Black and White and Hebrew All Over

HLA is a new kind of charter school

Those battles aren't part of the HLA pupils' course of study. At one point in a classroom on a recent morning, the kids, one by one, move markers with Hebrew lettering on them from one side of a whiteboard to the other, as their teacher speaks.

"Those are their names," the principal, Maureen Campbell, explains. "They're recognizing each other's names, and marking who is here for attendance."

This room, like each one in HLA, has two full-time co-teachers, each one instructing in a language. The English teacher has one hour dedicated each day to intensively teach English, and his counterpart leads one hour strictly in Hebrew. And for the rest of the day—while teaching math, music, singing, social studies, and even gym—everything is co-taught in both languages. Under no circumstances will a teacher ever address his or her students in a language other than the one he or she has been assigned to teach in.

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.

"If they want to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, they must ask for it in Hebrew. Or they do not get it," one Hebrew teacher explains.

Another says, laughing, that "a child looked at me talking to a parent once, incredulously, and when I asked her what was wrong, she said, 'I didn't know that you could speak English!' "

On this spring day, students are learning about seeds, leaves, and photosynthesis in Hebrew—and they're pretty focused and quiet.

How the different worlds at HLA mash up can be seen most clearly on a field trip, when Mr. O takes some students on a service project to the nearby Young Men's Hebrew Association. Their senior drop-in center is frequented by elderly Russian Jews who spend their days playing board games.

Here, the kids are just kids, excited for the chance to get out of school and play a game. (All HLA students take weekly chess lessons.) For their part, the alter kockers seem tickled to speak Hebrew or English with kids of any color, and also appear to enjoy learning Spanish and French from some of them.

When he first spoke to the Voice, Mr. O said he didn't mind when his co-teacher explains something in Hebrew that he can't understand. But he's ecstatic when a grant comes through a couple of weeks later that will allow him to study Hebrew intensively at Middlebury College for four weeks this summer.

"It's an opportunity to keep learning," he says happily.

But why the Hebrew language?

"Why not?" is the most common answer from the school. "It's a beautiful language, with a beautiful history and culture," Campbell says, sounding defensive about even being asked the question.

She takes a businesslike stance, asserting that "what all parents really want is a marketable child" and saying that "Israel is the number one country represented on the NASDAQ."

And, she says, Hebrew is just one of many languages taught in both traditional and charter New York City public schools. There are 67 dual-language public schools in the five boroughs. But while a school like Anna Silver Elementary (P.S.20) in Manhattan prepares students to communicate with the billion-plus Mandarin speakers, and (until recently) the Khalil Gibran International Academy prepared students to communicate with the 280 million who speak in Arabic, HLA's goal is inclusion in a relatively small language pool. Just nine million people speak Hebrew worldwide.

"So? We do not believe that you have to learn a high-frequency language for it to have value," Campbell responds.

The major criticism HLA faces—and they're not alone in this—is that a group of parents who wanted something specific got taxpayers to subsidize it. A private Hebrew-language education at a yeshiva could cost upward of $20,000 a year.

The secular charter school is adamant about making clear the distinction between Hebrew and Judaism. When the Voice asked its director of Hebrew education, Arleen Danon, why the language was important to her personally, the principal barked at her to answer "non-religiously!" before she even said a word.

Official figures on how many Jewish families attend the school are unavailable, as asking parents to identify about religion would be "illegal," Campbell points out. Still, occupying a former yeshiva, some critics wonder if HLA has found a way to use public funds for the generally religious task of teaching Hebrew.

But to many education reformers, this is school choice at its best, when a community decides what works best for it and steers tax dollars appropriately. And unlike many New York City public schools—especially the city's Gifted and Talented ones—HLA does not implicitly or explicitly segregate by race, class, or income. Instead, the school heavily recruits diversity and reportedly maintained a 95 percent re-enrollment rate after its first year.

Hebrew Language Academy isn't the only charter school that—on the surface, at least—raises church and state questions. Imagine Me Leadership Charter School in East New York was founded by a Baptist church.

Imagine Me is for boys only, and its population is nearly entirely black. The principal is Rashid Johnson, a Michelle Rhee protégé who fled Washington, D.C., when Rhee's boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was voted out of office. Johnson believes in a loose sort of discipline in the school. Boys call him by his first name, and he encourages teachers to try any method that works to teach the kids, instead of making the students adapt to the teacher's style. "If a child needs to learn while walking around, then we need to let them learn walking around," he says. "I don't like to be too rigid."

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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).

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.

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!!!

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.

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!

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.

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

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.

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."

 
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