Englewood, N.J. — A school district in New Jersey may become the first in the nation to create a Hebrew-language immersion track in a public school — and to supplement it with voluntary after-school religious classes paid for by parents in space rented from the district.
Proposed by Richard Segall, interim superintendent of schools in Englewood, N.J., the public-private partnership is in the planning stages and has yet to be approved by the school board. But it has already drawn interest from hundreds of parents, and concerns among Jewish educators that a public school alternative would drain students from area day schools. Recently, more than 300 people attended what had been billed as a small planning meeting, and most were parents of current day school students.
The proposed initiative comes as Hebrew-language charter schools are gaining popularity, with one school already running in Florida, a second planned to open in New York City next year and billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt gathering a group of multimillionaires to help support local efforts.
Unlike the charter schools, the Englewood initiative would be part of an existing elementary school, and students in the Hebrew-language track would mix with other students for lunch, recess and music. Beyond teaching Hebrew and using it as a language of instruction, the classes would follow the New Jersey Core Curriculum — as do similar dual-language programs offered in English and Spanish.
But the school district is also explicitly saying that classes in Judaism could be arranged and financed by parents as after-school activities. Questionnaires were circulated at the meeting to gauge interest in what classes should be offered.
The Englewood initiative grew out of a proposal for a charter school that was rejected by the state department of education. Segall had received a copy of the proposal, and when he looked through it he saw “common areas of interest” between his district and the proposal’s backers.
“We’re willing to engage in the dialogue to see if there’s a fit,” Segall said. “Do we have enough interest to make it work? Is it cost-effective? I think all is possible.”
Segall also has another aim: to promote racial integration. For Englewood, the proposed program would bring an influx of new students into a school district that is primarily black and Hispanic. The district is under a desegregation order, and must report desegregation efforts annually to New Jersey’s capital, Trenton, and every other year to the federal government.
Trouble is, much of the interest in the Hebrew-immersion school comes from outside the community. Many of those attending the public meeting came from neighboring towns and would not be eligible to enroll their children in the Englewood school unless they paid tuition. After the meeting, some residents of neighboring Teaneck said they would try to talk to their own school officials to discuss options.
These efforts, and the large attendance at the February 4 meeting, “reflect a real desperation” over the price of day school tuitions, said Yossi Prager, executive director of Avi Chai North America, which researches and advocates for day school Jewish education. Nonetheless, he said, “you cannot achieve in a public school setting what you can achieve in a day school setting.”
He elaborated: “Jews send their children to Jewish day schools to provide them with a strong Jewish religious identity, with socialization into a committed Jewish life, and to gain a literacy in a broad range of Jewish sacred texts. In a public school setting, the population will be more varied, making it harder to socialize people into Jewish religious life. The fact is that teaching the Jewish religion will be banned.”
Marc Stern, acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress and the organization’s longtime point man on church-state issues, also expressed skepticism. “This idea of harnessing religious education to public education goes back 90 years at this point. If you’re doing it honestly, it’s not going to work very well. It’s a poor substitute for a real religious education,” he said.