Timing’s the Principle Concern in Starting Hebrew Charter This Fall



Proponents of a proposed Hebrew-language charter school in Philadelphia have been working to drum up interest by holding informational meetings and putting advertising in the Jewish Exponent and other publications.

But despite some early claims that the school would be set to open in September, it appears likely that the institution won't be up and running at least until the following school year.

In public and private meetings, organizers are saying that there's still a chance it could open this fall, but they appear far less optimistic than just a few weeks ago.

The steering committee, led by businessman Steve Crane, has leased a building at 1209 Vine St. in Center City, but they haven't officially hired a a principal or teachers or enrolled any students in grades six to 12, the targeted age group.

About a dozen people, including just three individuals with school-aged children, turned up at a session last week at the Palace Royal Restaurant on Bustleton Avenue. A few attendees happened to be educators exploring possible job prospects.

Vitaly Rakhman, a publisher of local Russian-language newspapers, who is also a member of the steering committee, said that the school would draw heavily from the Russian Jewish community. But no Russian speakers showed up at the session.

Mark Mellis, an Orthodox resident of the Northeast who is looking for a new school for his 15-year-old son, came away saying that the proposed charter "just won't meet our needs."

He also expressed concern about the lack of a religious education. Public schools — even a charter with a more defined mission — have to abide by state and federal mandates on the separation of church and state.

Organizers said that students will gain such a strong knowledge of Hebrew and through that, it will be easier for them to connect to the Jewish tradition, albeit outside of school hours.

Joshua Yarden, who holds a doctorate in education and currently works as a consultant for the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership, has been speaking in public and private events on behalf of the school. He said that he's considering becoming the administrator.

Yarden, who lived in Israel for nearly 20 years, said that he's interested in leading a school that would teach Hebrew and the history of the Middle East from a critical, secular perspective.

It's an idea that he said would appeal to private foundations looking for the next big investment in Jewish education.

But he also remains somewhat skeptical about the timing of the local initiative.

"I don't see how you start a new institution on really short notice," he acknowledged.

The route organizers hope to take is for the Hebrew charter to open as a second campus of an already existing institution, the 13-year-old World Communications Charter School in South Philadelphia.

Fostering such an approach would circumvent the difficult path to getting a brand-new charter approved, said organizers. This past week, the School Reform Commission, which oversees the School District of Philadelphia, approved new charters for the first time in two years.

However, a spokeswoman for the district said that it would still have to approve the addition of a satellite campus.

No applications have been made as of yet, according to school officials.

Crane said that he has had an attorney review the current charter-school legislation, and remains confident that there are no legal barriers to opening the school. The only question, he said, is whether the school will have enough students to warrant opening this fall.

He has deferred all questions about the specifics of the charter arrangement to Martin Ryder, CEO of World Communications. Ryder has not returned several calls seeking comment.

Looking for Funding

The concept of a publicly financed school that would mandate Hebrew language is a relatively new one. Currently, only three such schools exist, two in South Florida under the same management and one in Brooklyn, N.Y. Others are being developed in New Jersey and California, though in the case of the latter, Hebrew would be an elective.

As Crane and others hope to establish a school here, efforts are under way to create a national movement devoted to Hebrew charter schools.

Last week, the Hebrew Charter School Center, a New York-based initiative backed by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, announced that it is accepting applications for a total of $900,000 in grants for groups looking to establish dual-language Hebrew-charter schools.

Crane said that he plans to apply to the group for funding for the school, which, in addition to public monies, would require private donations.

Rabbi Jay Stein, president of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis, organized a meeting between Crane and others pushing the charter school and about a dozen other area religious leaders. Stein said that he is intrigued by the idea, but is concerned about how the school would straddle the church-state line, as well as what kind of effect the creation of a free alternative would have on enrollment in area Jewish day schools.

"I'm not sure it's clear enough to us," he said. "As rabbis, we wonder about Judeo-education that's devoid of a religious component."



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