A group of Jewish parents in Bergen County whose application to establish a Hebrew-language charter school was recently turned down by the New Jersey School Board has started discussions with its local Board of Education for a Hebrew-language track in a public school.
Raphael Bachrach, who spearheaded the unsuccessful charter school effort in Englewood, said his group is conducting negotiations with the city’s Board of Education to establish the first such Hebrew dual-language curriculum. The program would be aimed at attracting Jewish students from families who would not enroll their children in day schools for financial or philosophical reasons, as well as non-Jewish students interested in the curriculum’s Hebrew language and secular Jewish components.
But some community leaders fear the move will be seen as a viable alternative for day school parents who can no longer afford expensive tuitions, and they worry that local day schools, already hurting financially, could suffer in enrollment.
While a formal proposal has not been submitted to the Board of Education, “September is a possibility” for a start of the new program, at the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year, said Richard Segall, superintendent of the Englewood public school system.
Bachrach said approval of a formal proposal, when submitted, is likely.
The public school system would be responsible for the administration of the Hebrew language track — as opposed to a charter school, run by the individuals submitting the successful application — but would offer essentially the same linguistic and cultural courses, and appeal to the same families who want a Jewish education without paying a day school tuition, Bachrach said.
Jewish support for innovations like charter schools, and Hebrew language tracks in public schools, is growing, especially as the economy worsens, said Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of Jewish Educational Services of North America (JESNA) and the former CEO of the advocacy organization. They are “clearly on the agenda,” he said. “The more options we have, the better.”
The Englewood idea grew out of discussions over the last few years between members of the city’s Jewish community and Board of Education officials, who had suggested that the school system could offer an extensive Hebrew-language track, patterned after its English-Spanish dual language track, according to Bachrach, a printing consultant who has two children enrolled in public schools and two in programs under auspices of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement.
“We are convinced that if this [is approved], it will be as good or better than what we had proposed in the charter school,” he said. “They have an entire [extant] infrastructure of staff,” as well as an existing school building.
Discussions have taken place with the Board of Education about serving kosher food in the school where a Hebrew-language track is based, Bachrach said.
Based on preliminary interest expressed by parents in the Jewish and wider community, including attendance at an informational meeting last week, at least a few hundred elementary school children can be expected to enroll in the initial dual-language track, Bachrach said. “It’s not a small number of people.”
The students will be “a mixture” of Jews and non-Jews, he said, but did not offer an estimate of the breakdown. The Jewish students are likely to include some now attending day schools, especially since the growing recession is likely to result in parents unable to afford day school tuition for their children.
At the Moriah School in Englewood, which has classes from kindergarten through 8th grade, tuition for most students is in the $11,000-$13,000 per year range.
Bachrach said his group has consulted with Peter Deutsch, the former member of Congress who founded the two-year-old Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., which attempts to inject some elements of a traditional Jewish education into its curriculum, but is philosophically closer to the cultural-oriented Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, funded by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, which will begin classes in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in September.
Two leaders of Englewood’s Orthodox community gave reserved approval to the Hebrew-language track proposal.
“It is useful to some people, people with a special needs child” or who would not feel comfortable sending their children to a standard day school – for economic or ideological reasons, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah. “Even though the day schools are the core of the Jewish community, they are only reaching five percent of the community.”
A Hebrew-language curriculum that lacks the religious components of a day school education or its social environment would be “woefully inadequate … as an alternative for a yeshiva education,” Rabbi Genack said. “It’s very much a dilution of a Jewish education.”
In addition, he said, an alternative Jewish education offered for free might draw students from day schools, and weaken their financial base. “It could destabilize day schools.”
“There is no substitute for day school education,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, spiritual leader of Ahavath Torah, the largest Orthodox congregation in the community. “I would plead with any day school parents within our community or elsewhere to think carefully before leaving day schools behind.”
Such programs as Jewish-oriented charter schools and Hebrew-language tracks “provide alternatives for some who have felt that they simply could not afford day school tuition,” Rabbi Goldin said.
He added that “programs such as the one being considered by the Englewood public schools are a welcome addition to the educational tapestry of our Jewish community. Such efforts will potentially attract new students who have not, in the past, been candidates for day school education and will provide resources for those students who cannot be accommodated for within the day school system.”