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A Look into the Tikun Olam Charter School Proposal

A Hebrew language charter high school has applied to open in New Brunswick, but critics say the application is flawed and is not supported by the community.

A controversial Hebrew language charter school has submitted its fourth application to the state, and if approved, may set up shop in New Brunswick.

Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School, according to its current application to the state Department of Education, would enroll students from New Brunswick and Edison.

If the school is approved, the anticipated opening would be the fall of 2012, according to the application.

According to the school's founders, the purpose of the bilingual school is to teach Hebrew language, Israeli culture and service learning.

"The Edison/New Brunswick area is a perfect location for Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School owing to its thriving communities of multiple races, ethnicities, and faiths and its proximity to Rutgers University," according to the application. "This school was designed to meet the needs of this particular community as well as to serve the broader needs of the State of New Jersey."

However, several New Brunswick leaders have said they don't want the school in the city, because they do not believe it will serve the population of New Brunswick, and because it would funnel state funding away from the school district.

Highland Park and Edison have also had factions that have loudly disapproved of the school, claiming it does not have community support and accusing the founders of trying to set up a private school with public money.

Critics of the proposed charter also say that the application is rife with errors and misrepresentations. Most important, they say, is the silence coming from the charter's founders when they should be reaching out to the New Brunswick community.

"The League's concern is that there is no outlined strategy for defining the inclusion of a heavy minority school population in the school's program," C. Roy Epps, president of the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick, said in a May 12 letter to Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.

"Without such detail and the appropriate outreach to community education agencies, it would seem that this application is flawed of including the current student populations residing in New Brunswick."

The school's lead founder, Sharon Akman, of Highland Park, did not return a request for comment for this article.

Previous Applications

The school's three prior applications to the state included a proposed location in Highland Park and said it would serve Highland Park students in addition to New Brunswick and Edison.

The school's three previous applications were denied by the state Department of Education.

Tikun Olam is projecting that, if its doors open, it will enroll 30 New Brunswick students. The sending public school district will be responsible for funding the enrollment of students who choose to attend the charter.

New Brunswick District Superintendent Richard Kaplan said he believes the enrollment claims to be inaccurate, based on enrollment numbers for the Greater Brunswick Charter School and student enrollment in other out-of-district schools.

"Over the past five years, (Greater Brunswick) has graduated no more than 40 students from their eighth grade," Kaplan said, in a May 31 letter to Cerf. "It is highly improbable that 30 New Brunswick residents will attend this proposed Hebrew Language Charter High School as reported in their application."

According to the application, Tikun Olam projects 100 students in grades nine and 10, taught by six teachers during the 2012-13 school year, growing to 150 students in grades nine through 11, taught by nine teachers in the 2013-14 school year; 200 students are projected in all four grades, taught by 12 teachers in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, according to the application.

Darcie Cimarusti, a Highland Park resident and organizer of Speak Up Highland Park, said that Hatikvah International Academy Charter School, an English and Hebrew K-3 charter in East Brunswick, currently enrolls five Highland Park students, which costs the district approximately $75,000.

Highland Park also sends 18 kids to the K-8 Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Brunswick for a cost of more than $250,000 in tuition and busing, Cimarusti said.

Questions About the Application

Tikun Olam's founders state in the application that St. Mary of Virgin R.C. Church, 192 Sandford St., would house the charter through a lease agreement with the Diocese of Metuchen.

But a May 24 letter from Rev. Paul G. Bootkowski, Bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, owners of the property, say this is not so.

Statements of support from parents of children in sending districts that would be affected by a proposed charter are part of the required documentation when submitting an application.

Tikum Olam submitted 11 letters of support, signed by residents of Edison, New Brunswick and Highland Park, but Kaplan said the letters appear to be "questionable."

"Only two signatures have students in our school system and they are currently in pre-K and kindergarten," Kaplan said.

Seven of the letters of support are from New Brunswick residents.

The Opposition

To date, opponents of the school from Edison, New Brunswick and Highland Park have gathered 2,100 petition signatures and 600 letters of opposition to the proposed school.

Opponents have the support of Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, state Sen. Barbara Buono, Rabbi Steven Miodownik of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, and Gerald M. Pomper, Rutgers University Board of Governors Professor of Political Science (emeritas).

The New Brunswick, Edison and Highland Park school districts have also taken a stance against the school.

"This application, if approved by the New Jersey Department of Education, would create a segregated private school utilizing public funding during a time when school districts all across this great state are struggling to financially survive and provide basic programming for all their students while continuing to deal with unprecedented pressures of accountability," Edison schools superintendent Richard O'Malley said in a May 26 letter to Cerf.

Critics of the charter plan to hold a town hall style meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 in the auditorium of Bartle School, 435 Mansfield St., Highland Park.

It is free and open to the general public.

For more information, visit www.speakuphp.com.

Editor's note: In the original version of this story, Gerald M. Pomper, a Rutgers University Board of Governors Professor of Political Science (emeritas) was incorrectly identified.

tobysaleh November 29, 2011 at 12:14 PM
Whats the difference between High Speed Universities and “Brick and Mortar?” Online pays for the education. It does not pay for athletic programs or programs that are not beneficial to all. There is no socio-economic or social cast systems.

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