Santa Clarita, Calif. — “How do you say ‘cheerleader’ in Hebrew?”
The question comes in the middle of a beginning Hebrew class at Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences, a new charter school in this affluent Los Angeles suburb in the canyons northeast of the San Fernando Valley.
Nehama Meged, a Jerusalem native who has been teaching Hebrew for almost 30 years, pauses a moment before answering, “I don’t think we have cheerleaders in Israel.”
“No cheerleaders? Then I’m not going there!” her student, a petite girl whose crimson and gold shirt and pleated miniskirt identify her as a member of the middle-high school’s fledgling pep squad, retorts jokingly.
Open since September, Einstein — the brainchild of Mark Blazer, a local Reform rabbi — is the first in what organizers hope will become a statewide “Albert Einstein” network of elementary and middle-high schools.
The school, which has seventh through ninth grades but will eventually run through 12th grade, is the first Hebrew charter school to open outside Florida or the New York-New Jersey area.
That is, if you consider this school of 190, in which Hebrew is not required and less than half of the students currently study Hebrew, to be a Hebrew charter school.
Since former Democratic Rep. Peter Deutsch founded the first Ben Gamla school in South Florida almost four years ago, Hebrew charter schools — publicly funded schools in which the Hebrew language and, often, secular aspects of Jewish culture are taught — have been steadily increasing in number.
And they are being closely watched by advocates of church-state separation, as well as by leaders of Jewish day schools who see them as potential competitors.
Three new Hebrew charters — one in Englewood, N.J. and two in Florida — are slated to open this fall, bringing the grand total nationwide to nine. (Ben Gamla operates elementary and middle schools on shared campuses, and will be adding a high school to at least one campus, so if each school is counted separately, the total is more like 14.) Several more schools are aiming for 2012 launches, including one in Harlem/Upper West Side (a proposed charter in Washington Heights has withdrawn its application, but plans to re-apply in the coming year), three in Florida and an Arizona Jewish day school that is transitioning into a Hebrew charter school.
But the movement is hardly uniform and there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a Hebrew charter school — or how diverse such a school should be. While several schools are partnering with the New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), and the Florida ones are all part of the Ben Gamla chain, Englewood’s Shalom Academy (which is facing legal challenges from the local school district and has not yet announced a location) is something of a lone wolf, as is Einstein.
Initially, Einstein’s Rabbi Blazer worked with HCSC, which offered preliminary approval for a start-up grant, but the two parted ways after the California charter, in part to win authorization from the local school district, omitted its Hebrew requirement.
HCSC officials declined to comment about Einstein.
Asked if he considers Einstein to be a Hebrew charter school, Blazer said, “We definitely define it as a public Hebrew charter school with a college-prep focus. But not everybody who attends the school would focus on the Hebrew education as being the primary reason why they are sending their kid there.”
While a foreign language is required at Einstein, students can opt for either Hebrew or Spanish, and plans are in the works to add Arabic, Greek, Latin and possibly Mandarin. Electives in Jewish history are also being explored.
Einstein elementary schools will require Hebrew, however, which Rabbi Blazer said “will increase the number of students taking Hebrew” at the middle-high school campus.
Whether the elementary schools get off the ground remains to be seen. All three charter applications submitted this spring — in Ventura, Santa Clarita and Los Angeles — were rejected. Rabbi Blazer said he intends to re-apply and that the rejections stem more from widespread uncertainty about education funding in California than from any ideological opposition to Hebrew charter schools.
Unlike in New Jersey and New York, where state agencies determine which charters are approved, in California and Florida the decision is up to local school districts.
Rabbi Blazer said he expected to be rejected this year by the Los Angeles Unified School District (the proposed school would be located in Encino), because the district generally rejects first-time applicants and then offers feedback to help them re-apply.
However, he anticipates that getting a charter there — the district has invited him to re-submit this summer — will be easier than in small districts, which are more directly impacted by the addition of a charter school and whatever share of the dwindling state allocations that it consumes.
Whatever happens with the elementary schools, Einstein’s middle/high school in Santa Clarita appears to be flourishing right now.
The school, located in a spacious converted glass office building, is set to add a 10th grade next year, and has a wait list for students.
In addition to the cheerleading squad, Einstein already boasts six sports teams: girls’ softball, flag football, girls’ volleyball, boys’ baseball, co-ed soccer and boys’ basketball.
During a visit this spring, students, teachers and parents interviewed voiced enthusiasm about their new school, which was abuzz with various activities, including preparations for a student production of “Dear Edwina.”
Many students say they were drawn by Einstein’s relative intimacy, especially in comparison to the environments at local middle schools, which have reportedly been challenged by drug use and other behavior problems.
