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A Cyber Experiment

August 23, 2012 By:
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Saundra Epstein is leading a new charter school in Center City that will offer both Hebrew and Chinese language immersion and will focus on Asia. Photo by Greg Bezanis
Will pairing Hebrew and Mandarin Chinese language classes at a new Phila­delphia charter school make a perfect yin and yang -- or prove to be something of an educational odd couple?

Chinese and Hebrew may seem like an unusual combination but organizers of the new venture point out that both are ancient languages that originated on the Asian continent.

The Solomon Charter School is an experimental, publicly funded cyber charter school that will focus on Asian culture and history as well as provide an immersion approach to language instruction.

It will surely face a number of questions in its inaugural year.

One of them is whether Jewish families will be enticed by the prospect of a free, state-funded Hebrew immersion program with a kosher kitchen and the teaching of some Israeli culture and history.

School officials stress that they are trying to create a diverse student body.

"We are a secular charter school. We are not -- nor are we interested in being -- in competition with Jewish day schools," said Saundra "Sunnie" Epstein, chief academic officer at the school who, as a longtime Jewish educator, has taught and consulted at a number of Jewish institutions, most recently at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.

In May, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education approved the opening of Solomon as a cyber school. That decision came six months after the state board initially denied the application and requested more detailed information on the school's planned curriculum.

The school will be based at a multistory building on Vine Street, just north of the city's Chinatown section. As a cyber school under state auspices, it will technically be open to any student in the commonwealth. So far, most of the students enrolled are from Philadelphia.

As a cyber school, physical attendance in the building won't be mandatory, but students must be present by logging on to their school-provided laptops, said Epstein.

School officials said that 200 students have enrolled in grades 7 through 10, with classes slated to begin after Labor Day. Originally, Solomon's leaders had planned to start with the 6th grade but decided to scale back for this year.

Officials declined how many of the students are Jewish, but Epstein said about 25 percent of those enrolled have expressed an interest in taking Hebrew as their mandatory language. She said the school is likely to appeal to more secular Jews, including Russians, Israelis and even the area's small community of black Jews.

So far, there are 15 teachers on the faculty.

Before a recent meeting of the math faculty, Joshua Block, who previously taught at another charter school, said that he was "drawn by the diversity and exposure to different cultures. You won't find it anywhere else."

The school's organizers hope to have a full K-12 school by the fall of 2013. Epstein said that Solomon also plans to introduce more languages in subsequent years, including Arabic, Indonesian and Vietnamese.

Students will be required to take Hebrew or Chinese for two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, or spend the equivalent amount of time studying online.

Those who pick Hebrew will also be able to study the Hebrew Bible both as literature and a historical document, Israeli dancing, current events and aspects of the history of Israel.

The school's founder, semi-retired businessman Stephen Crane, said that Solomon will have "an emphasis on civics and modern civilization -- and modern civilization has ancient roots.

"We are offering an alternative and a nitch," said Crane, who spearheaded the application process with the state. "My interest is in providing a cutting-edge school that people might be interested in."

School choice has become a hot topic in Pennsylvania and in the Philadelphia region as the city's school district, despite having some high-performing schools, continues to face a huge fiscal crisis and ongoing violence in the halls and classrooms.

According to Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University law professor who researches charter schools, cyber schools have existed in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s. According to published reports, more than 42,000 students were enrolled in the 13 cyber charter schools operating in the state last year.

DeJarnatt said the notion of combining a cyber school with a brick-and-mortar operation is extremely new.

The concept of a Hebrew-language charter school is several years old and has largely been a response to the high cost of Jewish day school education.

In the past few years, Hebrew charter schools have been opened or approved in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and California. In many cases, the schools have diverse student bodies with a number of African-American and other minority students, many drawn by the prospect of a solid education in a safe environment.

Two years ago, Crane attempted to launch a Hebrew charter school in Philadelphia at the same site where the Solomon school is opening. That school was intended to be a satellite campus of an existing charter that would have emphasized the history of ancient Israel and how the texts and cultures of the ancient Near East have influenced American society.

That project never materialized and the proposed partnership fell through.

Crane said he decided to expand the focus to include all of Asia because the continent's ancient civilizations have deeply influenced our own and because countries such as China and India are now rising powers.

"Philosophically, we just see Asia as a 'back to the future' area. A lot of the fundamentals of our civilization came from there," he said.

He also said he's become a big believer in cyber education, which to him is more about using computers as a means of content delivery rather than to facilitate distance learning.

"We want our fundamental delivery to be online, we don't want our fundamental delivery to be by textbook," he said. "Instead of learning out of a 300-page book with a couple of supplements, you have a 5-million-page universe."

Physically, at least, the building is still very much a work in process. For example, construction has barely begun on what is supposed to be a fully functioning kitchen in the cafeteria.

Despite the fact that it's a secular school, the cafeteria will serve only kosher food, with catering run by Jesse Klap­holtz, whose catering company is currently based in Elkins Park.

"We are now providing food that any Jewish student who keeps kosher can eat. Muslim students who observe halal can eat and it does not matter to the rest" of the pupils, said Epstein. "It's part of our accommodation of our 'community of communities' and their many different practices. This is consistent with the mission of the school."

Students can, however, bring non-kosher food into the building, she said.

Epstein said she's excited to be part of an "intentional community of diversity and invested learning." She said that the school will promote tolerance by becoming an Anti-Defamation League No Place for Hate school. Teachers will also introduce what is known as restorative practices, which is a method for discipline and conflict resolution that relies heavily on mediation and talking through disputes.

"We have appealed to students who tend to be very high powered and want to succeed," she said, but may not have yet found the right educational setting.

Epstein acknowledged that not everything they hope to have at the school -- like a video hookup to an archaeology class in Israel -- will be in place for opening day Sept. 5.

But she repeated advice she's heard from several educators: "If you are at 75 percent, you are doing great."

 

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