New Charter Opens to Applause

Written by Megan Finnegan Bungeroth on . Posted in News Our Town, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, West Side Spirit.


Students study Hebrew at another location of the Hebrew Charter Network.

A neighborhood that went to battle to fiercely oppose the opening of one charter school in the recent past is now set to welcome another with open arms.

The Hebrew Charter School Center is preparing to open its newest school in Community Education District 3, which covers the Upper West Side as well as parts of West and Central Harlem. Last year, many Upper West Side parents and politicians, as well as the community board and the Community Education Council (CEC), fought to keep a branch of the Success Academy Charter Network from opening there, mostly based on the fact that the school was to be co-located with the Brandeis High School complex.

Despite the vehement objections of education activists and two lawsuits, the school opened last fall and received 515 applications from within the district for 74 seats for the 2012-2013 school year.

But the Hebrew Charter school has received stamps of approval from the CEC and the community board and received its charter from the New York State Board of Regents in June, clearing the way for it to open in the fall of 2013 somewhere in southern Harlem. It will be called Harlem Hebrew Language Academy.

Mark Diller, chair of Community Board 7, said that one of the most attractive parts of the school’s application to the board was that it was committed to finding its own privately owned space and would not be co-located with an existing public school.

“It truly net adds seats rather than reallocating them,” Diller said in an email. “[The school also] has both a commitment to and a track record (at its sister school in Brooklyn) of encouraging applications from and actually enrolling and serving children with a variety of special needs, as well as English language learners.”

Diller said that the presentation made to the board focused on the value of bilingual education; how it can help those struggling with English as well as create a “level playing field” as all of the students learn Hebrew for the first time.

That element, the dual-language immersion program, is the other thing that sets the future school apart from other educational options in the neighborhood. The school will teach secular Hebrew, which board member David Gedzelman said is one of the ways they can attract a very diverse student body.

“We try to create integrated schools,” Gedzelman said. “We try to position our schools in geographic areas where the district itself is diverse so that we can create diversity.”

Gedzelman points to their school in Brooklyn, which he said has about 45 percent minority students, as an example of the makeup they hope to have for District 3.

“Our model of a dual-language program with modern Israeli Hebrew [means] there’s one constituency that naturally seeks out the school”—Jewish families—“and that helps to diversify the school,” he said.

Gedzelman said they’ve been working with churches and community-based organizations in Harlem to get the word out about the school and convince families that it’s not just for Jewish kids.

“Hebrew has gone through a lot of evolution over the last 30 years,” Gedzelman said. “It’s a modern secular language. It’s the language of the state of Israel, which has 7 million citizens—25 percent of the population is actually not Jewish.”

He said that Israel’s growing tech sector, as well as Technion—Israel Institute of Technology’s partnership with Cornell University to build a giant tech campus on Roosevelt Island in the next few years, makes Hebrew an attractive second language for any young children. One of the teachers at their Brooklyn school, an African American and a Muslim, learned Hebrew himself in order to teach gym classes in two languages, Gedzelman said.

The teaching model at the school will be based on immersive language learning as well as constant individualized assessment of students to tailor their learning. There will also be an emphasis on community service. The school plans to open with three sections of kindergarten students, 26 in each class. Its charter is currently K-5, but Gedzelman said they hope to expand up to 8th grade when they renew their charter.

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