“I love this school,” said Josephine, a Jewish seventh grader and one of about 12 Israelis who commutes from the San Fernando Valley. (Next year, because all new slots have already been filled from within Santa Clarita’s William S. Hart district, no additional students from out of the district will be admitted.)
Josephine and her twin brother transferred from a Catholic school because it was “too religious.”
At Einstein, “I like how the classes are not too hard for me, but they give challenges. I like the after-school stuff, how you can make your own clubs,” she said.
Because her mother is Israeli and insists on speaking only Hebrew at home (her father was born in Israel but raised in the United States), Josephine and her brother spoke Hebrew fluently before coming to Einstein. But Hebrew class at Einstein is improving her reading and writing skills.
Yaniv, a seventh grader (also a child of Israelis) from North Hollywood, left a “really expensive” Jewish day school to come to Einstein.
“I like it better here,” he said. “It’s smaller, everybody’s friends.” Sydney, an eighth grader who belongs to Blazer’s temple, said she came to Einstein for the Hebrew, but also because she “didn’t like” her previous school.
What percentage of the students at Einstein is Jewish is anyone’s guess, although at least 30 students are members of Blazer’s synagogue, Temple Beth Ami.
The president of the PTA is a member of the local Conservative shul, Congregation Beth Shalom. Yaniv, the seventh grader from North Hollywood, estimates that half the Einstein students are Jewish, and 10 percent of them are Israeli. Blazer declined to estimate the number of Jewish students, although he remarked that “most of Santa Clarita’s Israelis” are at Einstein.
Like all charter schools, Einstein is open to all and is forbidden by law from asking students their religious identity. Whereas in more racially diverse districts, like Englewood and Brooklyn, one can speculate about the non-Jewish composition based on the number of non-white students, Einstein, like Santa Clarita, is overwhelmingly white.
Santa Clarita, which Blazer estimates is only 5 percent Jewish, is not known for being a Jewish hub, so “if this can flourish here, it’s hard to imagine a community where it won’t work,” he said.
Blazer, a graduate of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif. (no connection to Manhattan’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School), said that while he thinks Einstein will make Santa Clarita’s Jewish community “stronger,” especially because the suburb is not large enough to support a day school, he emphasized that helping the Jewish community is “not the goal.”
“The goal is to make the best elements of private school available to all,” he said, adding, “What’s best for society as a whole is generally better for Jews too.”
Blazer, 42, was the California Heschel’s rabbi in residence for three years and sends his two younger children there (his oldest daughter, a Heschel graduate, attends Einstein). However, he said he has always felt “that day schools are way too exclusionary,” because of tuition and because they are Jewish-only.
“Kids there only become friends with other Jews. Here what’s great is you have friends from other backgrounds — for me that was a great part about [public] high school. I wanted my kids to experience that.”
Whether the Einstein network could pose a serious challenge to area Jewish day schools remains to be seen.
Miriam Prum Hess, who directs the Center for Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education, Los Angeles’ central Jewish education agency, told The Jewish Week that Einstein is “not a Hebrew charter. It’s a foreign-language charter.”
She noted that other public schools in the area, including Beverly Hills High School, have offered Hebrew alongside other languages and added that Santa Clarita is “not in the heart of the Jewish community.”
Asked about the prospect of Einstein elementary schools in Encino and Ventura, Prum Hess emphasized that those charter applications were rejected.
“From our perspective, it isn’t a story,” she said.
Like the school as a whole, Einstein’s beginning-level Hebrew classes are a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish kids. Teacher Nehama Meged estimates that more than a third of her beginning students are not Jewish.
One such student is eighth-grader Audria, who is Christian but says that she and her father are “very interested in the Hebrew language.”
Some non-Jewish students, Meged said, chose to study Hebrew “because it was different and exotic and they wanted to try something new.”
“A lot of the kids say it’s not a big deal to study Spanish — that it’s more challenging and impressive to colleges to know Hebrew.”
A longtime teacher at Blazer’s alma mater Heschel, Meged said she enjoys having the chance to teach a more diverse group of students at Einstein.
Sitting in her sunny classroom — its windowsills and shelves stacked with Israeli board games and magazines, its walls decorated with student work, Israeli maps and a colorful, artistically rendered alef-bet — Meged said that sharing her language and culture with non-Jewish students is “exciting because it’s all new to them.”
“These people are going to be our best ambassadors in the world,” she added. “They see Israel not just from the news.”
Increasingly discouraged during her tenure at Heschel about Jewish schools becoming “more and more expensive,” Meged said that as much as she values bringing Hebrew to non-Jews, she also “of course” sees the new school’s value to Jewish students.
“I can see the difference in their lives,” she said. “I had a father who came in and thanked me because when his son had his bar mitzvah he could read without vowels and actually understand the words he was chanting.”