Charter schools often are designed to serve students with shared interests or needs, but when the students are all the same religion and school provides classes in that religion’s culture and language of prayer, well, it doesn’t feel right. Ben Gamia Charter School — publicly funded but independently run — promises Florida students will learn the Hebrew language and culture without crossing the line between church and state. Jewish groups have expressed concerns about the K-8 school, which drew 800 applicants, double its capacity.
“To me, it’s very obvious that we’re not teaching religion,” said Rabbi Adam Siegel, the school’s director. He previously directed two private Jewish day schools in Miami Beach. “Religion is prayer, it’s God, it’s Bible. And so if you stay away from there, you’re not teaching religion.”
. . . Hallandale Beach resident Margaret Schorr is sending her daughter Hannah to kindergarten at Ben Gamla and said she was told clearly the girl would not receive any religious education. She thinks concerns have been valid, but have ignored the fact that religion already has a place in public schools.
“If I were to send her to any other public school, you better believe that come December, she’d be learning Christmas carols,” she said.
In New York City, Khalil Gibran International Academy, a district-run public school for grades 6-12, will teach Arabic language and culture — if the school opens. Opponents fear the school will teach Islam and anti-assimilationist attitudes. The principal just resigned after defending Intifada in NYC T-shirts sold by a woman’s group with which she shares an office. A group called Stop the Madrassa is trying to persuade district officials to fold the school, which is scheduled to open Sept. 4. Oddly enough, the school hasn’t attracted many students from Arabic-speaking families. Seeking 60 students, the school has enrolled 44; most are black children who speak no Arabic.
Update: The district has named an interim principal named Danielle Salzberg. Which sounds Jewish.
An Arabic-English charter school near Minneapolis, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, posted excellent reading scores for its K-7 students, many of whom come from African immigrant families. Discipline is strict: A student who called his teacher “ugly” was suspended for disrespect.
TIZA has a waiting list of more than 1,000 students. Zaman believes that’s because of the school’s focus on both academics and discipline. He also thinks the school is a welcoming place where Muslim children won’t be harassed for their religion.
“Here, the girls are not getting teased because of their head scarf,” said Zaman. “The boys are not being called little terrorists.”
The school provides “a time and place for Muslim students to pray, if they choose to,” the Minnesota Public Radio story says. Girls aren’t required to cover their hair with a scarf, an Islamic tradition, but all of them do.
The school does not seem to be controversial in the Twin Cities, perhaps because it’s built a track record of teaching English well.