The educational philosophy behind the new Shalom Academy Charter School, which is set to open this fall in the Englewood-Teaneck, N.J., area, came into sharper view for the first time this week.
At the school’s first informational session, held Monday night at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, founder Raphael Bachrach shared Shalom Academy’s mission: “to graduate students that are proficient in the Hebrew language.”
Students in kindergarten and first grade in the kindergarten to fifth grade school will spend only a quarter of the day learning in English; subjects such as math, science, and history will be taught exclusively in Hebrew.
“There will be no translation,” said Elizabeth Willaum, the acting head of school, who has a long history of founding and implementing dual-language immersion programs. “It works; it’s like magic,” she told a packed crowd of about 500 people.
“An extreme amount of immersion is better than a wishy-washy amount,” Bachrach said, explaining why the charter school chose an immersion model that involves 75 percent of the instruction in the younger grades being taught in Hebrew. Research has shown that “dual-language immersion is proven to enhance cognitive development and increase self-esteem,” he said.
In addition to the New Jersey core curriculum, which will be taught in both Hebrew and English, students will take a mandatory Hebrew language arts class, which will cover Hebrew grammar and other “finicky rules,” as Bachrach put it.
Students in grades two through five will spend half of their day learning subjects such as math and science in Hebrew. Language arts, health, and history will be taught in English.
Several parents in the audience expressed concerns regarding the academic performance and adjustment period for students with current weak or nonexistent Hebrew language skills. Bachrach said that the school is “committed to differentiated learning” and that there will be some sort of tracking on each grade level. “Some students will know a lot of Hebrew; some will have no Hebrew whatsoever,” he said. “But being in an environment with everyone else will reinforce each other.”
Prior to the meeting, Bachrach did not return numerous calls and e-mails from The Jewish Week seeking comment about the school’s educational philosophy.
At the information session, the school announced that it had begun accepting applications and would hold a lottery for its 160 spots on Feb. 14 — only one week after the initial information session.
It is unclear how much effort the charter school has put into outreach within the black and Latino communities, as the roughly 500 people who filled the packed auditorium did not reflect the true diversity of the district. Most were white and many men wore yarmulkes.
The Englewood and Teaneck school districts are about half black, a quarter Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Children of the founder’s group, led by Englewood resident Bachrach, will be given preference in terms of enrollment, something that “the state allowed for,” according to Bachrach.
For the rest of the charter school applicants, siblings must apply separately. In future years, however, siblings will be given priority, Bachrach said.
Willaum, who resigned from her post as the assistant superintendent for the Englewood Public School District in December, said it “just doesn’t make sense,” to wait until high school to provide foreign language instruction.
When children are ages 3 to 10, “that is the time in which activity of the brain is twice as quick,” she told the crowd. “That is the time in which we should be immersing our children in a second language.”
Willaum helped develop New Jersey’s first Spanish-English dual-language program in Englewood back in 1991, as well as other immersion programs in Long Branch, Perth Amboy, Elizabeth, and Union City in New Jersey and in upstate Syracuse.
She cautioned parents that it may take between four and seven years for a second language to take root and translate into greater academic performance and better critical-thinking skills. This “cognitive stretch,” as she called it, doesn’t happen overnight, she said.
Shalom Academy has yet to announce where its building will be located, leading parents to wonder whether they will be provided with free busing. The location of the facility will be announced in the near future, Bachrach said.
Several questions were posed by religious Jewish parents wondering how the charter school would accommodate holidays and dietary concerns.
Shalom Academy’s calendar will follow that of Bergen County Community College. The school will be closed for Rosh HaShanah but not for Sukkot or other Jewish holidays. There will be no early dismissal on Fridays. Still, “no student will be penalized” for observing his or her religion, Bachrach said.
Other parents in attendance asked whether the school would offer a kosher meal plan. “The school will be fully respectful of the needs and rights of all children; that’s an ongoing theme,” Bachrach responded.
Bachrach was asked whether the school would administer the placement exam for yeshiva high schools that is administered by The Jewish Education Project. The test is known as the BJE, for the organization’s former name, the Board of Jewish Education. Bachrach said he was unfamiliar with the exam. After being informed by an audience member, he responded “absolutely not.”
As many as 16 spots may be open to those who are not residents of Teaneck or Englewood. However, the first two registration periods are open exclusively to residents; if there are any remaining spots after that time, non-residents will be included within the third lottery. When asked what the chances were of a non-resident gaining a spot at Shalom Academy next year, Bachrach suggested the questioner look around the room. “We do have quite a demand.”
For information about the application/lottery process, visit www.shalomacademycharterschool.org.