Hebrew Public Charter Schools and Creating Global Citizens

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Hebrew Public is leading a national network of diverse public charter schools that teach Modern Hebrew to children of all backgrounds. The school prides itself on preparing students to be successful global citizens. You can visit Hebrew Public’s website here (https://hebrewpublic.org/about-us/). In this post, Foreigncy had the opportunity to interview Valerie Khaytina, who is the Chief External Officer of Hebrew Public, about Hebrew Public’s mission, language curriculum, and methods.

As a parent who has children enrolled in the Hebrew Public school, how has exposure to the Hebrew language improved your children’s educational experience and when did you first begin noticing that they were obtaining tangible Hebrew proficiency?

My kids picked up Hebrew the first week they joined HLA in kindergarten. Because we are using a proficiency-based approach in our schools, when students come on the first day, teachers immediately speak to them in Hebrew and never translate. They use gestures, pictures, and games to explain themselves. At first, the kids are just passive receivers of the information. Then slowly they begin to respond in short words and sentences. My kids had exactly that experience. After one week of school, my daughter was able to name body parts in Hebrew, say her name and who she lives with.

What is the team-teaching model and what does that look like in action?

We use small group instruction and differentiated approach to teach Hebrew. That means that we break down students by their language knowledge levels. For example, a student who comes from a Hebrew speaking home will be in a group with their peers. We usually have two teachers per classroom who work with students on different levels. They teach by grade levels and go from class to class.

One of our teachers, Morah Elana, has been with us since the opening of our first school in Brooklyn. She’s been a lower grades teacher for hundreds of students, graduated from Middlebury College School of Hebrew with a master’s degree and has been a lead teacher to many of our younger teachers who have been learning from her.

Through a special program called Arbel Fellowship, we bring Hebrew teachers from Israel on a two-year teaching rotation in our schools. Upon returning to schools in Israel, these teachers bring back all the new skills they’ve obtained from teaching at Hebrew Public. These teachers benefit a lot from the co-teaching model and from the professional development they get in our schools.

How does the school ensure that the students’ education in core subjects such as math and the humanities are not negatively affected due to Hebrew language instruction?

Research shows that foreign language studies improve overall education for students. We teach general subjects like in any other public school. Our school day is longer than in regular public schools, which allows us to teach Hebrew and offer more specials like sports, art and what we call “Olam Hour”.

OLAM is the Hebrew word for “world”, which we use as an acronym for our core values:

Outstanding achievers

Lifelong learners

Aware communicators

Making a difference

During OLAM Hour our students can pick specials that speak to their interests, from choir to knitting and everything in between!

More than that, Hebrew serves as a level playing field. Many of our students come from homes where they speak a language other than English. Because most don’t speak Hebrew, we learned that students are less shy about making mistakes and actually pick up English faster!

My own girls didn’t speak much English when they got to HLA. In a matter of a couple of months, they picked up both English and Hebrew!

The program encourages further Hebrew immersion during breakfast, lunch, recess, and has the Hebrew instructors encourage spoken Hebrew during those times. Can you give some examples you’ve seen of how instructors encourage speaking Hebrew during those times?

When we do scheduling, we try to assign Hebrew speakers for meal or recess duties so that they speak to the students in Hebrew. This way the students hear Hebrew throughout the day and not just during class. Because Hebrew teachers only speak Hebrew to students, they get very surprised if they hear teachers speaking English to their colleagues!

It’s often said that children are like sponges when it comes to second-language acquisition. How true is that statement from what you’ve seen in the first couple of years that a student is enrolled in the program?

Definitely true. Within a few short weeks, students are able to say Hebrew words and speak in basic sentences. They know how to say their name, they know colors, what the weather is like outside and how to count to ten. Because they start learning Hebrew at such an early age and from native speakers, they have the most authentic Hebrew accent with a beautiful Hebrew sounding “reysh”!

Do non-Jewish parents enroll their children in the program and if so, what are the benefits they see in their children learning Hebrew?

Most of our students are non-Jewish (anecdotally because as a charter school we don’t ask families their religion). There are many reasons why a family would choose our school. Some families are simply looking for a better school option while others are searching for any foreign language immersion program. There are those who particularly seek Hebrew because they have heard that Israel is a startup nation and want their kids to know the language so that they may go to study in an Israeli university. For many of our families, it’s the global citizenship aspect of our mission and the focus on diversity that drives them to enroll their children.

How active is the school in evaluating new methods, tools, or technologies to enhance Hebrew language instruction and what are the qualities you look for in a Hebrew instructor?

Great question! We are lifelong learners! We are constantly reviewing and refining our Hebrew language instruction. We learned a lot since we opened our first school. We learned that while it would be amazing to have a small student to teacher ratio, it is not always feasible due to financial limitations and due to the difficulties of finding great Hebrew educators. We are refining our model to have better teachers. We are creating our own curriculum, we work with Middlebury College on program evaluation and professional development and we have our own Hebrew educator taskforces to improve and enhance everything from lesson plans to visuals that immerse students in Hebrew and Israel throughout the school building.

It’s hard to find great educators and it’s even more difficult to find amazing Hebrew teachers. We work closely with Middlebury College, World Zionist Organization and Talma: The Israel Program for Excellence in English to recruit the best educators possible. We also have our representative in Israel that helps find outstanding Hebrew teachers. We look for teachers who are lifelong learners, who will embrace and celebrate our diverse students, who are passionate about teaching and the Hebrew language, who are ready to roll up their sleeves and make a difference!

How do you all support continuing Hebrew education for your alumni?

When students leave us after 8th grade, we have an alumni program available for them. The programming is focused around our core mission and we bring them opportunities to keep up with their Hebrew skills, volunteer and participate in internships.

This summer we will be piloting a volunteer summer program in Israel for our alumni who are now in high school. We also offer online Hebrew lessons for alumni and, for many of them, that’s the only way to maintain their Hebrew skills. Students who participate regularly are those who have the potential to continue their mastery of the language.

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