Black and White and Hebrew All Over

HLA is a new kind of charter school

Gibran currently occupies a building in the most remote corner of Fort Greene, a mile from the closest subway. There are virtually no Arabic speakers in the neighborhood. Its enrollment plummeted last year, and it got an "F" on its last progress report. It will reopen as a high school in its fourth home in the fall, but no one believes it will thrive.

HLA, by comparison, is located on a stretch of King's Highway that is full of Hebrew signs and speakers. It has occupied its own building since it opened, where it actually has empty classrooms and room to expand. By not co-locating with a traditional public school, it has avoided the "cannibalism" charges waged against more experienced education players, like Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and Eva Moskowtiz's Success Network.

It's an interesting case study in two schools: one charter and one traditionally public, one with its own home and one perpetually on the move, one with a celebrated language and one that creates guilt by association.

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.

But they both fit into a narrative of market-driven education reforms, which have thrived under Mayor Bloomberg. The fittest will survive, and the weakest will perish (as even his own chancellors have discovered).

Parents' reasons vary greatly for wanting their kids to go to HLA. Although some kids did pass the city's gifted test, their parents were displeased with how homogenous the schools were.

Ilona Fridson, a white mother of a student, says, "One of the values we have in my family—we like to be with everyone in the community. We want to be friends with people of other experiences. Here, our child has met people from Haiti, from Jamaica, kids born in the U.S. and the U.K. It's beautiful."

She admits that there is a disadvantage to her kid speaking Hebrew better than she does. "To tell the truth, I think they're talking about us," she jokes.

But for many of the parents, their decision to come to HLA shows how, from Waiting for Superman to The Lottery, charter schools are winning the war of ideas that they are better schools, even when they have little so far to show for it.

With testing starting in third grade, HLA's kindergarten to second grades have no scores to point to. Nor do they have a history of preparing kids for entrance into the city's elite middle schools. And yet 436 applications for about 75 seats were filed this year.

On the other hand, they're often competing against schools with scores so bad that having no scores at all may be an advantage.

But some parents clearly have no idea what they're getting into when they apply. At a recent assembly, one mother explained that she'd just heard that charter schools were better: "And when I punched 'charter schools,' into the computer, a school in Florida came up. And when I called them, they said I'd have to move to Florida to enroll my child there, and I knew that wouldn't work."

Then she heard about HLA and put her daughter in the lottery. Language wasn't a factor for her—it was just a charter school that was closer than Florida.

It's a rainy Friday afternoon and an MTA bus driver comes into HLA's front office. The deadline to be placed in the school's lottery is just a day away.

"I'm interested in an application," he says.

Principal Campbell turns on her charm. "You're in the right place!" He is about to take the form with him when she tells him, "You can fill it out right now—unless you have the bus double-parked outside." She laughs with a toss of her head.

He fills out the form. Like many people, he has heard about HLA through a sign at a bus stop, and is excited about his child getting to be bilingual. Campbell and her staff spend many weekends at street fairs, barber shops, beauty salons, and, yes, even Baptist churches recruiting for the school.

Just down the hall, the kindergarten class has earned a singing break. They sing a modified learning version of "We Will Rock You," jumping up and down. They yell at the top of their lungs, singing much louder off stage than they ever did in front of their parents. Braids are flying. A yarmulke momentarily flies off one kid's head.

Then, shortly after, they all line up and march down the hall to the gym, hand in hand.

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