(JTA) — On a bright autumn morning, Hebrew songs and phrases fill the sun-drenched, freshly painted blue and white classrooms of New York’s Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School.
A group of kindergartners, representing such an even mix of black and white children that they resemble a 1980s Benetton ad, clasp each other by the waist and dance in a “rakevet,” or train, stopping every few moments to add a new child who, as the teachers explain in Hebrew, is sitting nicely on his or her “tussik.”
In another room of the new institution, located in a former Catholic school on a gentrifying block in Harlem, first-graders place red and yellow chips on Bingo cards, each space designating a colored item of clothing to be identified in Hebrew. Children who lapse into English receive a gentle reproof from the teacher saying in Hebrew, “I hear English. Oy va voy!”
But while students at Harlem Hebrew were basking in the good vibes, its sister school, the 4-year-old Hebrew Language Charter School in Brooklyn, was dealing with the F it received a day earlier in the New York Department of Education’s annual grading of city schools.
Despite the Brooklyn school being named a “vanguard” school by the Hebrew Charter School Center, the national network with which both New York schools affiliate, leaders of the center say the poor showing doesn’t reflect on the quality of the Brooklyn school or on Hebrew charter schools generally.
“It’s in no way a setback for the movement,” said Rabbi David Gedzelman, a board member of both the Harlem school and the Hebrew Charter School Center and the executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, one of the center’s primary funders.
The F grade is an unusually poor showing for a Hebrew charter school, the bulk of which have done well on state evaluations. Three of the four schools in the Ben Gamla network in Florida earned A’s in 2013 from the state ranking system, which is based on test performance and other factors. The fourth got a C.
The only other center school besides Brooklyn to be tested so far — the Hatikvah International Charter School in East Brunswick, N.J. — ranked in the 99th percentile of a statewide evaluation of academic achievement.
Launched in 2009, the Brooklyn academy was the first school founded with financial and technical assistance from the center. By some measures, the Hebrew Language Academy has been a success. Its profile on InsideSchools.org, an online guide to New York public schools, is filled with enthusiastic parent testimonials. In recent years, the school has received more applications than it has openings.