NEW YORK — Sitting on a brightly colored carpet, the kindergarteners sing loud and strong. A few dare to step up and lead their squirming and smiling classmates in a Hebrew version of “Eyes and Ears and Mouth and Nose.”
If this were any other Jewish day school or yeshiva, such a sight would be unremarkable — but it’s not. It’s the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy, a bilingual, secular charter school located just a few blocks from Morningside Park, and where children of all backgrounds are immersed in Modern Hebrew.
Harlem Hebrew, which includes grades K-4, is one of nine schools (and counting) belonging to Hebrew Public, a charter school center which several Jewish philanthropists, including Michael Steinhardt of Birthright, founded in 2009.
The way president and CEO of Hebrew Public Jonathan Rosenberg sees it, Hebrew is a distinct language and culture that can, and should, stand on its own in the public school system — no religious strings attached.
According to the school, just as Arabic isn’t synonymous with Islam, Italian isn’t inherently Roman Catholic, and English isn’t inherently Anglican, Hebrew shouldn’t be considered synonymous with Judaism.
“We are a full-on public school, we have students from all backgrounds. We are not a Jewish school. We are not a religious school,” Rosenberg said, walking through a hallway adorned with student artwork in Hebrew and English.
The New York State Board of Regents recently authorized an additional Hebrew charter school, the Hebrew Language Academy 2 in South Brooklyn. When it opens in 2017 it will become the 10th school in the non-profit Hebrew Public schools network. The school near the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn will teach children K-7.
The three schools located in New York State are directly managed by Hebrew Public. The other six, spread across New Jersey, Washington, DC, California and Minnesota, are affiliate schools and are run by their boards and heads of schools.
From the moment students walk through the steel gray doors of the five-story building they are immersed in Hebrew. Each classroom is named after a place in Israel and the signage throughout the school is in English and Hebrew.
“I don’t even know what the classroom numbers are, I just know them by place names; that’s part of how it’s taught here, it’s everywhere. It’s taught as genuine conversation. Students go back and forth between the languages in the halls,” said Robin Natman, Hebrew Harlem’s head of school.
With the exception of English language arts, Hebrew is woven into all subjects through a team-teaching model with the Hebrew teacher and general education or specials teacher. And because most teachers hail from Israel, the students are learning to speak with Israeli accents. It’s the primary language spoken during lunch and recess. Hebrew teachers oversee those “community” times to help reinforce the Hebrew-only rule during these times.
Unlike in the Jewish day school system, here there is no tuition or special entrance requirement. Although the schools are open to all, spaces are awarded through a random lottery with preference given to children living in the school district of a particular school.
“We’re not what people think of when they think of either a public or a charter school. When most people think of a charter school they think of a racially monolithic student body. We’re not that at all,” Rosenberg said.
Indeed, the student body at Harlem Hebrew is diverse at 32% African-American, 30% Hispanic, 34% White, 3% multi-racial and 1% Asian. It is also 24% special needs.
Because course work involves learning Israeli song and dance, culture and history, it sometimes gets tricky when explaining the school’s mission, Rosenberg said.
‘It is always uniquely complicated when you are talking about Hebrew and Israel. You are teaching a language, not politics’
“It is always uniquely complicated when you are talking about Hebrew and Israel. You are teaching a language, not Israeli politics, but if you are going to teach a language well, you also need to teach a country’s culture and its history. No one says students in a Mandarin immersion program would be advocating for the Chinese government’s position,” he said.
“We are teaching students to be civically engaged. The way I think about it is if you teach a language well, you will have a natural affinity for the country and its people,” said Rosenberg.
Parents choose Harlem Hebrew for its academics and for the chance for students to learn a second, or perhaps third, language, Natman said. Learning Hebrew can open the door to learning other Near Eastern and Asian languages, including Arabic.
“We have a whole group of parents who are Israeli but not religious. Day school would definitely not be an option for them. Then we have a whole group of church-going parents who know Biblical Hebrew and have traveled to Israel a few times and have an affinity for it,” Natman said. “The bulk of the parents though want to create global citizens and have their kids take their place in the world. Hebrew is becoming more and more important, especially in the tech sector.”
As a charter school, Harlem Hebrew, like its Brooklyn counterparts, is accountable to state authorities. And like all charter schools it must be fiscally sound and academically beneficial to stay open. It is on the latter point that the three-year-old school is facing some challenges.
Last year, in its first year of state mandated testing, Harlem Hebrew fell below state standards. In English Language Arts, 29% of students tested met state standards. The same percentage met state standards in Math, according to the New York City Department of Education’s 2015-2016 School Quality Snapshot. This compares with 61% of students district-wide meeting state standards regarding English Language Arts and 57% of students meeting standards in math.
‘Regardless of a student’s home environment we have an obligation to make up that gap’
“Of course those results were disappointing. After the 52 third graders were tested we saw a significant achievement gap. There was a very large disparity between students from more affluent backgrounds and students from poorer backgrounds,” Rosenberg said. “You have inklings of things like that, but the test was the first baseline, a snapshot of what is going on, and gives us specific areas where students are struggling and how to improve. Regardless of a student’s home environment we have an obligation to make up that gap.”
Before coming to Hebrew Public, Rosenberg’s career included a stint as a senior attorney in the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under president Bill Clinton. He also led the non-profit Repair the World and most recently served as executive director of the NYC-based ROADS Charter High Schools.
Perhaps more than school choice, it’s the idea that Hebrew Public might shape students into global citizens that appeals to Rosenberg.
“My family is multiracial. My wife is African American and Jewish and my children are biracial,” he said. “Issues of desegregation and integration are important to me and we combine all of that here.”