Hebrew high opponents join charter protest

Hebrew high opponents join charter protest

Highland Park group organizing resistance to Tikun Olam school

A Highland Park group opposed to a Hebrew-language charter high school joined other charter opponents in a Dec. 16 demonstration in Trenton.

About 50 people “occupied” the State Department of Education in hopes of meeting with acting education commissioner Chris Cerf or a member of his administration.

The groups are seeking more local input into the establishment of charters.

The protest came on the heels of a boisterous Nov. 29 rally in Highland Park opposing the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School, which brought out a broad array of opponents, including state legislators, local government and school board officials, and members of the Jewish community.

Despite having submitted to Cerf petitions with more than 2,100 signatures and about 600 letters of opposition, Darcie Cimarusti, a member of the Speak Up Highland Park opposition group, said Tikun Olam opponents have not received a response.

Protesters chose Dec. 16 because opposition responses were due that day. Tikun Olam has made its fourth bid for approval as the state’s first Hebrew language charter high school.

Cimarusti said Trenton protestors came from Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Teaneck, South Orange, Maplewood, Montclair, Edison, and Highland Park.

Many opponents want more local say in the establishment of charters, which they say divert local public school funding for “boutique” programs, including language-immersion charters like Tikun Olam.

The Trenton event “was the ‘mom’ version of the Occupy movement,” said Cimarusti. “We left after an hour because we had to get home for when our kids came home from school. But, much like those in the Occupy movement, we represent the 97 percent majority whose children go to traditional public school. We don’t understand why the state is giving all the attention to these charter schools while they won’t give us the time of day.”

The Highland Park rally at the Bartle School was also organized by Speak Up Highland Park. DOE representatives also declined to attend that meeting.

Sharon Akman of Highland Park, who submitted the Tikun Olam application as a “lead qualifying founder,” has not responded to many requests by NJJN for comment. Edison qualifying founder Jeffrey Silber and New Brunswick founder Ilana Lutman also did not respond to NJJN inquiries.

However, Akman previously told NJJN she chose Hebrew as a basis for the school because she has a background in the language. “Foreign language proficiency really gives young people an edge,” she said. “Also a key component of the school is tikun olam, repairing the world, and…community service is so important for college admission.”

While previous applications have included Highland Park, in its 2011 application, Tikun Olam founders said they had selected Edison Township and New Brunswick for their latest bid. The application stressed the ethnic diversity of Edison, and the “urban” challenges facing New Brunswick, including “poverty, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, academic failure, dropouts, gangs, and other challenges.” The application also describes the “special relationship” between Israel and both the United States and New Jersey.

Because charter schools are considered public, local school districts must provide funding for each pupil enrolled from that district. Based on population, the Office of Charter School Funding of the Department of Education has estimated that Edison would have to provide $850,000, New Brunswick $450,000.

Critics said Highland Park was charged $64,000 when the Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick, a Hebrew-language charter elementary school, did not fill its roster with East Brunswick students last year.

Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, whose District 18 covers Highland Park and Edison, cosponsored a bill that would require local approval before the establishment of any new charter school. His cosponsors are fellow Democratic Assemblymen Peter Barnes (Dist. 18) and John Wisniewski, whose District 19 covers southern Middlesex County.

That bill has been passed in the Assembly, but a Senate equivalent, S-2243, cosponsored by Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Dist. 18) and Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Dist. 15), has been bottled up in committee, said Barnes.

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