Plans to open a publicly funded, Hebrew-language charter school in Center City this fall are moving full steam ahead, despite some substantial stumbling blocks.
The school, which organizers are hoping to open in September, would be the region's first charter school aimed primarily at Jewish children. Proponents say that the curriculum will focus on the Hebrew language, as well as the history and culture of Israel and the Middle East, along with traditional academic subjects.
But it won't teach religion -- legally, it cannot -- and will be open to students of all backgrounds, according to the steering committee behind the effort. While it is billed as being open to children from the five-county area, the school district's rules dictate that city residents get top priority.
"There is widespread interest," said Steve Crane, a Philadelphia businessman serving as the spokesman for the steering committee. The idea, he said, will not only appeal to families that want their kids to learn Hebrew, but to all who value the contribution that Israel has made to the development of Western civilization.
Crane said that it's likely that the school -- intended as an offshoot of an existing charter school, and hoping to draw at least 100 students in grades six to 12 its first year -- will open downtown this fall.
But many questions appear unresolved, most significantly whether the Philadelphia agency that approves such schools will do so.
Officials said that the district must approve the plan and hasn't yet done so. It hasn't even yet received an application, according to Barbara Farley, spokeswoman for the school district.
"That is not something that has been approved by the School Reform Commission at this point," said Farley, referring to the body that oversees the Philadelphia School District and charter-school applications in the city.
Even plans to expand or alter an existing charter have to be approved by the district, she said.
Benjamin Rayer, chief charter, partnership and new schools officer for the district, said that he, too, hadn't seen any paperwork or even heard of the effort.
The idea, said Crane, is not to open an entirely new school, which is exceedingly difficult; the district hasn't approved a new charter in nearly two years.
Instead, the plan involves partnering with World Communications Charter School, an existing institution in South Philadelphia that serves a largely African-American student body.
Crane said that the Hebrew-language charter school would serve as a second campus of the 13-year-old South Philly school, whose charter allows for more students than it currently serves.
He said that a lease has already been signed at 1209 Vine St., which formerly housed another school. According to Crane, the leadership of World Communications is handling the application process with the district. A representative of that school did not return repeated requests for comment.
Other members of the proposed school's steering committee include Center City attorney Charles Kahn, Joseph Zuritsky of the Parkway Corporation, Vitaly Rakhman, who publishes several Russian newspapers, and Joseph Puder, who founded the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel. The members have donated their own funds to the effort, according to Crane. Most charter schools are funded by both public and private dollars.
Pros and Cons
Ever since the country's first -- and so far only -- Hebrew-language charter school opened in Florida three years ago, the concept has been a source of debate.
Proponents have hailed the notion as a way to get around the high costs associated with day schools, and offer a quality secular education while providing foundations for Jewish learning.
Opponents have challenged Hebrew charters from two main perspectives. One criticism is that they threaten to cross the line of church-state separation -- a line guarded by many Jewish organizations. The second is that they could divert attention and support from day schools.
Hebrew charter schools are also being developed in California and New York.
Pennsylvania passed its charter-schools law in 1997, and was hailed by many school-choice advocates as a major step forward. Of the 130 charter schools in the state, 63 are in Philadelphia, said Harold Kurtz of Synergy Education Consultants.
But the district has put a virtual halt to creating new ones, said Kurtz, because it has been looking for a more systematic way to measure their progress and because of budget issues.
News of the project came as a surprise to many. Officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia said they learned about the effort last week.
Questions about the school -- even its intended name of World Communications-Mideast Academy is uncertain -- have left many to wonder whether the group can get it up and running.
"We wish it were January, so we would have more time to get everything together. But there has been so much support for the idea that it seems things are continuing to line up," said Crane.
Rakhman, who runs the Russian American Publishing House and other ventures, said that he will promote the school within the Russian-speaking community, and predicted that Russian Jews could ultimately make up a majority of the student body.
He said that the new school could serve as a tuition-free entry point for Russian-speaking families into Jewish life.
"It will prepare kids with a deep understanding of the situation in Israel," he said, and students who learn Hebrew could study Torah on their own.
Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of Auerbach Center Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership, wondered: "Who is the population going to be? I want to reflect a little before deciding whether it is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews."