Among the 23 charter schools approved by Governor Chris Christie to open this September is the Shalom Academy Charter School (SACS), a Hebrew immersion school that is intended to service children primarily from Englewood and Teaneck.
Its mission, according to founder Raphael Bachrach, a member of the Englewood-Orthodox community who has been shepherding the concept of a Hebrew-immersion charter school for more than four years, is to produce students who are proficient in Hebrew language.
By the end of February, just after its first application deadline, virtually all 160 spots in grades K-5 were filled. The school, which will be located on Williams Street in Englewood, will add a grade each year so that, in three years, it will offer classes in grades K-8 for about 240 students.
A charter school is a public school that is overseen by the State Department of Education but operates independently of the local district. Each charter school has its own board, administration, and facility independent of local school districts.
For Mr. Bachrach, SACS is the culmination of hundreds of hours of legwork, paper work, and networking. Disregarding the many naysayers, including educational professionals who tried to discourage him—often for reasons of their own, and members of the community, who saw little chance of success, he stayed focused on his goal, which has now been realized.
Mr. Bachrach’s own children have been attending public school in Englewood and while he said he and his wife, Nina, have been very pleased, they wanted the Hebrew immersion program. Their children and those of the other founders with whom Mr. Bachrach has been working had preference in terms of being able to secure spaces in the new school.
Other families gained their slots by applying early enough and, if necessary, winning the lottery to gain admissions. Preference went to students from Englewood and Teaneck. Had there been room, ten percent of the spaces could have gone to children from outside the district.
This September, SACS will have 40 kindergarteners, 40 first graders, and grades 2-5 will each have 20 children. There will be a maximum of 20 children per class. Every kindergarten and first and second-grade classroom will have a teacher and an assistant. Upper grades will share “floating” assistants.
Day School Transfers?
It is not yet clear what the division will be between Englewood and Teaneck children. The school has until March 15 to provide a list of students to both districts in order to determine transportation needs.
At present, it is also unclear how many of the 160 students expected to attend SACS this fall will be children whose parents would otherwise have sent them to Hebrew Day schools or yeshivot. The obvious draw for parents who will opt for SACS is cost. As a public school, SACS is free.
Moreover, there are no entrance exams, interviews, or any other barriers to admission to SACS, other than space.
Not for Everyone
Nevertheless, as Mr. Bachrach realizes, for many Orthodox parents, SACS’s dual-language curriculum will not be an acceptable alternative. As a public school, it will not offer Jewish religious instruction as part of the curriculum, although there will be elements of “culture” that may be included, in addition, of course, to a commitment to total immersion in Hebrew language.
According to discussions with the founding members, it may be acceptable for SACS students to perform certain rites, such as dipping apples in honey for a sweet year on Rosh Hashanah, but prayers may be stickier. Some legal experts say it is acceptable for public school children to recite prayers on their own, but not with any guidance from their teachers.
The school will follow the Bergen County Community College calendar, which means virtually no Jewish holidays will be observed and there will not be early dismissal on Fridays.
However, Mr. Bachrach pointed out that, according to NJ law, all Jewish holidays fall into the category of excused absences for which no student may be penalized in anyway. The state has a list of such religious holidays, which, in addition to Jewish holidays, include Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, Sikh, Bahai, Zoroastrian, Shinto, and even Church of Scientology holy days.
All classes at SACS will be co-educational, and the founders, including Mr. Bachrach, are committed to strong outreach steps to ensure diversity. The Englewood and Teaneck public school districts are heavily African-American and Hispanic. As a public school, SACS will not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, English proficiency, socioeconomic status, or national origin.
Only Jewish Parents?
While it is unclear how many non-Jewish parents are going to be sufficiently interested in a Hebrew-immersion program in Englewood, photographs from the website of the Hatikvah International Academy Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, show interracial classes with nary a kippah in sight.
Englewood School Superintendent Richard Segall said when a Hebrew charter school was proposed to current Englewood public school families, only about 15 children were interested. This suggests to Mr. Segall that most, if not all, of the 160 students who will be attending SACS were already enrolled in Jewish day schools.
Mr. Bachrach disagreed, saying that, as a neighborhood-based school, SACS’s demographics “are likely to reflect those of the community.”
“Our hope is that all of the Englewood and Teaneck demographics will come together into the school environment. This includes Jewish, African-American, Latino, and so on. Since African-American history is integral to US history, Shalom Academy Charter School will integrate teachings of African-American history throughout the history curricula—in both Hebrew and English,” he said.
In its charter application, SACS does not indicate that the majority of its students will be Jewish or will transfer from yeshivas. If anything, it describes itself as vehicle for helping to integrate Englewood’s schools. No one denies that, if its students are mostly white and Jewish, SACS will help even out the Englewood schools’ demographic profile.
