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Hebrew Charter Proposed For Harlem-Upper West Side

Hebrew Charter Proposed For Harlem-Upper West Side

Concern over how it might affect area day schools.

Just weeks after Shalom Academy, a proposed Hebrew charter school serving the heavily Jewish suburbs of Englewood and Teaneck won New Jersey state approval, an application has been submitted for a Hebrew charter serving another major Jewish population hub, the Upper West Side.

Harlem Hebrew, a school modeled on Brooklyn’s year-and-a-half-old Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, would be located in Manhattan’s Community School District 3, which runs from 59th Street to West 122nd Street, incorporating all of the Upper West Side and about one-third of Harlem.

Harlem Hebrew’s application comes on the heels of an application for yet another Hebrew charter school in Manhattan: Sosua Hebrew Language Academy, which would serve Washington Heights, Inwood and parts of Harlem.

Like all charter schools, Harlem Hebrew will be open to students of all backgrounds and will not teach religion. According to its prospectus, the school’s population will reflect that of the district, which is 32 percent black, 37 percent Latino, 23 percent white and seven percent Asian.

However, its presence in a district with many Jewish day schools — four of them non-Orthodox — is bound to unnerve those who worry the tuition-free charter schools could lure away students who would otherwise enroll in Jewish schools.

Harlem Hebrew’s lead applicant, Sara Berman, dismissed such concerns, however.

In an e-mail to The Jewish Week from South Africa, where she spends part of each winter, Berman wrote: “South Harlem and Community School District 3 represent the perfect area to establish a Hebrew Language charter school that is diverse and brings different communities together. Harlem Hebrew will add significantly to the options that parents have for their children’s education in the area. Harlem Hebrew is a public school and as such provides a very different education and experience from a Jewish Day School. It really appeals to a very different population.”

The daughter of investment fund manager Michael Steinhardt, a major Jewish community philanthropist, Berman also chairs the boards of Brooklyn’s HLA and the Hebrew Charter School Center, a national group seeking to help create 20 Hebrew charter schools by 2015.

Despite its name, Harlem Hebrew’s precise location is yet to be determined, although organizers say Harlem is their first choice.

Interviewed at the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Los Angeles this week, Steven Lorch, the head of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan — one of the Upper West Side’s many day schools — said he is “reserving judgment about what the impact on day school enrollment will be until we know the location.”

Other day schools in the area include the pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School, which has classes from kindergarten through high school; the Reform Rodeph Sholom School, with nursery through eight grade classes and the Orthodox Manhattan Day School, which has kindergarten through eighth grade.

If the charter school ends up in Harlem, a historically black neighborhood attracting growing numbers of white families, many of them Jewish, it is less likely to compete with day schools, Lorch said.

But “if it’s located in the middle of where other Jewish day schools are, I would question whether that location serves all of the declared goals of the Hebrew Charter School Center,” he said. Lorch added, “It’s possible that day school families,” particularly those for whom tuition poses a major financial sacrifice, “would see it as a potential destination.”

While not involved with Shalom Academy, organized primarily by a group of Orthodox parents in Bergen County, the HCSC is working closely with Harlem Hebrew and Sosua, which is named for a city in the Dominican Republic where Jews found haven during the Holocaust.

HCSC also provided funding and support to HLA and Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, which opened this fall in East Brunswick, N.J., and is working with several other proposed Hebrew charter schools, including ones in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Minneapolis.

Currently, six Hebrew charter schools are operating in the United States. In addition to HLA and Hatikvah, there are three Hebrew charters in South Florida, part of the Ben Gamla network founded by former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch. And this fall the Albert Einstein Academy Charter School opened in Santa Clarita, Calif. Both Ben Gamla and Einstein plan to open new schools this fall.

According to its prospectus, Harlem Hebrew would open with 150 children in kindergarten and first grade and, adding a grade each year, would eventually serve 450 children through fifth grade. Like HLA, Harlem Hebrew would operate more hours per day and more days per year than public schools.

According to the prospectus, Harlem Hebrew could become the most racially diverse school in its district, a district in which most schools are either majority white and Asian (and economically advantaged) or majority black and Latino (and low-income). “Based on the experience of HLA, the most integrated school in a diverse [community school district], Harlem Hebrew believes its rich and innovative curriculum will be relevant to all the students who make up the student body,” the prospectus states, “and its chosen instructional methodologies and strategies will be effective in addressing their learning needs, enabling them to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to meet and exceed the School’s and New York State’s newly adopted Common Core standards.”

In addition to Berman, who lives on the Upper West Side, Harlem Hebrew’s applicant team consists of: David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life; Eli Schaap, a program officer with the Steinhardt Foundation; Hindie Weissman, director of educational services for the Hebrew Charter School Center; Basil Smikle, Jr., a political strategist and onetime candidate for state Senate; Linda Aristondo, an assistant prosecutor for Jersey City; Daniel M. Cohen, a real estate mortgage officer with Community Preservation Corporation; Lisa Lippman Finkelstein, director of new development marketing and sales at Brown Harris Stevens; and Daniel Pianko, an investor in and adviser to education companies.

Both Smikle, who is African American, and Aristondo, who is Latina, live in Harlem. Gedzelman, Cohen, Finkelstein and Pianko live in District 3.

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