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A Hebrew-Language Charter, Minus the Jews

February 19, 2013 By:
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Saundra Epstein (center) with students Mattea Sturgell (left), who is studying Chinese, and Abdullah Muhammad, who is enrolled in Hebrew

Abdullah Muhammad, a 16-year-old from the Germantown section of Phila­delphia, never imagined he’d be studying Hebrew in high school.

When he transferred to the new Solomon Charter School in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia last fall, he was hoping to learn Chinese. But he was told that all of those classes were full and he’d have to take the only other foreign language offered — Hebrew.

Solomon, which opened in September, offers a rare Yin and Yang of Hebrew and Chinese and embodies a fairly new educational model: It’s part cyber school and part bricks-and-mortar academy.

Solomon is believed to be the only public school in the region currently offering Hebrew. In the past, it has been offered in the Philadelphia school district, Lower Merion High School and several other suburban schools.

What it doesn’t have —which may appear odd for a school with a kosher kitchen, a Hebrew curriculum and an early closing on Friday afternoon for Shabbat  — are any Jewish students.

Not being Jewish is one thing the 40 students enrolled in the school’s four Hebrew classes — as well as all 150 students in the school — have in common. Beyond that, they represent an array of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

When asked what it was like to be a Muslim studying Hebrew, Muhammad, a sophomore, didn’t delve into the connection between ancient languages and peoples or the modern Arab-Israel conflict. He said that his knowledge of Ara­bic, which also reads from right to left, has made his transition to Hebrew fairly seamless. He has a 93 average so far.

“The letters are similar,” said Mu­hammad, an African-American who has also learned Portuguese during a summer program and says he hopes his study of multiple languages will look good on his future college applications.

Saundra Epstein, Solomon’s chief academic officer, said that, despite efforts to reach out to the Jewish community, so far at least, “the Jewish community has not gotten behind the school.”

She attributed this in part to what she termed the “false start” the project got off to three years ago.

That’s when local businessman Ste­phen Crane, Solomon’s founder and CEO, first proposed a Hebrew-language charter and pitched the idea throughout the Jewish community. He even held several meetings with prospective Russian-speaking parents at a kosher restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.

But when the school, which at that point had planned to partner with an existing charter school, didn’t get off the ground, Epstein said, many of the parents who seemed interested at the time simply moved on.

Crane and Epstein went back to the drawing board and reimagined what their potential school would look like. Initially, it was modeled after a number of Hebrew-language charter schools that have opened over the past several years in several states.

But they moved instead to a model that focuses on culture as well as language and also incudes Chinese, and possibly soon, Vietnamese and Hindi. Epstein said Solomon is still looking to attract Jews in the future. The food in the cafeteria is kosher — which works for Muslim students who need to eat Halal food — and school ends at 1 p.m. on Friday, which is, in part, a nod to the several Orthodox Jews on the faculty and also represents a hope that it might be relevant to prospective Jewish students. Epstein said she also likes the idea of closing early on Friday because students have trouble focusing once Friday afternoon rolls around.

Currently, Solomon goes from 7th grade to 10th grade, but the Pennsylvania Department of Education has approved Solomon to operate a K-12 institution. Plans are in the works to expand to elementary school next year.

Epstein said they decided to start with 7th grade because they wanted “to do leadership training from the beginning.”

“Think of the scouting model where each group of older students mentors younger students. This is what we want to build,” Epstein said.

Last spring, the Pennsylvania Department of Education approved Solomon as one of four new cyber charter schools statewide. As of now, just 26 of the150 students are full-time distance learners.

Each student, whether studying on site or off, gets an iPad, and most assignments are turned in electronically. Muhammad and several classmates lamented that their iPads are blocked, so that they can only use the devices for schoolwork, rather than playing games or watching movies.

Epstein said the cyber option allows students with learning or physical disabilities the chance to be part of a wider community of learners, to say nothing of those who live far from school but are interested in the curriculum. The hope for the future is to host a video link so students can take part in classes in real time.

Currently, the Pennsylvania State Senate is taking a closer look at cyber charter school funding and performance. Last year, State Auditor General Jack Wagner called for a moratorium on the approval of new cyber charters until a comprehensive review had been done.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County who sits on the Senate’s education committee, said he has “questions in terms of how we guarantee the intellectual integrity, the academic depth of cyber charters as well as how we adequately review the financial cost of cyber charters.”

According to Dinniman, graduation rates at cybers are 60 percent, compared to 80 percent for charter schools and 84 percent for regular public schools.

Epstein said it’s unfair to compare Solomon to other cyber schools since it offers a much newer concept of a blended education.

“You really have to be present,” said Epstein, meaning that distance learners can’t get away without doing work because they constantly have to check in and complete assignments. “Does it work all the time? No. But you could say that about any school.”

She said the school has a mix of gifted students and those who had previous disciplinary problems or issues learning in other settings.

One student who had disciplinary problems in the past, 14-year-old Joseph Fugarino, of South Philadelphia, said he gets to school early every day because he feels at home there.

Learning the Hebrew alphabet, he said, has proved difficult, but his teacher, Yael Sandler, said he has made great strides.

On a recent Friday morning, Sandler, who heads the Hebrew department — a department of one — strolled the hallway as students were between classes. As groups of African-American and Asian students walked by, she greeted them with “Shalom” or “Ma Nishmah?” which is Hebrew for “How are you?” Some of the students didn’t answer while others said, “Beseder,” which roughly translates to “OK.”

Sandler said she never expected to be teaching Hebrew to non-Jewish students, but finds the experience rewarding. Her classroom is plastered with the Israeli flag and pictures of modern Israel. Hebrew versions of children’s books like Goodnight Moon are stacked near her desk.

She’s taught lessons about the recent Israeli elections, how Israelis celebrate Purim and showed students how to make a marshmallow dessert from Israel called kremba. The class recently celebrated the 155th birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited with inventing modern Hebrew.

“I don’t focus on the Bible. I focus on Tel Aviv as a modern metropolis,” she said. “This is a fantastic opportunity to educate people about another culture.”

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