LAUSD OK’s English-Hebrew charter school

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has given a green light to a proposal for a dual-language charter elementary school to be located in Van Nuys offering classes in English and Hebrew. 

Lashon Academy is the first Hebrew-language charter school to be approved by LAUSD, which has previously approved charters for dual-language immersion schools teaching other languages. 

The school board unanimously approved the petition for the school, whose name means “language” or “tongue” in Hebrew, on Jan. 15. But while LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan voted to approve the petition, she voiced skepticism about Lashon. 

“I have grave concerns about this school and schools like it,” she said at the meeting. “I think they’re really private schools masquerading as public schools.” 

Charter schools are publicly funded and do not charge tuition. LAUSD has approximately 230 charter schools operating in its district, more than any other school district in the United States.

The Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), a New York-based nonprofit backed by mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, helped Lashon’s local board craft its petition and has been seeding Hebrew-language charter schools across the country. Lashon is the sixth HCSC-supported charter to be approved nationwide since 2009 and the second to be approved in California, following the approval of Kavod Elementary Charter School in San Diego in March 2012. 

Josh Stock (whose last name is listed as “Feigelstock” on the 390-page document approved by LAUSD) is Lashon’s lead petitioner; he said Lashon’s curriculum would be modeled after the first HCSC-established school, Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is now in its fifth year. 

HLA’s curriculum focuses on the “culture of Hebrew and Israel and its immigrant communities,” and each classroom is staffed by two educators, one English-speaking and one Hebrew-speaking. Lashon will use that model, despite California’s awarding charter schools less funding per pupil than New York state does. 

“As our schools get up and running, they typically rely on philanthropic dollars to make up for funding gaps,” HCSC Executive Director Aaron Listhaus wrote in an e-mail, adding that when the schools reach capacity, the public funding can cover their costs.

Lashon’s success in winning board approval for its charter petition comes after a series of rejections to petitions by another local charter program offering Hebrew, the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEALAS). A charter high school offering Hebrew as a second language opened in 2010 in Santa Clarita, but subsequent petitions by the nonprofit to establish an AEALAS elementary school were rejected by three different Los Angeles-area school districts. AEALAS has not formally submitted a charter to LAUSD, however. 

LAUSD approved Lashon’s charter for five years, but it’s unclear whether the school — which has not yet hired a principal or secured a facility — will be ready to open its doors to students by fall 2013. 

Most of the five members of the school’s board are Jewish. Pastor Jim Tolle, who is the spiritual leader of The Church on the Way, an Evangelical church in Van Nuys with approximately 15,000 Latino members, is the board member in charge of doing outreach for the school, which is to be located in the Van Nuys area. Most of his congregants are Latino, and Tolle, who is a fervent supporter of Israel, is charged with helping ensure that Lashon’s student body is reflective of the surrounding neighborhoods. 

The school’s outreach plan was key to its approval, Galatzan said at the LAUSD meeting, adding that she’d be watching the school’s enrollment closely. 

“I just want us to keep an eye on these programs because this to me sounds like a private school that’s publicly funded, if the only kids who are going there are white, Jewish, Israeli kids from the Valley,” she said. 

“They’re in Van Nuys for a reason,” Galatzan added, alluding to the proposed school’s proximity to more Jewish areas nearby. The school, according to its petition, is to be located somewhere in a 30-square-mile area stretching from Valley Village to Canoga Park. At least five private Jewish elementary schools are located in or near that area. 

Stock disagreed with Galatzan’s characterization of Lashon. “At the end of the day, Lashon Academy is a public school,” he said. “There’s nothing Jewish about it.”

To watch the LAUSD school board vote: