The man behind a Florida charter school that features Hebrew language instruction wants to replicate the school in New York and eventually nationwide, the Sun reported yesterday. Ben Gamla Charter Academy, which is opening this month with a kindergarten through 8th grade, will teach Hebrew language one period a day and offer another period of Hebrew-English dual language instruction. The school's founder hopes to bring a Ben Gamla clone to New York in the next couple of years, taking advantage of the recent lifting of the cap on charter schools.
Ben Gamla NYC sounds like a controversial prospect. Opponents of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public secondary school focusing on Arabic language and culture set to open in September in Brooklyn, have accused the school of being a "public madrassa." In fact, they recently filed Freedom of Information Act requests to find out whether the curriculum will have Islamic content, even though DOE officials have repeatedly assured critics that the school will be using standard curriculum packages. So are those same people worried that Ben Gamla NYC could be a "public yeshiva" that will inculcate students with Jewish culture and religion?
Those who have said they are opposed to all schools that cater to a single population don't like the idea of a Hebrew charter school, and the Anti-Defamation League told the Sun it's concerned that Ben Gamla may be skirting the line between church and state. (It's unclear how many Ben Gamla students are Jewish. About 20% of students are transferring from Jewish day schools. The school has been eager to mention the fact that 20% of students self-identify as Hispanic; of course, those kids might also be Jewish.)
But many of the most vociferous Khalil Gibran opponents don't see a problem with Ben Gamla. A member of the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" told the Sun, "It's just so much different with Arabic because there's so many instances of the language being wrapped up with the religion, whereas Hebrew it's not." Right.All kids should have the opportunity to learn foreign languages and about other cultures. Arabic and Hebrew are just as worthy of being taught in the city's public schools as Spanish, French, or Latin. But it's a serious problem for the city if controversy over schools' themes distracts from discussion about how the schools are going to serve their kids before they even open, and if the only language kids can choose to learn is the one their grandparents speak. I'm willing to bet that most parents would rather enroll in a school with a number, rather than a fancy themed name, if it meant their kids would get a well-rounded education free from angry protest.