Hatikvah, which opened this past September, says its key goal is “that all children from all cultures, religions, and ethnicities make up a school community while maintaining identities and pride.”
Priti Kandlur, who is not Jewish, is a member of Hatikvah’s board of trustees. Her son, Mihir, 5, is enrolled in the kindergarten because Ms. Kandlur believes learning a second language is beneficial.
“A foreign language helps them in other subjects as well. Their grasping power actually increases,” she said.
Hatikvah currently serves students in grades K-2. It plans to add a grade each year until it reaches 372 students in grades K-8. Residents of East Brunswick are given preference over others. As will be the case for SACS, too, an exception will be made for siblings who come from outside the district.
If Hatikvah does not fill to capacity with East Brunswick residents and siblings of current students, the school will look at applications for children from outside the district.
According to the website, children in the school are taught “history, literature, art, and music of many different communities of Hebrew speakers in Israel and around the world and also learn about the impact that other cultures and languages have had on the Hebrew language.”
At Hatikvah, Hebrew culture, which is permissible, means Jewish culture, history, art, music, Israeli culture, and language.
Hebrew without Religion
Asked if Hebrew can be taught without religion, Hatikvah Principal Colin Hogan said public schools in the US have been doing just that for many years, especially in high schools and colleges.
“Hebrew is a distinct language, and, like any other foreign language, can be acquired outside the realm of religion,” he said.
Ms. Kandlur said it would not bother her even if smatterings of Jewish religion filter into the classroom. She is pleased that her son is in a full-day, comparatively small kindergarten for which she does not have to pay.
Because East Brunswick has a large Jewish community attending public school, the school calendar, which Hatikvah will follow, too, observes many—but by no means all—Jewish and non-Jewish holidays.
“If parents ask to keep their children home in observance of other holidays, we accommodate their requests just as other East Brunswick schools do,” said Mr. Hogan.
At an informational meeting for parents interested in SACS last month, held at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, a packed audience of more than 500 heard educators tell them why learning a second language would be beneficial for their children.
It is doubtful many of the parents in the room would have been there if the language in question were not Hebrew. Most of those in attendance were from the Orthodox community. While some were skeptical; others thought SACS might be an option for their families.
While nothing was said about religious instruction at this meeting or on the SACS website, in previous discussions, there have been suggestions that parents may be able to rent space in the school or in a nearby facility before classes begin and after-school for activities such as services or religious instruction. The daily schedule starts at 7:30am for “early bird clubs” and breakfast. The school day is from 8 to 3, and “after school clubs” are from 3:15 to 4:15.
Some parents saw this as little more than a new spin on the after-school Hebrew school which has not been particularly effective. Others, however, said that since Hebrew language would not have to be the focus of the extracurricular programs, their children might get more out of them.
There has even been discussion about how the dietary laws might be observed at the school. Some charter school proponents have suggested that, if sufficient children need it, kosher food could be provided.
“The school will be fully respectful of the needs and rights of all children; that’s an ongoing theme,” said Mr. Bachrach.
At the meeting, when asked if the school would administer the Jewish Education Project’s BJE (Board of Jewish Education) placement exam for yeshiva and day school high schools, Mr. Bachrach said, “Absolutely not.”
He did not say SACS students would be unprepared to take the exam in another venue.
More than one observant parent at the meeting last month noted that SACS might be a satisfactory way to save funds, if not for their children’s entire school career, then, perhaps, for just a few years, especially while they are young.
“As long as their Hebrew language skills are reasonable, they could be taught sufficient Yiddishkeit at home so that when they go to yeshiva or day school, they won’t be behind or have too much to catch up,” said one father who asked that his name be withheld.
At current rates, for every year in the charter school, a family could save between $10,000 and $15,000 per child.
“Multiply it by three or four children and you’re talking about real money,” said the father.
Better Than Public School
It is a problem many rabbis recognize. Rabbi Yitzchok Rosenbaum, a Teaneck resident who serves as executive director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, noted that, at Gamla, the established Hebrew immersion charter school in Florida, children receive religious training after school.
While, like SACS and Hatikvah, Gamla is open to the entire community, most of its students are Jewish. This past year, with the economy still an issue and many families feeling the crunch, an increased number of Orthodox families sent their children to the school, seeing it as a better alternative than regular public school.
Rabbi Rosenbaum agreed that Hebrew immersion charter schools have the benefit of allowing children to become proficient in Hebrew language and culture, “which should not be discounted as important facets of Jewish education.”
“Shalom Academy presents an alternative to public school, where students run the risk of losing Jewish knowledge altogether, and consequently losing their faith,” he said.
