A charter school focusing on Hebrew-language instruction and Middle Eastern studies may open in Philadelphia in the fall. Or maybe not.
Center City businessman Steve Crane and others are so optimistic about the school's prospects they are refinishing the oak floors of a Vine Street building in anticipation of students' arrival in September.
Crane said the school is permitted under Pennsylvania's 1997 charter law because it will not teach religion. And lawyers have advised that the proposed Hebrew Language Charter School does not require approval from the School Reform Commission because it will operate as a satellite of the World Communications Charter School at 512 S. Broad St.
The charter renewal the SRC granted World Communications in 2006 gave the school - which has 500 students in grades sixth through 12 - conditional permission to add students and open a second campus.
But Benjamin W. Rayer, an administrator who oversees the district's charter school office, said Friday that World Communications would have to get permission before beginning a Hebrew-language program or adding a campus.
The 2006 SRC resolution that renewed World Communications' operating charter for five more years said the school would have to obtain district approval before opening a second site.
"I have no idea who Crane is," Rayer said. "He can't open a charter school without an application and approval of the SRC. And anything with World Communications would have to be done through World Communications."
Rayer said officials at World Communications told him they had explored offering a Middle East studies program but were not moving ahead with the idea. He said World Communications had not submitted any documents about the proposed Hebrew-language school.
But Crane said plans for the proposed Hebrew charter accelerated this spring when it found support from World Communications.
"Sometimes the stars line up in an unanticipated manner, and that's what happened here," he said.
World Communications opened in 1997 with a mission of training urban and suburban students to meet and compete in global society. Ninety-four percent of its students are African American; 5 percent are Hispanic; 1 percent are multicultural.
Martin Ryder, founder and chief executive of World Communications, wrote in an e-mail to The Inquirer: "The board of trustees of World Communications has reviewed the request from Mr. Crane and determined that the demand for a school focused on Middle East studies is insufficient to require a campus or a course of studies."
Crane, though, insisted that Ryder and his board have said that once the Hebrew-language charter demonstrates "sufficient student enrollment, World Communications will proceed with further preparations so the school can open, be it in 2010 or 2011."
Ryder did not respond to an Inquirer request seeking confirmation.
Crane said his group would follow district requirements.
"If they tell us we need to nudge this, nudge that, we're going to do whatever they say," Crane said. "We're looking for compliance both in spirit and in technicality."
He said organizers had been holding meetings throughout the city to describe the school to prospective students and their parents. Over the next several days, sessions are scheduled for West Oak Lane, Society Hill, and the Northeast.
The planned school has been advertised in the Jewish Exponent, and that newspaper has reported on the proposed charter school.
Proponents have not yet distributed admission applications, but Crane said the school had generated strong support. The project has attracted such interest in the Russian immigrant community that organizers had printed brochures in Russian, he said.
People have been talking about setting up Hebrew-language schools since the charter movement took off in the 1990s, Crane said.
"I don't want anyone to think we're unique," he said. "A lot of people have been thinking, 'Gee, why can't there be a Hebrew-language charter school?' "
Hebrew-language charters have opened in Florida and Brooklyn, and the Hebrew Charter School Center in New York City has begun awarding grants to applicants seeking to open similar schools.
Crane stressed that the proposed school in Center City would not teach religion and was seeking a diverse student body.
"We don't anticipate this is going to be a Jewish school," he said. "Not only are all groups welcome, we are hoping to get all groups."
He also said the school would not compete with Jewish day schools in the area because it would be secular.
"There is no religious component," Crane said. "It's public money. It's not right to have a religious component."
He said the proposed academy would offer a rigorous, college-prep curriculum that would integrate Hebrew language, literature, and culture. It would highlight the contributions "of ancient Israel and other Middle Eastern countries to our modern civil society with a stress on law and ethics."
Crane said organizers expected the school to start with fewer than 200 students in grades six to 10 and to add 11th and 12th grades later.
The school would be on the third floor of 1209 Vine St. Crane is president of Telwell Inc., a real estate firm that owns the building.
The site had housed the Wakisha Charter School until it moved to North Philadelphia a few months ago.
Crane said he and other members of the founding group hoped to know by late June whether school would be ready to open in the fall. If that's not possible, they'll push for an opening in 2011.