Hebrew charter schools are not going away.
Enthusiasm for these publicly funded institutions, which are aimed at immersing a diverse group of students in Hebrew, is rising with the general tide of support for charter schools all over the country. They appear determined to ride out any controversy they may have provoked and prove they are true public schools rather than religious schools hiding behind foreign-language clothing.
Spurring this movement is the Hebrew Charter School Center, the nearly 2-year-old organization started in large part by Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish investor and philanthropist behind a variety of initiatives, including the co-founding of Taglit-Birthright Israel. So far, only two schools — in Brooklyn and New Jersey — are part of the center’s network, but there are eight more in the planning stages, and the center’s goal is to have a total of 20 spread out geographically in various states within the next five years.
And now for the first time, the center has an executive director, one who is familiar with how charter schools work. In many ways, he connects the Hebrew-language schools with the charter movement more generally. Aaron Listhaus, 50, stepped into the job in January. He had been the chief academic officer of New York City’s Office of Charter Schools for a year and a half, overseeing 69 city-authorized charter schools.
This job topped a career of more than two decades with the city’s education department in which Listhaus worked at a variety of jobs, from teacher to principal to developer of new schools. He was attracted to a job that would be less about holding charter schools accountable and more about creatively developing new ones, he said — plus there were signs that this was the right career move. Listhaus attended Yeshiva Rambam School in southern Brooklyn when he was a boy, and it’s this school that now rents out space to the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, the first school in the center’s network. In many ways, he said, he was coming full circle.
Listhaus sees great hope in charter schools, and describes them with a strong sense of promise and opportunity. “The school system in general is a very large beast, and school organizations need to be smaller and much more nimble,” he said. “When you talk to veteran school people, they will tell you the analogy is the difference between the energy it takes to turn around an ocean liner versus turning around a 20-foot sailboat.”
That’s a refrain often heard these days in education circles. Whether driven by the popularity of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which celebrates charter schools, or by the fact that 1.5 million students nationally now attend such schools — a number that has doubled in the past six years — the sense of momentum behind these schools is palpable. Local and federal governments are also increasingly providing more incentives to pursue this path. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged that by the end of his current term, he will double the number of charter schools and triple their enrollment, putting 100,000 children in these schools. President Obama has also been supportive, reserving $4 billion in competitive educational aid — an initiative known as Race to the Top — for those states with pro-charter policies.
“We are still very much the newest kid on the block,” said Sara Berman, Steinhardt’s daughter and the board chair of the Hebrew Charter School Center. “But I think our schools are a great affirmation of what the charter school movement is trying to do, providing innovation and choice.”
It’s this kind of energy that Listhaus says he wants to make sure to take advantage of in leading the center. He points out that the schools employ a model of dual-language learning that is particularly well suited for charter schools, which are not bound by many of the same rules and regulations as regular public schools.
Language is integrated into all the subjects, as opposed to being reserved for just one class. Hebrew is used, Listhaus said, as a “mode of expression” instead of “just teaching you how to conjugate verbs.”
“Charter schools are the perfect place for dual-language schools, because in order to do that well, you really do need to do things differently than the way district schools tend to treat languages,” Listhaus said. For observers of the charter school movement, it makes sense that Hebrew-language schools would both tap into the arguments normally made in their support and stake a claim to offering a new type of choice. This puts the center in line with the dozens of other groups promoting these schools for various reasons.
“The charter movement is a movement of strange bedfellows,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College who has written extensively about charter schools. “There are folks who are very aggressive promoters of charter schools for very different reasons.”
Given the principle of greater choice that underlies the push for charter schools, the larger movement does not seem to discriminate about whom it includes in its ranks.
“They offer a different kind of school, with a different focus and a unique design,” said Peter Murphy, policy and communications director of the New York Charter Schools Association, a statewide advocacy group. “But the bigger point is that they are meeting a demand. I don’t think they have any shortage of students wanting to apply to their schools.”
Still, even though a school like Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy has melded into the New York City educational landscape, there are those who continue to question the motives behind Hebrew-language schools, echoing some of the skepticism that greeted the country’s first English-Arabic public school, Brooklyn’s Khalil Gibran International Academy.
“There are still concerns that both the Hebrew and Arabic schools are intended to be, or could end up, indirectly straddling some issues between church and state,” Henig said.
Berman said she thinks this has ceased to be a major issue. “I no longer feel that people think we’re opening day schools on the sly,” Berman said. “What I think I rub up against are people who are anti-charter. They may use the religion argument in our case because it’s an easy straw to grasp.”
Joni Berman, who has had a career in the mainstream charter school movement and recently became head of school development services at the Hebrew Charter School Center (and is not related to Sara Berman), said she came to her new job with the same concerns. Having set up schools in Arizona and Maryland, she wanted to make sure that the Hebrew charter schools had untainted motives.
“It’s easy for that question about religion to rise up to the surface. But if you look into the schools, it’s impossible to hold on to that perception,” Berman said. “It’s not even that we’re avoiding teaching religion; it just has nothing to do with it. You hardly hear any other advocates worried about this anymore. They see it as an exciting development. They see it as just another good option in the charter school movement.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman