Black and White and Hebrew All Over

HLA is a new kind of charter school

One thing he is rigid about: Teachers are not allowed to have desks in their rooms. "We believe teachers need to be on their feet, working with the kids," he says. The teachers have students from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and then take turns supervising an after-school program several days a week, which makes for a lot of on-your-feet time. (Imagine Me—like HLA and most charters—is non-union.)

Imagine Me also has co-teachers in every room, though it's not a dual-language school. It was founded by the neighboring St. Paul Community Baptist Church, where the political power broker Johnny Ray Youngblood is pastor emeritus. There is a literal wall separating the church and the state-funded school, but they share a roof and connect via an underground passage.

The side of the building that Imagine Me occupies also used to house a private religious school run by St. Paul, which over time began to languish. "Our parents couldn't afford the tuition, even when it came down to only four or five thousand dollars," says Pastor David Brawley, the senior minister of St. Paul and president of Imagine Me's board. (He is the only member of both the church and the school's boards.)

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.

After the previous school closed, Brawley and his board applied for a charter last year and opened Imagine Me's doors in September. St. Paul kicked in $100,000. Brawley says the church saw the school as meeting a need of the community, but didn't mind giving up the religious educational aspect because "it fit into our values." (There is a traditional public school within sight, but apart from getting Imagine Me's lunches from their kitchen, the church seems to have given up on it.)

There are signs that Imagine Me is part of a church campus. One classroom has a large mural of Noah's Ark occupying an entire wall, but it's not especially religious in nature. There's also a group called the Simeon Society, which is named for the New Testament's Simeon the Righteous (who blessed the baby Jesus 40 days after Christ's birth), which pairs 60- to 80-year-old men as mentors with the students.

"Many of our boys come from single-parent homes," Principal Johnson, says, stressing the need for black male role models. Pastor Brawley adds that the adjacent housing project across the street "is a million-dollar block," where enough men are convicted to provide a million dollars per year of income for upstate prison towns.

In a way, there is nothing wrong with this picture: A community in need got together to meet its needs as it best sees fit. It's an education reformer's dream.

And yet, it's bizarre that, like with HLA, taxpayers' dollars are going to fund education in a building that previously offered religious education, so that a few families—despite a school a couple blocks away—can get something special for free.

At a recent music assembly at HLA, a truism of childhood was fully on display: It's incredibly difficult to get kids to be quiet when they're in a classroom, but it's almost impossible to make them project loudly when they're onstage in front of their parents. When they begin, they sing as mutely and off-key as children performing at any school anywhere in the world.

But their ability to sing their school anthem "Good Morning/Boker Tov HLA" in Hebrew is impressive (even if the "singing" is no better than their rendition of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music.) Parents—some double-fisting two video cameras—seemed duly impressed.

Lovely Garcon watches her daughter, SydneyLove, a girl with an infectious smile, and recalls a recent visit to the dentist, where two elderly women were speaking Hebrew in the waiting area. When they realized the little black girl was watching them with saucer eyes, they asked her, "Can you understand what we're saying?" She nodded. They proceeded to speak to her in Hebrew and were shocked at how well her comprehension was.

"It's amazing," the Haitian woman says. "She has always had a thing for language," she says, adding that her daughter can speak French as well. Garcon actually wants to move from New York City, but can't bring herself to because of the school.

"Where else can she get this?" she asks. "The Hebrew Language Academy is keeping us here."

But if the future of HLA is bright, the future of the city's only public Arabic-focused school is bleak. Khalil Gibran Academy was doomed before it ever opened its doors. Founding Principal Debbie Almontaser was fired for being misquoted by the New York Post in 2007, in an infamous story about the meaning of the word intifada on a T-shirt. A federal appeals court found that the Post had misrepresented her words and the DOE had violated her free speech, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cleared the way for her to get her job back. (She did not sue to be reinstated.)

Meanwhile, Gibran would cycle through four principals in three different buildings in just three years. Though also focused on language and not religion, it was the subject of a virulent campaign led by a group called "Stop the Madrassa." (Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY trustee behind the recent Tony Kushner honorary degree controversy, was a member of its board.) Staff were routinely called terrorists in the press and on blogs, and turnover was high in the classroom.

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