Black and White and Hebrew All Over


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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.)

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.

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.

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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