August 9, 2007
Jewish-oriented charter school in Florida to open amid controversy
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"We have an additional charter from Miami-Dade County for another 600 kids," he added, "and our expectation is that we will be applying for more charters in Palm Beach County and, most likely, several places outside of Florida."
Siegel said his four children will not be attending Ben Gamla.
Eric Stillman, president and CEO of the Broward County Jewish Federation, said he is keeping a close watch on the new school.
"We are concerned about the ability of the Broward school board and its administration to monitor the Ben Gamla Charter School to maintain separation of church and state," he said. "I think there's a legitimate concern that this model could pave the way for other faiths to propose similar schools structured around their culture and history."
According to Deutsch, 80 percent of Ben Gamla's students are coming from other public schools. He said it is safe to say most of them are Jewish, though it is impossible to provide an exact figure, because as a public school, the institution is forbidden to ask applicants their religion.
"We have a lot of kids from Israel, but we also have Hispanic kids. Obviously it's a self-selected group," Deutsch said.
The former congressman said of the more than 800 applicants, 37 percent had listed Hebrew as their native language, while 17 percent listed Spanish, 5 percent French, 5 percent Russian and 0.5 percent Portuguese.
The school is being managed by Academica, a firm that currently runs 21 charter schools in Florida. According to Deutsch, the firm will receive from the Florida Department of Education roughly $5,000 per student -- 95 percent of what the state would pay a regular public school. That works out to just over $2 million for Ben Gamla at current enrollment levels.
"Consider that in Broward County there are approximately 50,000 Jewish kids attending K-12," Deutsch said. "Last year there were 1,600 kids in Jewish day schools, or less than 5 percent of the total. Clearly there is a huge void in Jewish education in Broward County."
For Schorr, the consultant who felt day schools were not affordable, the decision to enroll her daughter in Ben Gamla was a no-brainer.
"My husband and I are both products of the public school system and are huge believers that it provides a good quality education at a great price," said Schorr, who considers herself to be Modern Orthodox. "We also know that bilingual children do much better across the board in all subject areas, so the fact that this school has a bilingual program was really appealing to us."
Barnett, the attorney who felt a regular day school would not be diverse enough for his daughter, said that "you'll find a lot of parents in south Florida are always willing to try new schools because our education system ranks near the bottom."
Tzipora Nurieli, an Israeli-born Hallandale woman, said she registered her three children -- ages 11, 9 and 7 -- at Ben Gamla, thereby saving a combined $48,000 in annual tuition fees.
"I was supposed to send them to Hillel in North Miami Beach, but this school is the most amazing miracle that's ever happened," she said. "It's a combination of teaching my kids Hebrew, but also taking advantage of the public school system. This is like having the best of both worlds."
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