Open Houses Reveal Task Before Harlem Charter


On a recent Thursday evening in a sparsely decorated basement meeting room in the JCC in Manhattan, nine parents assembled around a table to hear about Harlem Hebrew Academy Charter School.

Rabbi David Gedzelman, a board member of the school who is also executive director of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, a major funder of the project, made sure to let the group, composed entirely of Jewish Upper West Side residents, many of them Israeli expats, know that the school, which will open in August in Harlem, will not be so homogenous.

“The district is 12 percent special-education and 52 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches,” Gedzelman said. “We expect to be within striking range of that. We’re committed to diversity.”

Pointing to the recruitment brochures on the table featuring photos of smiling African-American children and white children, he said, “These aren’t actors. These are kids in our Brooklyn school.”

“This is a public school,” he added. “It’s not a Jewish day school. It can’t replace a Jewish day school.”

Five nights later, at a recruiting session in the bustling lobby of the Police Athletic League, where hundreds of Harlem children participate in after-school tutoring, sports and cultural programs, the racial composition was the opposite of the JCC: all but one of the parents picking up brochures and schmoozing with charter school officials were African American.

Organizers of Harlem Hebrew, Manhattan’s first Hebrew charter school and one of several such schools backed by the Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), are hoping that when the tuition-free, dual-language school opens in August, in a red-brick former Catholic school building at St. Nicholas Avenue and 117th Street, it can bring both populations together, along with others from New York’s School District 3.

The district, which includes all of the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, is one of the most economically and racially diverse in the city, yet its schools tend to be majority white/Asian or majority black/Hispanic, with little racial or socioeconomic integration.

Jewish households make up almost 40 percent of the total population of the Upper West Side, according to the recently released UJA-Federation of New York Geographic Profile Report.

That report also found that the percentage of Upper West Side Jews who describe themselves as “secular” or “having no religion,” has increased dramatically in nine years, from 13 percent to 31 percent, even as the area has experienced a slight increase in Jewish day school enrollment.

Harlem Hebrew, one of four Hebrew charter schools preparing to launch with backing from the Hebrew Charter School Center (the others are in San Diego, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.), recently began sponsoring a series of events for prospective parents. That included tours of the three-year-old Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, HCSC’s “vanguard school,” and information sessions throughout the district.

So far, 135 children have applied. Admissions will be determined by lottery on April 10, with preference given to residents of District 3.

At the JCC in Manhattan session, Gedzelman gave an overview of the school’s highlights — differentiated learning, small student-teacher ratio, chess instruction and specially designed curricula about immigrant communities in Israel and Harlem, absolute separation of church and state.

Aware that the parents might also be considering private schools, or competitive “gifted and talented” programs, Gedzelman noted that the Harlem Hebrew application is very simple: “No ERBs [admissions exams], no essay, no interview.”

Then came the questions.

“Will my son be bored if he already speaks Hebrew?” (No, the students are divided into “fluid” groups according to level, with “heritage learners” taught separately from non-native speakers.)

“Will there be school on Jewish holidays?” (The school will follow the Department of Education calendar, but children won’t be penalized for missing school on religious holidays.)

“Will children celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in school?” (“We teach about all different kinds of holidays; we’re cross-cultural about holidays,” Gedzelman said. “They learn about various winter holidays” but the school will have neither a Christmas tree nor a Chanukah menorah.)

“What kind of security will you have?” (“More than your average charter school, but I can’t publicly discuss the details.”)

The school’s diversity was another subject of interest among the parents, with many skeptical that a Hebrew charter school would attract a diverse group of applicants.

“Once I spread the word to my friends, there will be 300 Israelis applying,” said one Israeli woman, who said she has an older child in an Upper West Side public school. “I don’t know how you will balance that with your diversity requirements!”

Gedzelman emphasized that organizers are doing a lot of outreach in various communities of Harlem, including Corinthian Baptist Church and a West African mosque whose imam he knows.

“That’s awesome!” exclaimed another Israeli woman. “I love that! I wish they would have something like that in Israel.”

Nonetheless, she wondered aloud, “Why would people who aren’t Jewish be interested in this kind of program?”

Possible answers could be found a few days later in the lobby of the Police Athletic League, where Maureen Campbell — the HCSC’s regional director of recruitment and outreach — was holding court.

A Harlem native and Hunter College High School alum who graduated with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Campbell is the type of person, who seems capable of striking up a conversation with anyone — and making him or her feel like a valued friend. “Hey, moms,” she called out warmly to two women milling about her information table waiting for their children to be released from the after-school program. “Do you have any questions about the school?”

Campbell pressed brochures on everyone who came near, urging them, if they didn’t have a child of the appropriate age, to think about whether they have a friend, niece or nephew who might be interested.

Initially slated to do her session in a room on the third floor, Campbell moved to the lobby to “meet parents where they are” and catch the foot traffic from the after-school pickup time.

One father, Greg Monk, chatted with Campbell for a few minutes and afterwards said that, even though he had not known about the Hebrew charter school before, he was going to consider it for his daughter Savannah, currently in kindergarten at a neighborhood public school.

“It sounds like a great idea,” he told The Jewish Week. “I’m going to bring this to the attention of [Savannah’s] mom.”

Asked what he thought of the

school’s Hebrew focus, he said the idea of a secular school teaching Hebrew seemed “shocking” because “Hebrew is sacred language No. 1.” However, he emphasized that as a “Bible-believing person,” learning Hebrew would be “a wonderful thing.”

While a handful of parents gathered round, Campbell offered some of the school’s selling points: free, a small student-teacher ratio, specially designed curricula on immigrant communities in Israel and the history of Harlem, differentiated learning, chess — and diversity.

When Campbell noted that there would always be at least two teachers in a classroom, a mother standing next to her exclaimed, “That IS awesome!”

“I like the diversity, learning a different language and being around other cultures,” remarked another woman. “This neighborhood is expanding, and I want my child to be part of that.”

Parents asked about admissions and discipline issues, with one woman complaining that at some nearby charter schools if a child literally steps on the wrong side of a line or moves in his or her desk the teachers reprimand him.

“This is not like that, it’s not rote-learning-all-32-children-open-the-same-book-at-once,” Campbell responded. “It’s differentiated, children with special needs are not excluded, we teach children to respect each other.”

“You don’t have teachers getting into kids’ faces?” asked the woman, and Campbell assured her that the teachers wouldn’t be like that.

Amanda Hargrove, one of the parents crowding around Campbell — who was later joined by Gedzelman and Natman — told The Jewish Week she likes “basically everything” she has heard about Harlem Hebrew so far and that she has already submitted an application for her daughter, who is going into kindergarten.

“I learned about this through Corinthian Baptist,” she said, noting that the church’s pastor, Rev. Michael Walrond, is on the school’s board, and urged congregants to attend an information session after Sunday worship services.

Hargrove, who lives in Harlem and has an older child at a KIPP charter school, said, “My pastor is huge on education, so if he endorses something you know it’s good.”