LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The phrase back to school covers a lot more territory than it used to. Kids have been going back to a wide variety of schools this month. Some of them are geared toward particular student populations. Others aren't really schools at all.
Today, we're going to hear two reports about unusual schools. In a moment, we'll meet an African-American family who's pulled out of the public school system all together.
But first, to Hollywood, Florida, where NPR's Greg Allen has the story of Ben Gamla, the nation's first Hebrew language charter school.
GREG ALLEN: Julia Benson(ph) used to send her two kids, Samuel(ph) and Joseph(ph), to a private Hebrew day school not far from her home in Broward County. But when she heard about a new public Hebrew language charter school, she rushed to sign up. She says she knew, though, that by leaving the private school, her kids would also be leaving their religious education behind.
Ms. JULIA BENSON (Resident, Broward County): I mean, this was the last time I knew my children would ever kiss a mezuzah when they walk through the door and into their classrooms. That's a very significant experience.
ALLEN: But others in the community were concerned that at Ben Gamla, religion was being mixed in the language instruction, creating a public funded alternative to privately run Jewish day schools.
It didn't helped matters that a rabbi was hired to run the school. The cafeteria food was all kosher, and classes were to be held in a synagogue. The school quickly found larger and less controversial space. But then it was discovered that the Hebrew curriculum chosen by the school contained religious references.
Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El in Hollywood says he was concerned even about the school's name. Ben Gamla was a first century priest from ancient Israel.
Rabbi ALLAN TUFFS (Temple Beth El, Hollywood, Florida): The Ben Gamla people here in South Florida are saying well, he introduced public education in ancient Israel. Well, that's very good. But it was a religious education that he introduced in the ancient Israel. And now, he's a rabbi, applaud religious education. My problem, as a person in America, is that it shouldn't be done with tax money.
Mr. PETER DEUTSCH (Founder, The Ben Gamla Charter School): Constitutionally, we're a public school. If we were teaching religion, it would be illegal.
ALLEN: Peter Deutsch is a former U.S. congressman and the driving force behind the Ben Gamla School. He's been involved in the charter school movement since it first came to Florida 12 years ago. Deutsch says he patterned Ben Gamla after other dual language academies, schools in which language classes and one other subject are taught in French, Chinese, or in this case, Hebrew. Deutsch notes that much of the opposition to the school came from operators of private Jewish day schools whom, he says, felt their monopoly was being threatened.
(Soundbite of people talking)
ALLEN: In the classrooms at Ben Gamla this week, there are none of the decorations or songs associated with the high holy days you'd find in a private Hebrew day school. Deutsch says that's because all Ben Gamla aspires to be is an English-Hebrew charter school.
Mr. DEUTSCH: The reality is that's what this school is. This is a public school. You know, the language - the second language is Hebrew. You can't teach a language outside of a cultural context. So clearly there is Jewish culture that goes along with teaching the Hebrew language. Really no difference at all in terms of what this school does than another dual language school.
ALLEN: Nonetheless, concerns raised by people in Broward County caused the school board to take a hard look at Ben Gamla's curriculum. While doing so, the board asks the school, for the first three weeks of the school year, not to teach Hebrew.
Teachers and administrators at Ben Gamla spent the time retooling the curriculum. And last week, the Broward School Board pronounced itself satisfied, at least for now, that the school was not violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
(Soundbite of children talking)
ALLEN: Even though Hebrew classes weren't being taught, on the playground, you could still hear Hebrew at Ben Gamla. That's because more than a third of the students have Israeli parents, part of a large and growing Israeli community in South Florida.
Deutsch says when he first proposed the charter school, he envisioned a small academy with 50 or 100 students. But when Ben Gamla opened enrolment, 800 kids applied.
Mr. DEUTSCH: We clearly tapped into a demand. You know, now, the perspective I have is if we have 5,000 desks or even 10,000 desks today in South Florida for dual language Hebrew-English program, I think we could fill 10,000 desks.
ALLEN: Deutsch is now making plans to open four more English-Hebrew charter schools in South Florida as fielding inquiries from other parts of the country, including Los Angeles. Although Broward County has given initial approval for three more schools, school board officials say the experience with Ben Gamla has left them weary. They're creating a new body to oversee charter schools to make sure that while educating South Florida students, the schools don't violate the U.S. Constitution.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.