Some Parents Hedging Bets On Englewood Charter

Complaints of lack of communication from founder as state deadline nears.

07/05/11
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It’s a common trope: the lottery winner who discovers his or her fortune to be less of a than a blessing than it first appeared.

Now, some New Jersey parents whose children won spots in Shalom Academy Charter School’s admissions lotteries this winter and spring are wondering if they were so lucky after all.

With the first day of classes two months away, much about this brand-new Hebrew charter school in Englewood, which many Jewish parents had hoped would solve their tuition-related financial challenges, remains unclear — including whether it will actually open.

“If it does miraculously work out, it’s going to be chaotic the first year,” said one Teaneck mother who recently decided to turn in a contract to keep her child in a local yeshiva even though the child had one of the 160 spots at Shalom, which is tuition-free and open to children from Teaneck and Englewood.

The mother, who asked not to be named, added, “We were happy with the yeshiva anyway; it was just a matter of the money.”

The K-5 school’s founder, Raphael Bachrach, has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Growing numbers of parents, many of them Orthodox Jews who would otherwise have enrolled their children in yeshivas, are voicing concerns about whether the new Hebrew-immersion school will open — and if it will offer a quality educational program.

Meanwhile, a new effort to start a low-cost yeshiva in Bergen County is moving forward, with parlor meetings and fundraising. Temporarily called Yeshivat He’Atid (Yeshiva of the Future) that school’s board includes Gershon Distenfeld, treasurer of Jewish Education for Future Generations and chair of its Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools (NNJKIDS) project. Tamar Snyder, a staff writer at The Jewish Week, is also on the board. Yeshivat He’Atid’s leaders declined to be interviewed.

Shalom Academy’s charter, approved in January by the State of New Jersey, has been challenged in court by the Englewood Public School District, which argues that the new school will impose too much of a financial burden on the district and will undermine its efforts to racially integrate. The suit, says district spokeswoman Caryn Furst, is “in a waiting pattern” until mid-July, after the New Jersey Department of Education evaluates the school.

Alan Guenther, director of the department of education’s Public Information Office, declined to answer Jewish Week questions about Shalom Academy, submitting this e-mail statement in mid-June: “The school will be evaluated in July, and the Department will decline further comment until that evaluation is completed.”

One parent told The Jewish Week that an official in the department’s charter school office informed her that Shalom Academy was required to submit all outstanding paperwork by June 30. Asked on July 5 to confirm whether this was true and whether all the paperwork had been received, Guenther said, by e-mail: “We have nothing to add to our earlier statement at this time.”

The main source of Shalom Academy parents’ concern is the minimal communication they have received from Bachrach.

One mother, Merav Yankovich, responded to a Jewish Week query with an e-mail message saying she is “thrilled to have this opportunity to be part of the new charter school family” and that “the charter school [has] showed very professional and organized attitude with regards to the registration and answering parents questions.”

However, she did not respond to follow-up questions from The Jewish Week, and she was the only parent to share such sentiments.

In contrast, many parents complained that their calls and e-mails to lead founder Bachrach have gone unreturned, that the location for the school has yet to be announced and that they have received only minimal information about the staff hired so far. There has also been no recent information provided about Hebrew Options in Public Education, a nonprofit (also run by Bachrach) that was to offer an optional after-school Judaic studies program.

“I wouldn’t send my dog to a kennel that I know this little about,” said one Englewood mother who decided to pull her children from the charter school and instead enroll them in a yeshiva.

Like most other parents interviewed, she asked not to be named, explaining that Bergen County’s Orthodox community is tight knit and she is reluctant to get ensnared into a public conflict.

Several parents who are still hoping to send their children to the charter school if it opens as planned said they are remaining anonymous so as to stay on Bachrach’s good side — and many are double-registered at Jewish schools, as a backup plan, and do not wish to make their situation known to the yeshiva.

By most accounts, Bachrach, a businessman, father of five and member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Englewood, is making most decisions for the school on his own, without consulting any other lay leaders.

The school’s board of trustees has not yet been announced, and the only contact information listed on the school’s website is Bachrach’s phone number and a general e-mail box (info@shalomacademycharter.org).

According to one source, Bachrach has not even shared information with the six other founders listed on the charter application, saying he is reluctant to send e-mails for fear they could be subpoenaed in the EPSD’s lawsuit.

None of the founders agreed to speak for attribution, and most did not respond to The Jewish Week’s e-mails requesting an interview.

While the founders may have been kept in the dark, they have been referenced in e-mails to parents.

For example, a May 13 e-mail announcing the hiring of the principal, Harriet Eisenberg and signed simply “SACS” said, “Shalom Academy Charter School acting Head of School Elizabeth Willaum, Founders, Board of Trustees, and search team are pleased to announce our principal...”

