Debate rages over Hebrew charter school in NYC

Controversy arose more recently in Minnesota, where ACLU sued over Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a charter school with two campuses in Twin Cities area.

Two years after the debut of a controversial public school focusing on Arabic language and culture, a Hebrew language charter school is opening in New York City, stoking further debate about the purpose of a public school education. Backers of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, slated to open this fall, say it will appeal to diverse ethnic and religious groups and not just Jews. But critics here and elsewhere around the US question whether public schools should celebrate one particular culture. "They're trying to transmit cultural values and identity, and that's not the purpose of a public school," said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit over a school in Minnesota that caters to Muslim students, and a Hebrew charter school in Florida has spurred debates over church-state separation. New York City's Hebrew charter school is planned for the Mill Basin neighborhood of Brooklyn, which has a substantial number of Jews, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union but is three-quarters black, Hispanic and Asian. Sara Berman, chairwoman of the school's board, said Jewish and non-Jewish students alike will benefit from learning Hebrew. "We really believe that learning a second language helps children in other ways besides the language itself," she said, citing studies that suggest that language instruction stimulates brain development. The state Board of Regents approved the Hebrew charter school on Jan. 13 with one dissenting vote. "Any opportunity for your child to learn a second language, whether it's Hebrew or any other language, is beneficial," said Maureen Gonzalez-Campbell, the principal, who is African-American and speaks no Hebrew herself. Gonzalez-Campbell, 48, said parents will be attracted to the charter school's low student-teacher ratio - there will be one English-speaking teacher and one Hebrew-speaking teacher in each classroom - and academic rigor. The Hebrew charter school, which does not have a site yet, is due to open with 150 students in kindergarten and first grade and will grow to 450 in grades K-5. Like other charter schools, it will be taxpayer-funded. But it expects to raise additional money from private donors and has commitments of $500,000 a year from philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and $250,000 a year from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Steinhardt, the father of Berman, the school's chairwoman, founded the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in 1994 with the goal of revitalizing Jewish identity. But Berman said the charter school will not promote the Jewish religion, instead using secular texts to teach modern Hebrew. Berman, whose own children attend a Jewish day school in Manhattan, is a former columnist for the New York Sun, a now-defunct daily that led the opposition to the Khalil Gibran International Academy, with its curriculum emphasizing the study of Arabic language and culture. That school opened in September 2007 after its first choice for a principal, Debbie Almontaser, was forced to resign over comments she had made about the word "intifada." Critics said Almontaser should have condemned the use of the word, which commonly refers to the Palestinian uprising against Israel, on T-shirts made by a youth organization. Almontaser has sued to get her job back; the lawsuit is pending. Controversy arose more recently in Minnesota, where the ACLU sued over the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a charter school with two campuses in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The ACLU contends that the Minnesota school violates the separation of church and state by permitting prayer sessions during school hours and by giving preference to Muslim clothing rules. Female teachers, for example, have to be covered from neck to wrist and ankle. The Brooklyn Hebrew school will not be the nation's first Hebrew charter school. The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School in Hollywood, Florida, prompted fierce debates when it opened in 2007. It serves kosher meals and its director is a rabbi, but an expert hired by the district deemed Ben Gamla's lesson plans "entirely appropriate for a publicly funded charter school." The Brooklyn school satisfied the New York state regents that it will not violate the US Constitution, but critics haven't been silenced. Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an op-ed piece in New York's Daily News that she objected to the Hebrew school for the same reasons she objected to the Khalil Gibran school, because a public school should not be "centered on the teaching of a single non-American culture." "We don't send children to public schools to learn to be Chinese or Russian or Greek or Korean," Ravitch said. "We send them to learn to be American."