Hebrew Charter School Movement Shows Signs of Growth — and Growing Pains

With Schools in N.J., N.Y., Fla., Calif. and More on the Way

Hungry for Hebrew: Students at the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn interact in class.
Courtesy of the Hebrew Language Academy
Hungry for Hebrew: Students at the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn interact in class.

By Andrew Brownstein

Published February 09, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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Less than a decade old, the nascent Hebrew charter school movement is experiencing growth and growing pains.

The most visible sign of the movement’s expansion is the appointment of Jon Rosenberg — an experienced civil rights attorney and not-for-profit manager — to be the first president and CEO of the Hebrew Charter School Center, a network of six schools that is headquartered in New York City. Lauded for his fundraising expertise, Rosenberg said his goals include opening more schools across the country.

“I want to chart an expansive vision of what this network of charter schools and the Hebrew charter school movement can do,” he told the Forward in a telephone interview.

Rosenberg replaces Aaron Listhaus, former chief academic officer of New York City’s charter school office, as head of the organization. Listhaus will retain the title of executive director of the center, and he will focus on academic support for its schools.

The transfer of power underscores HCSC’s shifting priorities. While well known as an educator and as the leader of the center’s Hebrew immersion program, Listhaus has little experience raising funds. Rosenberg, by contrast, doesn’t even speak Hebrew. HCSC officials, however, noted that during his tenure as CEO of Repair the World, a national organization supporting Jewish service-learning programs, the organization’s budget nearly doubled, rising to $5.5 million from $3.1 million.

One HCSC official said Rosenberg’s appointment “represents the next phase of the organization.”

“It became clear that the lead professional of the center really needed to be someone with experience growing an organization and needed to have a different skillset,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “Jon is not an educator. He is by experience a lawyer and knows the charter school space very well. He’s really smart. He understands organizational growth, and he has experience raising money.”

That said, Rosenberg is no stranger to the world of education. He said the job “captures a lot of threads that are really important to me.” He worked as a senior civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration, and was deputy general counsel of Edison Schools Inc., one of the nation’s leading for-profit charter management companies.

He likes the racial, ethnic and economic diversity of the center’s schools — a makeup that matches what Rosenberg calls “my family narrative.”

“My wife and children are biracial, African American and Ashkenazi,” he said. “Being able to lead an effort where we develop schools that combine education about Israel and the culture and history of its immigrant communities, really stellar proficiency-based education in Hebrew in a diverse public school context, is just a home run.”

Rosenberg’s appointment comes on the heels of another recent announcement that raises the center’s national profile. Sara Berman, chair of HCSC’s board, was named to the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The center was founded in 2009 with the goal of creating 20 charter schools across the country. Two years earlier, the nation’s first Hebrew charter school was founded in Florida under the auspices of a separate organization, the National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation. Ben Gamla operates four schools, all in Florida, though the foundation has plans to open schools in other states. The Florida schools are hugely popular and use lotteries to deal with the intense demand for places.

“We’ve tapped into a market that hadn’t really been discovered before,” said Sharon Miller, principal of Ben Gamla Hollywood, Fla., the nation’s first Hebrew charter school. “There’s certainly interest among families to have their children learn the Hebrew language in a secular environment, but at the same time explore their heritage and their roots.”

But, as both organizations have found, expansion sometimes brings growing pains. Over the summer of 2013, a Ben Gamla school in Clearwater, Fla., closed abruptly after the national organization withdrew support for it. The school performed well academically and had no apparent financial problems. The closing appears to stem from the view of Ben Gamla’s national leadership that the school’s local board in Clearwater had wrested too much control — a stance that some observers found to be ironic, since charter schools are designed to increase local governance. A writer for the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute called the episode a “study in bad charter school governance.”

“That school has not reopened, and that is a sadness for us,” Miller said. “But unfortunately, there were many things that happened there. It didn’t work. Sometimes that happens.”

The HCSC has not been immune from bad publicity. Last November, the center’s school in Brooklyn received an “F” in New York City’s annual grading of schools.

While calling the grade “concerning,” Rosenberg said it was a “dramatically incorrect overstatement in terms of the school’s overall performance.” He noted that the report card was based on the performance of just one cohort of students on the new assessments for the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

“The school’s overall performance would put it in the top third of elementary schools in the city,” he said. “None of this is to say that that school shouldn’t improve, and it will improve.”

Nonetheless, Rosenberg praised the high quality of the center’s offerings, indicating that his goal would be to move more of its schools from “good to great.”

“As we start to perform as an excellent network of schools, then the case for growth becomes much clearer,” he said. “The case for opening more schools will make itself.”

Marya Levenson, director of Brandeis University’s education program, underscored that message. Brandeis, along with Vermont’s Middlebury College, had been working with the HCSC to help support Hebrew proficiency in its schools. But after one phase of the project was completed, a planned second phase was put on pause.

“There aren’t as many schools as they anticipated coming online,” Levenson said. “I think they are moving to add more schools, but to do it in a thoughtful way, where they are able to build good capacity.”

Rosenberg said that during his tenure at Edison, he learned many “hard lessons” about the perils of charter expansion. For example, the politics, rules and regulations surrounding charters vary widely from state to state. The HCSC currently has schools in New York, New Jersey, California and Washington, D.C., and is in discussions to open in other locations.

Expansion would also tax the center’s Hebrew language immersion experts — what Rosenberg calls “boots on the ground” — to train teachers and staff in the field. It is a costly proposition that will draw on his fundraising expertise.

“I’m mindful of the complexity of doing that in a variety of different locations — not daunted by it, but mindful,” he said.

Andrew Brownstein is an education journalist working in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact him at brownstein@forward.com

This article was updated on February 10.


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