Charter Pulse

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TEXAS: Trying to Keep Religion Out of the Charter School Classroom

jewishSAN ANTONIO — At the Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy, a fifth-grade foreign-language class is taught entirely in Hebrew, with students shifting into English only long enough to translate words like “research” and “to overcome.” In middle school, these charter school students will take a class on Israeli culture. Officials say the class is in line with the state mandate that public schools teach about the culture of the country where the instructed language is spoken.

The academy, which opened in August at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Campus of the San Antonio Jewish Community, is the first Texas charter to offer Hebrew and one of two charters awarded by the state in 2012 to open in a Jewish center. School officials have faced questions over their leasing arrangements and the populations they serve, but they say they are keeping religion out of the classroom and are focused on serving a diverse student body.

Last year, the campus housed a different Eleanor Kolitz Academy, a private Jewish day school. The school closed in June. The new Kolitz Academy opened in the same space as a K-8 public charter with a $600,000 Texas Education Agency grant. Enrollment increased to nearly 200 from 80, with most students and staff members returning after the transition, school officials said. Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run.

“Our head of school is the same, and most of the staff was the same,” said Raphael Sonsino, a board member. “It was a very smooth transition.”

Kolitz Academy shares a building with a Jewish community center and a Holocaust museum, in a neighborhood “surrounded by pockets of high-income areas,” said Kathryn Davis, the school’s principal.

“But I feel very comfortable saying there is huge diversity in terms of economic status in our families,” she said. Twenty-three of the academy’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, above the 10 percent threshold required to join the National School Lunch Program.

Still, the transition has drawn criticism. “It’s a trend we’ve been seeing, that religious schools are converting to charter schools,” said Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group. The process is legal, he said, but it raises questions “about how students get accepted into the school and if there is follow-up from the state.”

Ms. Davis said logistics had fueled the decision to remain on the Jewish campus. Charter schools do not receive revenue from local property taxes or facilities financing from the state (although they do receive the same state money that traditional public schools do, based on attendance and other factors). By staying in the facility, “we were able to open a space that had been previously leased and was retrofitted to fit a school,” she said. “I think it has nothing to do with being tied to the Jewish community.”

“Hebrew is a modern language, just like any other language that is spoken in the world in a very secular way,” Ms. Davis said.

Eight miles south of Kolitz Academy is Temple Beth-El, with San Antonio’s largest Jewish congregation. Next year, Beth-El will lease part of its building to a different charter, Great Hearts Academies.

Peter Bezanson, superintendent of Great Hearts Texas, said there was no affiliation between Great Hearts and Temple Beth-El “except landlord and tenant.” Tracy Young, vice president for government affairs of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said that although few Texas charters reached leasing agreements with places of worship, they were often a logical choice. “You have a harder time going to an office building,” she said.

Ms. Davis said Kolitz’s leasing arrangement could change in coming years. Increased enrollment may prompt the school to search for a new building as it adds high school grade levels, she said. Demand has been significant so far, a development she attributes to the school’s reputation.

“There’s a feeling that education that Jewish people are involved in maintaining is going to be strong,” Ms. Davis said.

Source: The New York Times – by Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2013 by in Charter Schools, Texas and tagged , , .

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