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Ben Gamla to open first Hebrew-language charter school in Pinellas

Jayme Joslyn couldn't have been more excited.

With little discussion, the Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday voted 7-0 to approve its first Hebrew-language charter school to open this fall.

With Joslyn as principal, Ben Gamla Academy Pinellas will serve a unique demographic of students whose families seek a specific cultural experience rarely divorced from religion.

Open to up to 100 students in grades K-5 the first year, Ben Gamla is on track to become the district's 23rd charter in a county that has seen charter school enrollment skyrocket from 702 students in 2005-2006 to 4,128 this school year.

"All I wanted to do was a cartwheel right in the middle of the conference room," said Joslyn, a former Pinellas County teacher who also taught at the now-closed Pinellas County Jewish Day School.

Though housed at Temple B'Nai Israel in Clearwater, Ben Gamla will be publicly funded and therefore mandated to steer clear of religious education.

Former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch founded the first Ben Gamla charter school in Broward County in 2007, but met with some controversy after critics said the school wasn't staying true to separation of church and state. Today, there are campuses in Plantation, Boynton Beach, Hollywood and Kendall.

On Tuesday, Pinellas County's charter school coordinator Dot Clark, appeared to have no doubt about the school's intentions. "They will be teaching Hebrew language and culture, but not the Hebrew religion," she succinctly told School Board members.

Denise Buttacavoli said she feels so passionately about the start-up school that she decided to break with the rest of her family members' decisions to send their kids to another charter school, Pinellas Preparatory Academy in Largo.

"We weren't looking for a school that was parochial in nature," said Buttacavoli, a Clearwater resident who plans to enroll her rising kindergartner at Ben Gamla in the fall.

Buttacavoli's 5-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old twins already attend preschool at Temple B'Nai, where they are congregants, she said.

Still, Buttacavoli said she was attracted to Joslyn's school mainly because of the unusual cultural opportunity it offered.

Joslyn said she currently has commitments from 64 students for 2012-2013. But the charter agreement calls for the school to expand to up to 900 students in grades K-8 by the end of the five-year contract.

The school's planned opening comes a little more than two years after the county's only Jewish day school closed due to low enrollment.

Joslyn said she believes there's demand for the charter school despite the struggles she saw first hand as a teacher at the private Pinellas County Jewish Day School. Tuition-free, Ben Gamla necessarily has broader appeal, she said: "We are open to all students from Pinellas County."

Judith Huson, a mother of four, currently sends her three school-aged children from Clearwater Beach to Hillel Academy of Tampa, a private Jewish Day school.

She said Ben Gamla will provide a welcome relief to her family's hectic school commute. Israeli and French, Huson said it has always been her priority to see that her children receive a Hebrew education.

She's not concerned that it will no longer include religion. "We have it at home," she said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

Ben Gamla to open first Hebrew-language charter school in Pinellas 05/12/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 12, 2012 4:30am]
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