Both Eisenberg and Willaum are former administrators with the Englewood Public School District; however, their names and biographies do not appear anywhere on the school website, nor have their biographies been shared with parents. In addition, it is unclear who constitutes the search team.

One father of children registered for Shalom Academy told The Jewish Week, “Charter schools are supposed to be more responsive, more transparent than public schools, but ... Shalom Academy is actually operating with less transparency and responsiveness than public schools. They don’t seem to understand they are operating a public institution.”

Other parents, while concerned, are more forgiving.

“I understand the reasons for [Bachrach] controlling what information goes out,” said one father. “There are a lot of political sensitivities; there’s pressure from all sides, from both the Orthodox day school community [which sees Hebrew charter schools as a threat] and the Englewood Public School District.” Noting that he is “optimistic” that the school will open, given that Bachrach has assured him it will, the father acknowledged that he is less sanguine about how good it will be, given the last-minute nature of all the planning.

Shalom Academy is not the only new Hebrew charter school hitting stumbling blocks.

The brakes have been put — at least temporarily — on two proposed Hebrew charter schools in Manhattan that had been aiming to open in September 2012.

The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center — which is not working with Shalom Academy but has been instrumental in the establishment of the New York area’s only two operating Hebrew charter schools (in Brooklyn and East Brunswick, N.J.) — recently withdrew its application for a Washington Heights school and temporarily withdrew one for an Upper West Side/Harlem school.

In addition, the Jess Schwartz Academy, a financially struggling Scottsdale, Ariz., day school that had been working with HCSC in efforts to re-invent itself as a Hebrew charter school, decided last month to abandon the charter school plan, instead merging with a larger Phoenix day school. And HCSC-assisted planning groups in San Diego and Minnesota are delaying projected opening dates.

Funded by Areivim, a coalition of major Jewish philanthropists led by Michael Steinhardt, the HCSC originally planned to open 20 Hebrew charter schools nationwide by 2015.

“To open a school well takes a huge amount of work by a bunch of committed people, and when people stop and say we need to tweak this, or spend more time thinking about professional development, or where the teachers are coming from, you need to spend more time,” said Sara Berman, who chairs HCSC and Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy, and is Steinhardt’s daughter.

“Delays are common, but all the planning groups we’re working with are in good shape and are on their way to opening,” she added.

Asked about the decision this month to pull the application for Harlem Hebrew, a proposed school in a district serving central Harlem and most of the Upper West Side, Berman said, “We want a little more time to work on the application, to make sure we consider the population, so that the school really reflects the community and that we have dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘T’.”

Berman said HCSC plans to re-submit the Harlem Hebrew application “at the next possible round” that the New York State Education Department accepts applications.

“We are as committed as ever to opening a school there, but we want to make sure we don’t rush anything,” she added.

As for Sosua, a proposed school in Washington Heights that was receiving HCSC support and withdrew its charter application in May, Berman said, “We have asked Sosua to slow down because we don’t feel like we have the capacity to help two groups in the city at once.”


Charter Growth Continues In Florida

While some Hebrew charter school efforts here in New York and New Jersey — as well as in Arizona, Minnesota and California — are hitting snags and delays, Florida’s Ben Gamla network of schools is blazing ahead at full speed.

This fall the network, which was founded by former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) and opened the nation’s first Hebrew charter school in 2007, expects to enroll approximately 1,600 students in five schools throughout South Florida. One will be the nation’s first Hebrew charter high school, a “laptop school” that will combine online and in-person learning.

Ben Gamla also has a $375,000 federal startup grant to establish a charter school in Pinellas County, which encompasses St. Petersburg, and is training three principals “in anticipation of opening at least three additional schools a year from August,” Deutsch told The Jewish Week in an e-mail.

The Ben Gamla schools account for the lion’s share of Hebrew charter school growth nationwide.

It is not entirely clear why the state has proven such fertile ground for Hebrew charter schools, but there are a number of potential factors.

The network — Deutsch’s first school opened two years before Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School (HLA) opened — has had a head start, albeit a relatively modest one.

It also is situated in a state where the charter school movement “has exploded,” according to a recent article in the Miami Herald.

It reported that nearly 10 percent of all public school students in South Florida now attend a charter school, and enrollment “is almost certain to balloon,” thanks to recent state legislation making it easier for new charter schools to open and existing ones to expand.

Charter application and approval processes and requirements vary considerably from state to state. For example, whereas in New York and New Jersey, charters are granted by state agencies, in Florida and California local school districts grant charters.

Ben Gamla’s Deutsch said he could not comment on other Hebrew charter school efforts around the country. However, he attributed his network’s success to its “providing an amazing product that parents are very happy with.”

He also noted that “the model we’re using is scalable,” with little supplemental fundraising necessary, and that local school boards approving charters “have a pretty high comfort level in terms of what we’re doing.”

E-mail: julie.inthemix@gmail.com

Last Update:

07/06/2011 - 12:40

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