Thursday, December 14, 2017
Education

New Pinellas charter school teaches Hebrew language, culture

CLEARWATER — It's a little campus, home to only 50 boys and girls and four teachers — and one of those doubles as the principal.

But the new Ben Gamla charter school, Pinellas County's 23rd charter school and its first public school offering instruction in the Hebrew language and culture, has reason to forecast a bigger future.

"We are off to a strong start," said principal — and kindergarten teacher — Jayme Joslyn. "The parental support is incredible. The parents make me believe that success is the only option."

That positive attitude is reflected in the faculty, too.

Melissa Creaser, a first-year teacher, has a classroom with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders combined. She loves the teaching method, called "differentiated instruction," which allows students to move forward in a subject regardless of age.

"It's more about teaching the individual than being in a cookie-cutter classroom," Creaser said. "It's a question of encouraging the students' strengths and filling in on the weaknesses."

The K-5 school is housed at Temple B'nai Israel on Belcher Road. As a public school, it welcomes students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds and there is no religious instruction. The students wear uniforms. Parents must put in a certain number of volunteer hours.

Hebrew is taught one hour a day, and students also learn about the history and culture of the state of Israel.

The Hebrew language and culture teacher, Israeli-born and raised Rachel Levi, finds teaching her language in another country exciting.

"It's excellent," she said of the new school. "The children, even those who aren't Jewish, seem to enjoy learning Hebrew."

Joslyn, a longtime Pinellas educator who was a Seminole High assistant principal from 2000 to 2005, has been asked why non-Jewish families would opt for a Hebrew language school. She said parents have priorities other than which language is taught in a school.

"People want their children in a small environment where they know the kids will be given individual attention," she said. "That is true of Jews and non-Jews."

The long-term goals for Ben Gamla are already in place.

"We hope to become a K-12 facility, adding a grade a year," Joslyn said.

There are now six Ben Gamla schools in Florida, named for an ancient Israeli high priest. The Pinellas charter is the newest. Peter Deutsch, a former U.S. representative from South Florida, founded the first of the schools in Fort Lauderdale in 2007. Four others subsequently opened in South Florida.

There is some interaction among the Ben Gamla schools.

"The principals on the east coast support and help me," said Joslyn, 41. Expecting her third child in November, the teacher/principal has a full plate and said she welcomes the support.

Charter schools receive some of their operating money through a federal grant managed by individual states. Clearwater's Ben Gamla received a grant of $100,000 phased over three years.

"All the money goes for students," Joslyn said. "We purchase technology, desks, workbooks, textbooks and other supplies."

A computer lab with 16 computers was outfitted with grant money. Joslyn is planning to purchase 20 new computers and some Nook tablets as well.

As with other local charter schools, the Pinellas County School Board awards the charter and has some broad oversight duties, but operations are more closely managed by a school-based board. The three members of Ben Gamla's board are Pinellas County residents Yael Alpert, a former educator; Dr. David Wein, who practices emergency medicine at Tampa General Hospital; and Eric Lynn, a foreign policy adviser to the Obama administration.

Lynn, the board chairman, is enthusiastic about the new school, even though his child is too young to go. "My interest was piqued by the schools started in South Florida," he said. "I thought they offered an excellent opportunity for children to learn Hebrew and Hebrew culture."

Parents said they are pleased with what they have seen in the first few weeks of school.

"I like the fact that this is a small school so there's lots of attention to the individual," said Beth Herkowitz of Clearwater, whose daughter Bethany is in the second grade. "It's a family-friendly environment."

Nicole Melamed of Seminole, whose son Gilad is in first grade, believes in the school's possibilities.

"I think this school will be a shining star," she said.

   
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