Yeshiva Probe — Or Punt?
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Yeshiva Probe — Or Punt?

DOE investigation of 39 chasidic schools relies solely on documents provided by the schools themselves.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

The city’s plan for investigating the quality of secular instruction at dozens of Brooklyn chasidic yeshivas won’t include site visits and will depend entirely on documents supplied by the yeshivas themselves, The Jewish Week has learned.

News of the scope of the investigation comes a week after 52 people signed a letter to the Department of Education saying that boys 13 and over got no secular education at all at these schools and those 12 and under got only six hours of English and math instruction per week. Students got and no science or history at all, the July 27 letter said.

The letter named 39 Jewish schools, mostly in the chasidic neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park, though some were in Crown Heights and Flatbush and Queens each had one.

In the investigation, which a DOE spokesman said would begin “soon,” the plan is to send “a set of requests” to the schools named in the letter.

“Superintendents will consider the responses to these requests in determining whether the schools are following state guidelines and are delivering substantially equivalent instruction to that provided by the city's public schools,” the spokesman said in an email. “If the superintendent determines that substantially equivalent instruction is not being provided by the non-public school, the superintendent will work with the non-public school to develop a plan to remediate deficiencies,” the official continued.

The contours of the DOE probe are already being criticized as inadequate.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who is representing Yaffed (Young Advocates for Fair Education), a 3-year-old nonprofit advocating for improved secular studies at chasidic yeshivas, laughed when he heard the city’s plan.

“I’m not discounting anyone’s credibility, but it’s easy to say something on paper. It’s important for the DOE to see what’s actually happening in yeshivas. So if that’s all they’re going to do, it could have some serious problems with Yaffed and myself,” he said.

“The investigation should be thorough, independent and fair,” he added, “and what they’re proposing at this point most likely will not meet that criteria.”

If city or state officials fail to crack down on yeshivas with poor secular education, Yaffed plans to sue city and state officials for not enforcing the law. They stress that the suit would not be not against yeshiva leadership or the parents who send their kids there. For this reason, they asked the DOE to keep the names of both the schools and the signers of the letters private.

Asked for detail on what the DOE would be requesting from the schools, the DOE spokesman said it would include such items as student schedules. He did not respond to questions about why officials are not visiting the schools or how they will confirm that the documents the schools provide accurately reflect what’s happening in the classroom.

Steve, who taught English and math at the United Talmudical Academy, a large boys yeshiva in Williamsburg, told The Jewish Week that although the school gave him lesson plans that might have conformed to state standards, he was unable to follow them because the students didn’t have the English and math skills to follow the lessons. He asked that we use only his first name to maintain good relations with the school.

The DOE official also declined to say what criteria the schools would be judged on, whether 90 minutes of secular education per day is enough, and whether schools are required to teach science, history and other secular subjects in addition to English and math.

Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster, who attended one of the schools named in the letter, said that even the hour and a half of secular studies he did receive Mondays through Thursdays were of poor quality. Yeshiva administrators considered secular education as a waste of time, he noted, since Judaic studies were paramount, and students treated the classes as “90 minutes of recess.”

amyclark@jewishweek.org

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