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L.A.'s first Hebrew-language charter school raises questions

Lashon Academy is to teach modern Hebrew, have no religious component and aim for a diverse student body. But some worry that dual-language charters blur the line between public and private schools.

February 04, 2013|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times

When Lashon Academy opens its doors this fall, its students will be taught to read and write in both English and Hebrew — a first for a public school in Los Angeles.

But the approval of the charter school last month has raised concerns that it and others, particularly dual-language charters, blur the line between private and public campuses by accepting public money to cater only to a certain demographic.

Lashon Academy, planned for Van Nuys, is modeled after the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., which opened in 2009. Others have been approved in Harlem, N.Y., and San Diego. Charters are independently run and publicly funded.

The school is to have an hour of Hebrew instruction every morning, with the rest of the day spent on other subjects. Instructors, if they are able, will conduct such classes as art, music and physical education in Hebrew.

The Los Angeles Board of Education approved the charter application unanimously, with one member absent. But Tamar Galatzan, who represents Van Nuys, said she suspects some charters are "private schools masquerading as public schools."

"I'm generally supportive of choice," she said. "This is a choice that parents should make, and it's called private school."

Officials with the Hebrew Charter School Center, a New York-based nonprofit, dismiss that notion, saying their schools — including Lashon — are no different from any other dual-language program and will enroll a wide variety of students.

L.A. Unified has more than 200 charter schools, nine of which are dual-language instruction. These include schools that teach Spanish, Korean, German and even Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs.

The Hebrew Charter School Center helped Lashon's officials craft its application and provided financial backing. The center's executive director, Aaron Listhaus, said Van Nuys was chosen specifically to tap into the diversity in the area — a concentration of low-performing elementary schools, students from low-income families and non-English speakers.

"We understand people's concerns, and it's easy once the school opens to just open the doors and say, 'This is who we are,' and the concern goes away," he said.

Since its opening in 2009, the Hebrew Language Academy charter in Brooklyn has drawn a diverse student body, Listhaus said. In 2011 the school enrolled 52% white students, 42% black and 4% Latino. More than 60% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator.

Lashon is "a public school," Listhaus said. "We take that very seriously, and we understand that we're entrusted with public dollars to give an education to all public school students."

The Hebrew Charter School Center provides seed money for the campuses with which it works. Lashon Academy received a planning grant of $35,000 and, following its approval, a $50,000 start-up grant. The school will also receive $250,000 for the first three years of the school's operation and additional funding as needed, Listhaus said.

"We're going to work with them so they have everything they need to fulfill their mission and execute an excellent school," he said.

The funding is in addition to the state and federal funding the school will receive as a charter.

The Hebrew Charter School Center is backed largely by Michael H. Steinhardt, a retired hedge fund manager and philanthropist who has given hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Israel and Jewish causes.

Those associations, as well as the link between Hebrew and Judaism, bring the relatively new concept of these schools more scrutiny than other dual-language programs, Listhaus said.

Students at schools associated with his center are taught modern Hebrew — not biblical Hebrew — and because there is no religious component, school leaders have found that Jewish families tend to opt instead for Jewish day school.

Hebrew, Listhaus said, is a secular language that students would benefit from just as much as any other.

"Hebrew is a language spoken by a very vibrant country that is one of the largest trading partners in the U.S. and most individual states," he said. "There are numbers of dual-language programs out there, and Hebrew is as good a language as any."

But the choice of location strikes Galatzan as a deliberate move to attract students from nearby Jewish neighborhoods — which could push out neighborhood students.

The school expects to initially enroll about 290 students in kindergarten through second grade, aiming for about 660 students in kindergarten through sixth grade by its fifth year.

"Choice is great," Galatzan said. "But I want to make sure this a choice that any family in the district would look at and feel welcomed."

To their credit, she added, the charter operators have detailed plans in their application to attract students from different backgrounds, and Galatzan plans to keep an eye on its progress.

"They developed a very aggressive outreach plan to attract a diverse group of students," she said. "I'm interested to see how it works."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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