Brooklyn's first publicly funded Hebrew-English dual-language school is set to open in August, with 150 kindergarten and first grade students — and one principal who doesn't speak Hebrew.
Founders of the recently approved Hebrew Language Academy Charter School have hired Maureen Gonzalez-Campbell to head the school, which is still searching for a space in Community School District 22.
Some suspect the selection of Gonzalez-Campbell, who isn't Jewish, was intended to blunt criticism of the planned school, which opponents fear will promote Judaism and blur the separation of church and state.
'Makes no Sense'
"It makes no sense to have someone who does not speak Hebrew as principal of a Hebrew language school," Diane Ravitch, a noted education professor at New York University. "This appears to be a political decision to minimize controversy."
But Gonzalez-Campbell doesn't believe her religion was a factor in her hiring.
"I am the most competent person able to do this job," she said. "They were looking for a principal for their school and that's what I am."
Gonzalez-Campbell – a former teacher, principal, director of bilingual education and deputy superintendent of the Mount Vernon Public Schools – defended her qualifications and cited her experience with foreign languages. She learned Spanish as a second language, she said, as well as enough American Sign Language to communicate with her daughter, who is deaf.
"I will be an adult learner alongside my students," she said. "I would like to be able to communicate with my children in the hallway and look at their student work and be able to translate what it means."
An 'Extensive Background'
Melody Meyer, a Department of Education spokeswoman, noted there are more than 70 dual-language programs in city public and charter schools. She added that Gonzalez-Campbell has an "extensive background" in such programs.
But Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, said hiring Gonzalez-Campbell "defies an educational explanation."
"The new approach to principals is that they need to be experts on the knowledge and best instructional approaches to the main educational themes of the school," he said.
Levin also worries about what he called the increasingly thin line between religious and cultural education, and doubts that appointing a non-Jewish principal will prevent religion from creeping into instruction at the Hebrew school.
"It makes it appear that the religion will not intervene," he said, "but what happens two or three years from now when she leaves and someone else comes in?"
The school will open two years after the controversial Ben Gamla Charter School, the nation's first Hebrew-English charter, began classes in Hollywood, Fla. That school drew intense criticism because it offers koshers meals and was initially headed by an Orthodox rabbi.
In Brooklyn, another charter school, The Khalil Gibran International Academy, sparked controversy when it opened its doors in 2007. Despite efforts to convince the public that its Arabic-English dual-language program was secular, a group of vocal critics suggested the school would teach Islam and breed terrorists. The founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, resigned under pressure before the school opened and was replaced by an educator who did not speak Arabic.
Resistance to the Brooklyn Hebrew school inspired newspaper opinion pieces and blog entries, but hasn't produced the level of controversy that engulfed the Ben Gamla and Khalil Gibran schools.
Saul B. Cohen, the only member of the state Board of Regents to vote against the plan – one other person abstained from voting – noted the Hebrew school would not well serve the largely black, Hispanic and Asian area. He said he doubted there is a need for an entire school devoted to learning Hebrew.
"If there's an interest in having Hebrew instruction, then the public schools can offer it," he said.
'Alive and Kicking'
Sara Berman, co-lead applicant on the Hebrew school proposal, is the daughter of Michael Steinhardt, a philanthropist known for promoting Jewish identity, who has pledged $500,000 in annual funding for the school. Berman said learning Hebrew benefits children, regardless of their culture.
"The founders of our country studied Hebrew, the great Enlightenment thinkers studied Hebrew," she said. "There is a spoken living Hebrew that is alive and kicking."