So much for the stereotype about life being slower paced in the South.
While some Hebrew charter school efforts here in New York and New Jersey — as well as in Arizona, Minnesota and California — are hitting snags and delays, Florida’s Ben Gamla network of schools is blazing ahead at full speed.
This fall the network, which was founded by former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) and opened the nation’s first Hebrew charter school in 2007, expects to enroll approximately 1,600 students in five schools throughout South Florida. One will be the nation’s first Hebrew charter high school, a “laptop school” that will combine online and in-person learning.
Ben Gamla also has a $375,000 federal startup grant to establish a charter school in Pinellas County, which encompasses St. Petersburg, and is training three principals “in anticipation of opening at least three additional schools a year from August,” Deutsch told The Jewish Week in an e-mail.
While Florida’s Hebrew charter schools are proliferating, the movement to establish publicly funded (and privately supplemented) Hebrew-language schools is proceeding more slowly in the New York area and elsewhere.
The tri-state region has two operating Hebrew charter schools and one — Englewood, N.J.’s Shalom Academy — slated to open this fall. However, two charter applications for Manhattan schools projecting 2012 opening dates have been temporarily withdrawn, and major doubts are emerging about the viability of Shalom Academy, given that its leadership has not yet announced a location or other critical details, and the school faces a lawsuit from the local public school district.
The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center — established two years ago by Areivim, a coalition of Jewish philanthropists led by Michael Steinhardt — is not working with Shalom Academy, but has been instrumental in supporting Hebrew Language Academy and Hatikvah, the Hebrew charter schools operating in Brooklyn and East Brunswick, N.J., as well as various planning groups around the country.
Last year, HCSC officials announced plans to open 20 Hebrew charter schools nationwide by 2015. However, the group recently withdrew applications it had submitted this spring to open two schools in Manhattan — one in Washington Heights, one in Harlem — in 2012.
In addition, the Jess Schwartz Academy, a financially struggling Scottsdale, Ariz., day school that had been working with HCSC in efforts to re-invent itself as a Hebrew charter school, decided last month to abandon the charter school plan, instead merging with Pardes, a larger Phoenix day school. And HCSC-assisted planning groups in San Diego and Minnesota are delaying projected opening dates, while in the Los Angeles area, the Albert Einstein would-be network of Hebrew charter schools (not affiliated with HCSC) had three charter applications rejected this spring, although organizers say they plan to re-apply.
“To open a school well takes a huge amount of work by a bunch of committed people, and when people stop and say we need to tweak this, or spend more time thinking about professional development, or where the teachers are coming from, you need to spend more time,” explained Sara Berman, who chairs HCSC and Brooklyn’s HLA, and is Steinhardt’s daughter.
“Delays are common, but all the planning groups we’re working with are in good shape and are on their way to opening,” she added.
Asked about the decision this month to pull the application for Harlem Hebrew, a proposed school in a district serving central Harlem and most of the Upper West Side, Berman said, “We want a little more time to work on the application, to make sure we consider the population, so that the school really reflects the community and that we have dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘T’.”
Berman said HCSC plans to re-submit the Harlem Hebrew application “at the next possible round” that the New York State Education Department accepts applications.
“We are as committed as ever to opening a school there, but we want to make sure we don’t rush anything,” she added.
As for, Sosua, a proposed school in Washington Heights that was receiving HCSC support and withdrew its charter application in May, Berman said, “We have asked Sosua to slow down because we don’t feel like we have the capacity to help two groups in the city at once.”
Concerns About Shalom Academy
While most of the HCSC-assisted would-be schools have yet to receive charters, Shalom Academy — which had three previous charter applications rejected — has a charter, which it received in January from the State of New Jersey.
But growing numbers of the k-5 school’s parents, who won slots for their children in a series of admissions lotteries this spring, are voicing concerns about whether the Hebrew-immersion school will actually open — and if it will be a suitable environment for their children.
The charter has been challenged in court by the Englewood Public School district, which argues that the new school will impose too much of a financial burden on the district and will undermine its efforts to racially integrate. The suit, says district spokeswoman Caryn Furst, is “in a waiting pattern” until mid-July, the deadline for Shalom Academy to submit various documents to the state.
But the lawsuit threat is not the main source of the parents’ concern. Rather, it is the minimal communication they have received from Shalom’s lead founder Raphael Bachrach, who has refused all media requests and has reportedly been unresponsive to parents.
One mother, Merav Yankovich, responded to a Jewish Week query with an e-mail message saying she is “thrilled to have this opportunity to be part of the new charter school family” and that “the charter school have showed very professional and organized attitude with regards to the registration and answering parents questions.”
However, she did not respond to follow-up questions from The Jewish Week, and she was the only parent to share such sentiments.
In contrast, many parents complained that their calls and e-mails to lead founder Bachrach have gone unreturned, that the location for the school has yet to be announced and that they have received only minimal information about the staff hired so far.
“I wouldn’t send my dog to a kennel that I know this little about,” said one mother who has decided to pull her children from the charter school and instead enroll them in a Jewish day school.
Like most other parents interviewed, she asked not to be named, explaining that Bergen County’s Orthodox community is tight-knit and she is reluctant to get ensnared into a public conflict.
Several parents who are still hoping to send their children to the charter school said they are remaining anonymous so as to stay on Bachrach’s good side — and many are double-registered at Jewish schools, as a backup plan, and do not wish to make their situation known to the yeshiva.
By most accounts, Bachrach, a businessman, father of five and member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Englewood, is making most decisions for the school on his own, without consulting any other lay leaders.
The school’s board of trustees has not yet been announced, and the only contact information listed on the school’s website is Bachrach’s phone number and a general e-mail box (firstname.lastname@example.org).
According to one source, Bachrach has not even shared information with the six other founders listed on the charter application, saying he is reluctant to send e-mails for fear they could be subpoenaed in the EPSD’s lawsuit.
None of the founders agreed to speak for attribution, and most did not respond to the Jewish Week’s e-mails requesting an interview. Likewise, Bachrach did not respond to requests for an interview.
Asked about Shalom Academy’s prospects for opening, as well as other concerns raised about the school, Alan Guenther, director of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Public Information Office, sent an e-mail statement: “The school will be evaluated in July, and the Department will decline further comment until that evaluation is completed.”
While the founders may have been kept in the dark, they have been referenced in e-mails to parents.
For example, a May 13 e-mail announcing the hiring of Principal Harriet Eisenberg and signed simply “SACS” said, “Shalom Academy Charter School acting Head of School Elizabeth Willaum, Founders, Board of Trustees, and search team are pleased to announce our principal…”
Both Eisenberg and Willaum are former administrators with the Englewood Public School District; however, their names and biographies do not appear anywhere on the school website, nor have their biographies been shared with parents. In addition, it is unclear who constitutes the search team.
One father of children registered for Shalom Academy told The Jewish Week, “Charter schools are supposed to be more responsive, more transparent than public schools, but … Shalom Academy is actually operating with less transparency and responsiveness than public schools. They don’t seem to understand they are operating a public institution.
“People have put a lot of reliance on this,” the father added, “and they’re now getting concerned about whether it will happen and, if they do manage to pull it off, whether it will be complete chaos.”