At a meeting for prospective parents held by the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, Gene Ryan didn’t need much convincing.
“Two teachers to 22 students; it’s a no-brainer,” said the former member of the East Brunswick Board of Education who has three children between the ages of two and seven.
“In charter schools — and Hatikvah in particular — children truly come first,” said Ryan, whose two youngest now attend preschool at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick.
Other parents said they were eager to embrace an option to increasingly strapped public schools, and plans calling for small class sizes and full-day kindergarten at the charter school also piqued their interest.
Addressing the prospective families on May 12 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in East Brunswick, organizers of what would be, pending final approval, New Jersey’s first Hebrew-language charter school said they had already filled more than 80 percent of its slots, with another lottery scheduled for May 20.
The school plans to start the 2010-11 school year by renting a separate facility behind the Trinity Presbyterian Church and has reached an agreement with the Campus for Jewish Life to build a facility on its Dutch Road property.
Colin Hogan, the newly named founding principal, also addressed the parents.
Meanwhile the campus is in discussion with a funding partnership established by Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and the late William Davidson, according to CJL executive director Robin Kessler. The Hebrew Charter School Center of the Areivim Philanthropic Group provides seed money and free consulting to aspiring Hebrew-language charter schools throughout the country.
Hatikvah has already received $50,000 to cover application costs, said center spokesman Dan Gerstein, and has finalized an agreement for another $25,000 grant to cover start-up costs.
According to the center, CJL has applied for funding for after-school supplemental Jewish education and camp enrichment programs for students attending Hatikvah.
“We’re looking to make the campus a 12-month-a-year entity,” said Kessler. CJL was formed after the YM-YWHA of Raritan Valley in Highland Park closed several years ago. The Y used the East Brunswick location for its day camp and swim club and is raising funds to build a Jewish community center on the site. Kessler said students attending Hatikvah would be offered discounts at its Y Country Day Camp.
“We think the whole community will benefit from” the partnership with Hatikvah, said Kessler. “It will take our camp site and make it a bustling community year-round as opposed to the three months during the summer. It will fill that site with young families and help to build the community Jewishly.
“It could be the engine behind the building of a Jewish community center,” said Kessler. “because it will be a hub for Middlesex County Jewish families, which is what our agency is about. This will give us a real presence in the community.”
But building Jewish community was not the main goal of all the families attending the information session. As Steinhardt’s foundation has discovered, the Hebrew-language charter concept has appeal beyond the Jewish community.
The Hebrew Charter School Center already works with the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, where 40 percent of the students are not Jewish, according to center spokesman Dan Gerstein.
“There’s an assumption in the Jewish community that only Jews would want to go to a high-quality Hebrew-language school,” he said. “We’ve found that’s just not the case. Forty percent are black, Hispanic, and Asian, and the overwhelming majority are black because it is located in an area with a large West Indian population.”
As public schools, charter schools are prohibited from teaching religion. Hatikvah, which is open to students of all backgrounds, can teach only Hebrew language and culture.
Doreen and Lin Tsai, natives of Taiwan, were among the parents at the information session for Hatikvah. They said they were attracted to the school for their two young daughters by its full-day kindergarten. They saw no problem with their children learning Hebrew.
“English was not our first language,” said Lin.
Doreen said the couple felt “it was definitely a benefit” to know many languages in today’s global environment and technologically advanced society.
“These days people need to share information,” she said. “We see a lot of benefits and we are here to get information.”
Alex Shraga, who is an Orthodox Jew, is a member of the 10-person Hatikvah school board.
He said he thinks Hatikvah will offer “an outstanding education and a unique educational opportunity,” and added that the international baccalaureate model the school has chosen is “world renowned.”