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A look inside a new Philly charter school where kindergartners learn Hebrew

The Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School drew more than 600 applications for 160 seats, as parents continue to seek out alternatives to the school district.

Kindergarten students, Aiden Swaayze, left, and Liam Romero, right, look back during circle time at the Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School last week. Philadelphia Hebrew opened this month and is a charter school that teaches modern Hebrew to students.
Kindergarten students, Aiden Swaayze, left, and Liam Romero, right, look back during circle time at the Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School last week. Philadelphia Hebrew opened this month and is a charter school that teaches modern Hebrew to students.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

One morning last week, parents led their kindergartners and first graders to the doors of a former East Falls medical center.

“Say ‘Shalom,’” one woman instructed her son, kissing him on the head. “See you at 3.”

It was the second week at Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School, which opened this month in the Falls Center on Henry Avenue, part of a network of charters that started in New York and teach modern Hebrew.

The publicly funded schools are non-religious, though the network’s largest philanthropic supporter, billionaire Michael Steinhardt, has described charters as a way to build Jewish identity.

While the schools promote modern Hebrew, “the primary goal” is “to provide an amazing education to our kids,” said Hebrew Public CEO Jon Rosenberg. He said he is “constantly in the position” of explaining that the network — which started in 2009 with one school in Brooklyn and now manages four locations and supports six affiliates across the country — is not a religious or advocacy organization.

For some Philadelphia parents, the new school appears to be a means to another end: finding an alternative to the city’s school district. About one-third, or 70,000, of Philadelphia public-school students attend charters, and many parents continue to seek out the schools.

» READ MORE: ‘We never thought we’d get in’: The tense wait for a Philly charter school seat

“From what I’ve heard, from neighbors, ... they all basically said the same thing: The school system is really bad,” said Charles Wright, a security supervisor who lives in Oak Lane. His 5-year-old son, Ethan, started kindergarten at Philadelphia Hebrew this month, after Wright submitted one of more than 600 applications the school received last year for 160 available seats.

A native New Yorker who moved to Philadelphia eight years ago, Wright said family and friends in New York knew of Hebrew Public’s schools there. He liked the prospect of his son learning a third language: Ethan, whose mother is Hispanic, already speaks English and Spanish, said Wright, who is African American.

“It would be awesome for him to have several languages under his belt,” Wright said.

Like other schools in the Hebrew Public network, Philadelphia Hebrew bills itself as “diverse by design.” Based on what families self-reported, the school says 72 percent of students are African American or black, 14% are multiracial, 11% are white, and 2% are Asian. In terms of ethnicity, 10% are Hispanic or Latino. Most students — 61% — qualify for free lunch.

Charter schools have been controversial not just for their financial impact on school districts, but also for the students they serve. In Philadelphia, the schools serve a more affluent, advantaged population than the rest of the district, according to a report earlier this year by the Education Law Center.

» READ MORE: Report: Philly charter schools serve more affluent, advantaged students than rest of district

Emily Hurst, the school’s executive director, said it was “really intentional" about choosing a location that could draw a diverse population. She said she examined the area’s history, reviewing Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining maps from the 1930s that graded neighborhoods for lending risk, discriminating based on racial makeup. East Falls sits near the intersection of several neighborhoods defined in those maps, Hurst said.

Teaching Hebrew is another factor in creating a diverse setting, attracting Israeli and Jewish Americans in addition to African American and Latino students, said Rosenberg, the Hebrew Public CEO.

The school doesn’t track the religion of its students, but among the Jewish parents who enrolled their children are Eli and Laurel Freedman, who live in Kensington and whose daughter, Josephine, started kindergarten at the school this month.

Eli is a rabbi at Rodeph Shalom, and Laurel’s parents are Israeli. For Josephine “to speak Hebrew would be a dream to us,” Eli said.

Students get 50 minutes of Hebrew, four days a week, taught by native speakers. The language is taught through the “proficiency model,” with teachers speaking only Hebrew during lessons.

During a lesson last week, students drew their faces. Yoffi, one of the teachers commented, meaning “great.”

Earlier in the day, kindergarten students learned more fundamental lessons. Responding to a teacher’s question on how to be a good listener when conversing with someone, Josephine Freedman said, “You can look at them, be serious. ... And don’t lie in kindergarten.”

Her parents said they considered their neighborhood district school in Kensington. That school has “a burgeoning Friends group,” Eli Freedman said. But he and his wife believed that “it wasn’t there yet" in terms of parent involvement.

Freedman believes that charter schools “automatically have a higher level" of parental engagement, because parents choose to send their children to them. “That’s who I want my daughter to go to school with,” he said, adding that “more money makes a huge difference” in school quality.

The school has been bolstered by outside money, receiving $800,000 from a $4.9 million federal grant Hebrew Public was awarded to expand its network, and an additional $600,000 from the Philadelphia School Partnership. The grant from the partnership, which supports charter, district, and private schools in the city, has the potential to grow to $1.5 million over four years.

The grants have allowed the school to start with fewer students than many Philadelphia charters, which are funded by the district based on enrollment. Despite only having 160 students — the school is approved to grow to 702 in grades K-8 — it has a nurse five days a week and an art teacher, said Hurst, the executive director.

Hebrew Public is also “mindful of the impact" a new charter has on the district, Rosenberg said. By starting with just two grades, “we’re hoping, in both the politics and the reality of it, that it has a more incremental impact.”