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Trying to Keep Religion Out of Charter Classrooms

Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy is the first Texas charter to offer Hebrew and one of two new charters to open in a Jewish center.

Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy charter school, San Antonio, TX, October 14, 2013.

SAN ANTONIO — At the Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy, a fifth-grade foreign-language class is taught entirely in Hebrew, with students shifting into English just long enough to translate words like “research” and “to overcome.” In middle school, these charter school students will take a class on Israeli culture. School officials say the class is in line with the state curriculum’s mandate to teach about the culture of the country where an 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. But in June the private school closed its doors. The new Kolitz Academy opened in the same space as a K-8 public charter with a $600,000 start-up grant from the Texas Education Agency. Enrollment increased to nearly 200 students 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 nearly 200 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, a religious freedom watchdog 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.”

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. 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,” 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 that “there is no affiliation between Great Hearts and Temple Beth-El except landlord and tenant,” and that the charter had investigated other options before settling on Beth-El.

Critics nonetheless have questioned the arrangement. “The school’s going to be right by Monte Vista, which is one of the few affluent neighborhoods,” said Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. She worried that some Great Hearts policies, like its lack of a bus program, “will make it difficult for low-income families to send their children there.”

In an email, Bezanson said the synagogue will offer Great Hearts "a central and accessible location."

Tracy Young, vice president for government affairs of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said that although few Texas charters reach leasing agreements with places of worship, they are often a logical choice. “You have a harder time going to an office building,” she said. Most places of worship, on the other hand, otherwise remain vacant on weekdays.

Davis said Kolitz Academy's leasing arrangement with the Jewish campus 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,” Davis said.

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