Hebrew charter school opens in Clearwater with 70 students
When Ben Gamla Charter School opened in Clearwater on Aug. 20, it became Pinellas County’s first public school to offer Hebrew as a second language – a development Rabbi David Weizman, president of the county’s Board of Rabbis, views as a positive development for the Jewish community.
“We feel it is good for the community. The loss of the Pinellas County Jewish Day School (PCJDS) was very hard for us. This is not exactly a replacement, but it is something to bring the Jewish community together and to offer Hebrew, which is important to Judaism … It is a new school and we understand it is in the process of development but are hopeful it will be good for the children and help to unify the community again.”
PCJDS, a private school which offered Hebrew and both secular and religious education, closed amid financial troubles in 2010.
As a public charter school approved by the Pinellas County School Board, Ben Gamla is open to all students free of charge, and cannot have any religious activities,. It will teach Hebrew and Israeli culture and history as part of its Hebrew program.
For those families who want Jewish religious instruction for their child, Rabbi Weizman noted that this will be offered in an optional component of an after-school program at the school campus.
Outside of a crying first grader who did not want to leave his parents, and a few parents getting their children to school late due to Belcher Road construction, Principal Dr. Jayme Joslyn said the first day went smoothly.
She and two Pinellas Ben Gamla board members who were on hand, Eric Lynn and Dave Wein, said they were pleased with enrollment for the inaugural year and are looking forward to future growth.
On the first day, the school had 70 students in kindergarten through fifth grade enrolled. Earlier this year Joslyn had said she hoped to open with 100 students and to have eight teachers. Plans call for Ben Gamla to add a grade a year until it offers classes from k-12.
The school is leasing classrooms from Temple B’nai Israel at 1685 S. Belcher Road in Clearwater. There is one classroom for kindergarten, one for first and second graders and one for third through fifth graders, with additional classrooms available for expansion.
The school has four teachers and a teacher assistant. Joslyn said. One of the teachers, Mora Levi, spends an hour a day in each classroom teaching Hebrew language and culture. “The focus of the class will be literacy and conversational skills presented through a cultural perspective. Students will participate in activities that expose them to Israeli art, music, and dance,” the school website states.
The school will also offer an hour of physical education. Those in kindergarten will use the preschool playground next door. The other Ben Gamla students will use a field behind the school parking lot.
The school has a dress code and offers kosher meals at lunch, though students can bring their own lunch if they want. It is the fifth member of the Ben Gamla family of schools that began in Hollywood, FL, in 2007, founded by former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch. The other four Ben Gamla schools are in south Florida.
Not long after the first Ben Gamla school opened, the Broward County School Board suspended Hebrew instruction at the school because the curriculum referred to a website that mentioned religion. That issue was resolved. The south Florida Ben Gamla schools have also been criticized as undermining private Jewish day schools that offer religious instruction but can not offer the free tuition that the charter schools do. That is not an issue in Pinellas County.
Joslyn and Pinellas Ben Gamla board member Eric Lynn said that school officials intend to be careful not to violate separation of church and state principles. When asked how many of the students at the school are Jewish, Lynn said, “We are not allowed to ask that question, so I can not tell you. I don’t know.”
At least one parent dropping his first-grade twins off at the school on opening day said his family is not Jewish, but Greek Orthodox. “We like the overall system and personalized learning our kids will get,” said George Melissas of Clearwater. He said he heard about the school from a Jewish friend. “Learning Hebrew is nice, different from the basic Spanish classes,” he said, adding that his children also are learning Greek at home and he plans to take them to the Holy Lands for a visit some day.
Nichole Melamed of Seminole, said she was attracted to the school for her son, Gilad, because of the Hebrew instruction and because, “I believe in the differential learning – that lessons are taught to the children at their own abilities.” She said her son is in first grade and is a bright kid. “The mix of him being in the same classroom with second graders is nice because he can be pushed in some areas.”
She said the school “feels like family. He gets the love he needs and to grow, too.”
She said she plans to be an active volunteer at the school – something the school not only encourages, but requires. Parents must complete a minimum of 30 volunteer hours per year per family.
Melamed said she liked the fact that not all the kids at Ben Gamla are Jewish because “they can meet kids of other cultures, so it is the best of both worlds.”
The lack of religious instruction at Ben Gamla is not a problem for her, she said, because Gilad goes to Sunday school at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg, “so he gets his religious school training there.”
Possible conflicts with sharing space with the temple were worked out in advance. Because Ben Gamla must follow the public school calendar, and because some major Jewish holidays will fall on days when the school must be open, a provision of the lease with Temple B’nai Israel calls for the school to vacate the temple campus on those days. “In our lease agreement they will not be on the premises for High Holidays. … [For] All the major Jewish religious days, they will be gone. The school will still operate on those days, but they will be on field trips,” said Temple B’nai Israel Executive Director Barbara Bloom.
Joslyn noted that on Rosh Ha- Shana the students will leave for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary before congregants arrive for services.
Bloom noted that congregants and the Ben Gamla staff have worked well together to allow sharing of the same facilities while ensuring that the school not mix religion with education. The temple’s religious school is quite active, she said, and on Wednesday nights and Sundays uses the same classrooms that Ben Gamla uses.
Once the religious school students are finished, they have to make sure that nothing is left in the classrooms of a religious nature. “Hebrew or Israel displays are fine, but we must cover the mezzuzot so they are not on display when Ben Gamla uses the classes,” she said. “We have a large religious program, so our kids have to learn how to use shared space. Our teachers had to remind the kids that this is not all ours, which is a good lesson in sharing,” Bloom said. After-school program
While Judaic religious instruction is prohibited at Ben Gamla Charter School, it is available as an optional component of an afterschool program at the school campus, run by the Jewish Community Center Suncoast.
Ben Gamla officials sought bids for the after-school program and “we were thrilled to win the bid,” said JCC Suncoast Executive Director Ellen Katzman. She said the after-school program, called JDays, is offered from 2:30-6 p.m. after each school day. JDays will offer music, sports, homework and snacks for all. As an optional feature only for students whose parents want it, there will be a program known as Kesher – 90 minutes of Judaic instruction by Liz Sembler, an educator who also serves as director of community engagement at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg. Before the Pinellas County Jewish Day School closed, Sembler served there as director of Judaic studies.
Katzman and Rabbi Weizman both said they were glad to get Sembler to offer the program.
Kesher will offer “a camp-style experiential approach” that is designed to be “more active and more fun for the kids. …This will teach them about Jewish holidays and Shabbat,” Rabbi Weizman said.
“The board of rabbis has been involved in this after-school program and we have our name on it. It was important that we have input,” Rabbi Weizman said, explaining that Kesher “is not considered as a replacement for synagogue membership.” In order to ensure that parents do not regard it as such, parents can not sign their children up for Kesher unless they have a synagogue membership, he said.