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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