Not a Yeshiva
Like many other observers, Rabbi Rosenbaum said he suspects most applicants to SACS will be Jewish families concerned with maintaining ties to the Hebrew language, such as displaced Israelis who also want a Jewish cultural connection.
No one believes it will be an adequate substitute for a full yeshiva education. Rabbi Menachem Genack, who serves as the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union as well as pulpit leader of Englewood’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah, worried that free tuition might draw families away from religious schools, encouraging them to settle for an inferior Jewish education.
Nevertheless, the advantages of SACS prompted many rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah and author and media personality, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, as well as prominent members of the Orthodox community, such as former Englewood Mayor and immigration lawyer Michael Wildes, and Englewood Councilman Dr. Ken Rosenzweig to write letters in support of the school.
Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, a major day school supporter, opposes SACS chiefly because, he said, as a public school, it will be unable to offer as good a Jewish education as day schools and yeshivas. He argued that because the vast majority of Jewish children in Teaneck and Englewood currently attend Jewish day schools, this was a poor location for a Hebrew charter school.
SACS supporters disagreed, pointing out that the tuition crisis coupled with the poor economy had prompted many Jewish day school families, especially those with special-needs children who often benefit from public schools’ special services, to consider public school.
More than a year ago, Mr. Bachrach addressed complaints about the Hebrew charter school’s imperfections, saying it should not be a case of “sacrificing the good because it isn’t perfect.”
According to Elizabeth Willaum, who, until last December, served as Englewood Schools Assistant Superintendent and is now advising Mr. Bachrach and the other SACS founders, the school’s objective is to create students who are “bilingual, biliterate, and bicognitive” in English and Hebrew.
“Immersion is the way of the future,” she said, adding that, with a four-to-seven-year commitment to the immersion program, SACS students should emerge as Hebrew speakers and thinkers.
A veteran teacher, Ms. Willaum, who is SACS’s acting head of school, developed NJ’s first Spanish-English dual-language program in Englewood in 1991 and has worked on other language-immersion programs in Long Branch, Perth Amboy, Elizabeth, and Union City in New Jersey as well as in upstate Syracuse, NY.
Math in Hebrew
The program is designed such that students in kindergarten and first grade will receive 75 percent of their classes in Hebrew and 25 percent in English. Subjects such as math, science, and history will be taught exclusively in Hebrew.
“There will be no translation,” said Ms. Willaum, adding that total immersion “works; it’s like magic.”
By the time students are in grades two through five, only half their classes—math, science, and Hebrew language arts—will be in Hebrew. Language arts, health, and history will be taught in English.
In grades 6-8, when content becomes more intense and their Hebrew skills are expected to be much improved, students will have only 25 percent of their classes, namely Hebrew language arts, in Hebrew. The other 75 percent of their day will be spend learning English, math, science, health, and history/social science in English.
While there may be some academic “tracking” in the school, it will not be based on proficiency in Hebrew. Native English and native Hebrew speakers will not be separated in school.
According to SACS’s website, the presence of native speakers of both language groups will make the environment more conducive to second-language learning. Hebrew and English will have equal status.
“Some students will know a lot of Hebrew; some will have no Hebrew whatsoever, but being in an environment with everyone else will reinforce each other,” said Mr. Bachrach.
Funding New Students
As is usually the case when charter schools have been approved, the educational establishments in Englewood and Teaneck have been less than enthusiastic about SACS.
Englewood School Superintendent Richard Segall has complained that, in September, only about 20 of SACS’s 160 students will be former public school students. This means the district will acquire more than 100 students for whom expenses will have to be paid.
For many years, this has been the tug-of-war between public and Hebrew day schools over issues such as bussing. Day school parents usually point out that, by not sending their children to the public schools, they are saving the district money. Public school officials usually counter with the separation-of-church-and-state argument. Privately, these officials often admit that if day school children were enrolled in public school, the testing scores in the public schools would rise dramatically.
Teaneck’s Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak also did not hide her disapproval upon learning that SACS had been approved. She said the school’s plan for “an academically rigorous Hebrew language immersion program” might not attract the “variety of learners” the school, in its application, had promised.
Ms. Pinsak and Mr. Segall expressed concern about the money taken from their budgets to fund students in the new school. The exact dollar amount will depend on how many students from Teaneck and Englewood, respectively, actually opt to attend SACS.
Mr. Segall said it would have cost Englewood less money to incorporate a Hebrew immersion program within an existing school, rather than creating a new school “with all the associated overhead and operational costs.”
Supporters of the charter school point out that, as district residents, SACS students—even those who are attending public school for the first time—have a right to that funding.
The budget Mr. Bachrach expects to be approved by the state will grant SACS about $13,000 per pupil for the year, which is a few hundred dollars less than what Englewood and Teaneck spend on other elementary school students.