At 4 p.m., kindergarten and first-grade students exiting the classrooms of a new Harlem charter school bid goodbye to their teachers, saying, “Have a nice day” and “See you later”—and “Shalom.”
That's because they go to Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, which opened late last month on St. Nicholas Avenue and 118th Street.
The school, which offers an intensive Hebrew immersion program in addition to regular classes, was started by the Hebrew Charter School Center, a nonprofit founded to advance Hebrew education through dual-language charter schools.
The center has opened Hebrew charter schools in East Brunswick, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and San Diego, with a new school coming to Los Angeles. Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, the center's flagship school in Brooklyn, opened in 2009.
The Hebrew Charter School Center chose Harlem as the location for the school because of opportunities to build a school with a diverse student body, spokesperson Dan Gerstein said.
“There was an opportunity to build together, to put together a diverse planning group, and then attract a really diverse student body between the families that live in the Upper West Side and in Harlem,” Gerstein said. Because of a positive response to the Brooklyn school, the center was “encouraged to start a second school using the same model,” he said.
Students at the school arrive at 8 a.m. for a meeting where they greet one another in Hebrew. A typical school day lasts until 4 p.m. and consists of Hebrew class, reading, writing, math, social studies, and science, depending on the grade. Each class—26 or 28 students with two teachers—has physical education every day, music four days a week, and a service learning course once a week.
Head of School Robin Natman said that the school—which currently includes kindergarten and first grade but plans on adding a grade each year—aims to help students develop a global perspective.
“I think that we're teaching our children to be global citizens by learning another language, by learning about the history and culture of different people around the world,” Natman said. “I think we're creating citizens of the world, and I think that's going to be significantly different than other schools.”
Though skeptics may challenge the usefulness of Hebrew relative to more widely spoken languages like Spanish and Chinese, Natman said that learning any language helps students do better in their other classes and be more creative.
“We just want to expose children to our second language, Hebrew, and to the history and culture of Israel,” she said.
Because the school is a public school, it must remain secular despite its association with Hebrew, a requirement that Gerstein said the center takes seriously. While the school does “teach about Hebrew culture and the history of the Jewish peoples,” the curriculum includes “no promotion or connection to Judaism,” Gerstein said.
Kaliyn Bell of East Harlem was picking up his son, a first-grader at Harlem Hebrew, last week. He said that he chose the school for several reasons: “To learn a different language. There are more opportunities, after-school programs. It offers a little more than a regular public school.”
Bell said that despite being a bit unhappy that there was no school bus service to East Harlem, he was satisfied with his choice.
Another first-grade parent, Natasha Pallan, said she was attracted to Harlem Hebrew's diversity when choosing a school for her son Vikram.
“I really wanted him to be at a great public school where he could make really good friends with all different types of races,” Pallan said. “This is really the only school I found that is, you know, just sort of organically happening.”
Pallan said Vikram is already gaining Hebrew language skills.
“He knows how to write his name,” Pallan said. “He's learning words here and there, and he's in the place where he's trying to learn enough vocabulary where at some point he can actually break through and start thinking and speaking in Hebrew.”
Christian Zhang contributed reporting.
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