Hundreds turn out to hear about Hebrew-immersion program

Hundreds turn out to hear about Hebrew-immersion program

A Hebrew-immersion program in the Englewood public schools took a baby step at a meeting last week attended by the parents of about 630 children.

Raphael Bachrach, the program’s architect, and Richard Segall, interim superintendent of the Englewood school district, discussed some of the possibilities and restrictions for the proposed curriculum, to be taught in Hebrew and English, particularly the challenge of keeping it secular.

Almost 300 people of the roughly 400 there noted in a survey that they wanted to move forward with the program, according to organizers.

Bachrach, an Englewood man, last year tried to create New Jersey’s first Hebrew-culture charter school. The state rejected his proposal in October, citing its strong religious influence, and he then began working on Hebrew immersion based on an existing Spanish model in the school district. He began speaking with Segall about creating a program within a new elementary school for the 2009-10 school year.

“Clearly there’s a very strong interest,” Segall told The Jewish Standard after the meeting. “I believe we ended up with some happy people, some satisfied people, and some frustrated people.”

The frustration, he said, was mainly from people who live outside of Englewood. If created, the program would be free of charge only to Englewood residents. Students from outside the district would have to pay a state-mandated fee of approximately $14,000.

Bachrach said he and Segall are looking to one possibility that might eliminate the charge: attaining magnet status for the school. Englewood’s Dwight Morrow High School is a magnet school, a status that allows applicants from around the state to attend the school for free. Englewood received the state’s “school of choice” designation as a way to bring more non-minority students to the high school, which is predominately black and Hispanic. The unbalanced racial make-up has led to accusations of segregation.

The magnet status applies only to the high school, while the immersion program is being planned within one of the district’s elementary schools.

“We’re really convinced that the magnet status is important and we’re actively pursuing that,” Bachrach said.

Some parents within the district wanted assurances that the program would not draw funds away from other programs. Segall said enrollment in the program would determine its budget and funding. The class sizes would have to be comparable to other classes within the school. The Spanish dual-language program, he said, has approximately 160 kids spread across six grades.

“If we don’t have the numbers, we can’t do it cost-effectively,” Segall said. “If we can’t do it cost-effectively, we’re taking [funding] from somebody else and that will not be acceptable to the community.”

Religion remains one of the largest barriers to overcome. Some parents were looking for more Jewish education, while others were looking at the possibility of supplementary after-school programs. While the immersion program would allow for some cultural and geographic lessons about Israel, the program would have to be stripped of most religious significance to meet state guidelines.

The school district has been in touch with the Israeli Consulate about educational materials, Segall said. He emphasized at the meeting that the program would not be a replacement for day-school education.

“We laid out for them that the board of education will be involved in the process,” Segall said. “Anything we create that is going to support this program has to stay within existing or revised board policy.”

Bachrach said most people told him that they favored some compromise with the district’s restrictions.

“There’s definitely a bell curve,” he said. “There are people who don’t see it as a compromise and people to whom it’s beyond the ability to compromise.”

One attendee from Teaneck, who spoke after the meeting on condition of anonymity, said that while he remained dedicated to day-school education, he hopes the program is successful so that it can be duplicated elsewhere.

Day-school tuition, he said, has gotten out of control to the point where a family with three children making $150,000 a year is living in poverty.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the Orthodox Union’s kashrut administrator and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Shomrei Emunah, said curiosity drew him to the meeting.

A Hebrew-language-only program within the public school could appeal to families uninterested in day schools, those with special-needs children who would receive services from the district, and Israelis looking for intensive Hebrew classes for their children. It cannot, Genack said, be a substitute for day school. “A Hebrew-language program is not enough to sustain a Jewish identity,” he said.

Genack was also concerned that a Hebrew-immersion program could pull students away from the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools.

The stakes are high, he added, and educators need to “think creatively” to make yeshivas more efficient and quickly address the problems within the system.

“Jewish survival depends on Jewish education,” Genack said. “In the absence of Jewish education, it’s an enormous challenge for a kid to survive Jewishly.”

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