A little over a year ago, when Tamar Caspi Shnall showed up for a meeting of those interested in starting a Hebrew charter school in San Diego, she wasn’t expecting to wind up its lead applicant, and then president.
Nonetheless, she was quickly tapped to write a charter application, and last month the work paid off, when the project won unanimous approval from the San Diego school board.
Modeled on Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, the new school — called Kavod, Hebrew for “respect” —is slated to open this fall with 210 students in grades k-2. Publicly funded and tuition-free, it eventually will go through fifth grade and will teach Hebrew language and Israeli culture.
The third Hebrew charter school launched with backing from the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), which is also actively assisting with planning efforts in Washington, D.C., Manhattan and Minneapolis, Kavod will be one of 10 Hebrew charter schools nationally.
While Shnall, 31, spent much of the past year boning up on education policies and curriculum, she needed no training in Hebrew or Israel. Raised in San Diego by an Israeli father and American mother, she met her Israeli husband on a vacation in Tel Aviv.
Q: What motivated you to get involved with this project?
A: I wanted to see it happen, because I wanted my son to go. I think it’s important for him to be in a diverse setting, not in a classroom of kids who look like him. But I also think it’s important to learn another language, and if that could be Hebrew, then I’d prefer that. To me, religion is at home and in your temple. I don’t think it needs to be in your school.
What’s your own early educational background? How did you learn Hebrew?
I grew up going to a private Jewish day school. I left in sixth grade knowing how to read and write Hebrew, but not how to speak or understand it. It was my father’s side of the family and going to Israel that made my Hebrew as good as it is.
How do leaders of San Diego’s Jewish day schools feel about Kavod? Do they see it as a threat?
San Diego has one of the highest percentages in the country of Jews who are unaffiliated, so there’s enough for both of us. … We want a very diverse population of students, but we know that the Jews we will attract are probably the ones that will not go to a private school. … Hayim Herring [a consultant for the HCSC] and I met with every single Jewish group in San Diego and told them who we are and what we’re doing. Once we sat down and explained, everyone was at ease and said they were completely supportive. The three Jewish day schools said they don’t find us to be competition because we serve a different audience, and they said they wish us the best of luck.
What are the biggest challenges you face in getting the school up and running?
The public funding. We’re very lucky to have HCSC back us [with $800,000 in startup funds]. … In California, the annual allocation per student for charter schools is only $5,500 — less than half what it is on the East Coast and less than what non-charter public schools get per student. Finding a location is challenging too, because in San Diego, there are more charter schools looking for buildings than there are buildings. Where we don’t have any challenge at all is we have gotten a lot of applications for the job of principal and have a huge list of interested teachers.
What about students?
We haven’t begun outreach at all yet, and we already have a list of more than 100 families — many of them with multiple children — that are interested. … A lot of parents don’t care what the language is: they just know how important it is to expose a child to a partial immersion program from a young age. And the fact that we are going to have a lower student-teacher ratio [than in most area schools] will attract many families.
What percentage of students do you anticipate will be Jewish?
We’re hoping to have the ratio HLA and Hatikvah [International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J.] have — Hatikvah is about 40 percent non-Jewish and HLA about 50 percent. We want to be as diverse as possible.
Did you face any difficulties in getting Kavod approved?
No. The San Diego board of education and its charter office saw that we had a solid petition. The only question we were asked at our public hearing was someone wanting to know the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew.