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Children of various backgrounds study at Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, says principal Naomi Drewitz. Courtesy Hatikvah International Academy Charter School

Shalom Academy, a charter school set to open in September with Hebrew-language immersion as its stated purpose, is facing a legal challenge from the board of education in Englewood, one of the two districts it is approved to serve. The other is Teaneck, which is awaiting the outcome of the Englewood challenge.

The academy, proposed by Raphael Bachrach of Englewood, was granted a charter by the state on Jan. 18 after four rejections. The Englewood school board has filed an appeal in Superior Court, asking it to overturn the approval.

Englewood’s appeal is based on two points, as spelled out in a written statement – demographic and financial. The district notes that 97 percent of its students are members of minority groups, and it is under an integration order. The statement says the Hebrew immersion school “would appeal to a population that will be almost entirely white.”

The statement continues: “This would create two separate public education programs within Englewood: one virtually white and the other virtually minority.”

The issue of funding is also raised in the appeal. The statement says the students who applied to attend Shalom Academy come from “private and/or religious schools. This significantly increases the number of students included within the district budget at a time of cuts to public education funding.”

Englewood is projecting a budget of some $64.5 million. The projected costs for charter school students is some $2.9 million, up $702,000 from last year, the increase being the projected cost of Englewood students going to Shalom Academy. Under the law, school districts are required to fund charter schools on a per pupil basis.

Another charter school, Englewood on the Palisades Charter School, serves Englewood students in grades K-5. The Teaneck Community Charter School serves pupils in K-8.

While Englewood is challenging the approval, Teaneck is taking a wait-and-see approach. “We’re very interested in the case, but at present we are not taking the legal route,” Barbara Pinsak, interim schools superintendent, told The Jewish Standard. “We understand Englewood’s position,” she added.

According to Pinsak, Teaneck school officials still don’t have details about Shalom Academy. “We’re waiting for student numbers,” she said. “Who are the students? Do they represent our diversity?”

Teaneck is still working out the budget details, but the total will be some $86.5 million. This includes some $5.9 million for pupils in charter schools, with some $1.4 million of that for Shalom Academy. “We’re grappling with that right now,” Pinsak said.

Charter schools are authorized by the state. Among their goals, according to the State Department of Education website, are to “increase the availability of choice to parents and students” and to “encourage the use of different and innovative learning techniques.”

Charter schools cannot charge tuition, and “all teachers and staff must be properly certified.” Enrollment is open to all students on a space-available basis, with preference to those living in the district. As of January there were 73 approved charter schools in New Jersey.

Charter schools are run independently of the public school district. “We have no management role,” Pinsak said. “They run their school and we run ours.”

Funding must be supplied by the local school district, according to the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, and can be up to 90 percent of the per pupil cost in that particular district. The exact amount depends on a state aid formula, and charter schools can raise more funds by their own efforts.

In New Jersey, school budgets are subject to voter approval in the board of education elections, this year April 27. If the budget is rejected, it goes to the municipal governing body, which can recommend cuts and send it back to the school board. The board can either accept the cuts or appeal to the state. The board is obligated to fund approved charter schools, so there is no room to cut there.

The school budgets in both Teaneck and Englewood were rejected by voters last year.

Bachrach, who led the campaign for Shalom Academy, did not return telephone calls. In an earlier public forum, according to published reports, it was announced that the school will open in the fall with 160 students chosen by lottery from Teaneck and Englewood. It would then increase by 20 per year to a maximum of 240.

Initial plans were for the school to be K-8, but approval is for K-5. It was unclear as of this writing how many students have applied to the school, and if a location has been arranged.

The school’s website (www.shalomacademycharterschool.org)maintains that “Shalom Academy Charter School will graduate students that are proficient in the Hebrew Language. Intertwined in the attainment of this competence will be the development of attitudes, skills, knowledge, and responsibility essential to successful achievement in school and society.”

While the concept of a Hebrew immersion school is controversial, one in East Brunswick is a success, according to its principal. The Hatikvah International Academy Charter School serves 106 students in grades K-2 and is doing “really well,” Principal Naomi Drewitz told the Standard.

Asked if the students were all Jewish, she said “absolutely not.” The diverse makeup includes children of African-American, Chinese, and Indian backgrounds representing a spectrum of religions, she said.

The school has “nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with religion,” Drewitz said. “We study the nations of the world” as part of the curriculum, she said, noting that many of the students speak different languages at home.

Criticism comes from those who don’t understand the school’s mission, she said. The “highly rigorous” program uses language to “open the minds of children.”

Learning Hebrew is valuable because it is “one of the world’s first tongues,” she said. The youngsters learn conversation first, and the language’s phonetic nature makes for a “natural progression to writing.”