of the school is off since the school is not a jewish school. No religion is taught at the school. Additionally, Hebrew happens to be a beautiful and historically significant language which would explain people's interest in sending to the school!

Sharon Cohen
Sharon Cohen

What does Catholocism have to do with this? Hebrew is a language, not a religion! And it is far more useful than Latin these days! Med-school and Law Schools do not teach Latin as they did in the past! And this is not necessarily about Hebrew, it is about a school run by individuals who are highly motivated to do a better job as educators and make a difference for students!

Kwende Idrissa Madu
Kwende Idrissa Madu

Great story. The children are learning and are well treated. What more could anyone hope for????

Sydney Parlow
Sydney Parlow

BEAUTIFUL-BEAUTIFUL-BEAUTIFUL. THE WAY THE WORLD SHOULD BE.....THANK YOU.

missx
missx

" 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"

Is he he referring to how black bigots terrorized Jewish residents for 3 days with assualts, looting, and 2 murders? Ask Yankel Rosenbaums family about this. He was stabbed to death by a black lynch mob and the black "civil rights" lobby took the side of the murderer. Justice was not done. And today, anytime this event is brought up blacks referring to a car accident which killed a black child as the cause. BS. Every lynch mob has it's excuses, and the KKK had better excuses for thier violence towards blacks then a car accident. This was simply blacks acting like the KKK. When whites act like this it's called a hate crime. And no one would dare try and see it from the lynch mobs perspectives. Blacks do this to Jews and Asians and it is called a "dispute between communities" and we have to hear all the grievences and defense of the lynch mob.

Sharon Cohen
Sharon Cohen

Oh, please! This is not about Yankel Rosenbaum Z'L. This is about children growing up in a harmonious environment and learning that they have a lot more similarities than differences! Mr. O is a fabulous teacher and I am lucky that my daughter and her peers have such wonderful mentors! There are Black biggots and many Jewsih biggots!!! This is not what the article is about, so please do not generalize and spew your anger about something that has nothing to do with HLA!!!! Many people in those days would have just grown up to HATE; Mr. O decided to turn something he whitnessed in the past into a life lesson that he would share in the most positive way with his students! Your comments, although you are free to make them, stem from racism and biggotry of your own! Get over it! If that is the attitude that you will pass on to your innocent offspring; there could never be peace in this world!

Sydney Parlow
Sydney Parlow

All the more reason to thrill at the above. We so need to combine efforts and not harbour on the past if it had as the above.

Danielle
Danielle

Well, if $7 million DAILY in US taxpayer money goes to Israel--why not? Wait I mean "The U.S. is providing Israel with at least $8.2 million each day* in military aid and is giving the Palestinians $0** in military aid during Fiscal Year 2011."I hope they teach them that Africa is the home of their co-opted religious learnings/language AND along with memorizing "The Diary of Anne Frank" they'll too have to read "The Secret Relationship of Blacks and Jews" (both volumes) or "The Slave Ship"Mazel Tov!!!

missx
missx

Take that white sheet off it looks bad with your complexion Danielle. PS- The Material in "The Secret Relationship..." and "The Slave Ship" was debunked over a decade ago by none other then Henry Louis Gates. Get your mouth off the crack pipe.

Sydney Parlow
Sydney Parlow

Missx you defeat your apparent purpose by being insulting/abusive. We need--MUST learn to understand each other and focus on our commonalities and common needs and interests. Stop blaming each other for the miserable way people deal with people and learn to respect and enjoy each other.There was a song in my youth, "ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, ELIMINATE THE NEGATIVE AND DON'T MESS WITH MR. INBETWEEN."

Herschel
Herschel

hope they teach them part of the talmud that tells the goyim they are less than human.

and the schvartz? even worse than goyim.

Sydney Parlow
Sydney Parlow

Horrible. While I am a poorly educated in Torah, I doubt you are correct and you shame me as a Jew and a person. UGH

missx
missx

Yankel Rosenbaum is to the 1990's what Emit Till was to 1950's. But to African Americans Rosenbaum is less human.

 
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