August 28, 2008
Public money for Jewish schools:
Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Jewish Education, Minus $15,000 Tuition
But with a growing number of Jews defining themselves as secular or cultural rather than religious, a Hebrew education with some basic Jewish context might be just right.
Rami Wernik, dean of the Fingerhut School of Education at American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, visited Ben Gamla while on a conference in Florida. An ardent proponent of day school education, he calls the development of charter schools fascinating. Wernik said he is "straddling the fence" on whether this is a positive or negative development for Jewish education.
"Assuming the school is stellar according to general standards, the question will be is this a robust enough Jewish education? Is it coherent to teach Hebrew without reference to Tanach [Bible] or siddur [prayerbook]? Does it make sense to have a school like this in the United States of America? These kinds of questions are open-ended. They are philosophical and ideological," Wernik said.
The community has to grapple with those questions if it wants to continue raising a significant number of Jewishly literate children, argues Jonathan Schreiber, a marketing executive with a master's in Jewish education.
"I have this deep-seated belief that the Jewish community has probably built an unsustainable educational model over the long term in community day schools," said Schreiber, who sends his kids to Valley Beth Shalom Day School, where he sits on the board.
He thinks charter schools can offer an alternative to day schools and historically ineffective -- though improving -- congregational schools.
Tuition at day schools is around $15,000 for elementary school and about $25,000 for high school, and Schreiber said it is rising at rate of about 11 percent a year. With numbers like that, the vast majority of Jews don't even consider day school education. Schreiber has been canvassing other parents about getting the ball rolling on a Hebrew-language charter school.
Recently he was put in contact with Tanya Covalin, who is further along in the process.
Excellent School, Hebrew a Plus
Unlike Schreiber, Covalin is not looking to create another Jewish educational model, but rather is excited about the idea of molding an excellent school that will also include Hebrew. She is hoping to open a K-5 developmental charter in Venice Beach with a Hebrew language component within the next few years.
Covalin researched the best educational models and parenting methods even before her children were born, but when it came to looking for an elementary school for her oldest, now entering kindergarten, she couldn't find the progressive, developmental approach she had found in the best preschools.
Then this summer her son flourished in a dinosaur class at the cutting-edge University Elementary School (UES), a private school that serves as a laboratory for UCLA's Graduate School of Education. Already exploring the idea of a charter at that point, Covalin got in touch with Lisa Rosenthal Schaeffer, a former employee at UES and now a pedagogical consultant with Para Los Ninos, a nonprofit aiming to bring disadvantaged families out of poverty through educational opportunity. The group runs nine preschools, a charter elementary school and a charter middle school, all based on the idea that kids can have a part in determining how and what they learn.
A developmental Hebrew charter in Venice could serve both a diverse neighborhood population along with the nearby Jewish and Israeli communities. Interest from non-Jewish families might stem from the fact that teaching young children a foreign language has been proven to increase their intellectual capacity.
Covalin is considering following the Hebrew curriculum offered at Arab schools in Israel.
She might also find a model in the curriculum being developed for the Hebrew Language Academy, the charter in Brooklyn, N.Y., being created with startup funds from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.
Sara Berman, a mother of five day-school students and a New York Sun columnist, is heading up the effort to found a school focused on academic excellence, with Hebrew as a bonus. Berman is the daughter of Michael Steinhardt, whose foundation is backing the school. He is a founder and primary funder of Birthright, the program that builds Jewish identity by offering a free trip to Israel to Jewish 18-26 year olds.
"I really want the school to be a first-rate school -- I think that is what attracts parents," Berman said. To that end, a language teacher from the Middlebury College in Vermont is developing a Hebrew curriculum, and a founder of the Heschel School in New York is developing a social studies curriculum that will integrate Jewish culture. Berman plans to make the curriculum available to other Hebrew-language charter schools.
Berman filed the application for the K-5 school in June and will hear this winter whether the charter has been accepted. She hopes to open in September '09.
Steinhardt initially latched onto the idea of charter schools as a way of furthering Jewish education and identity. But the Foundation has since distanced itself from that idea.
"Originally that might have been one of the reasons why my dad was so interested, but the truth is, that doesn't fit in with what a charter school is about," Berman said. "He realizes that, and he is still just as excited about it. He is interested in education on its own, without the Jewish piece of it."
The Foundation declined to reveal the amount of money it has contributed to the school.
Steinhardt's involvement probably helped the school get local Jewish community support. Berman reached out to the UJA-Federation of New York, which appended a letter of support to the school's charter application.