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English is Absent and Math Doesn’t Count at Brooklyn’s Biggest Yeshivas

BROOKLYN — Every morning at school, 7-year-old Uriyah Sidof prays for extra  recess.

Literally, he prays for it — at Lamplighters  Yeshivah, the Jewish Montessori school he attends in the heart of Hasidic Crown  Heights, extra minutes of recess are doled out as a reward for especially heartfelt prayer.

Recess provides Uriyah with a welcome break from the hard work of timed math  tests, English language drills and science projects, subjects the majority of  the 84,000 children who attend Jewish parochial schools in Brooklyn never get.  Lamplighters is an exception — most Orthodox Jewish schools offer limited  instruction in English, math and science, and some don’t teach them at all  despite being legally required to do so, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.

Shmueli Lowenstein’s experience is much more common. The 25-year-old is a  former student at Oholei Torah, the most prominent yeshiva in Crown Heights,  where, he said,  “I did not grow up learning English or any kind of secular  studies at all,” and subjects like phonics and math were “nonexistent.”

United Talmudical Academy is among Brooklyn’s largest and most prominent yeshivas, yet the pre-K-12 school only offers English and math to boys between fourth and eighth grade.

“Everything was done in Yiddish until seventh or eighth grade, and then they  would switch to Hebrew,” Lowenstein said. “I don’t think I ever received a paper  with English writing on it, except for maybe a permission slip for a school  trip.”

Under New York state and federal regulations, stories like Lowenstein’s  shouldn’t be possible — all New York schools, public and private, are required  to offer “equivalency of instruction” in basic general subjects such as American  history and math.

The state allows religious students to omit evolution questions on the  Regents exam, but there is no waiver to exclude science from the curriculum.

Oholei Torah would not answer questions about its curriculum.

But more than a dozen parents, teachers and students told DNAinfo.com New  York that many of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish schools fall shy of even that  narrow requirement, offering only an hour or two a day of pro-forma instruction  for general subjects, if any.

“There are a number of schools which have absolutely no pretenses of it — kids from 3-years-old to 18 have no secular education at all, ” said Zalman  Alpert, a librarian at Yeshiva University and an expert on the Orthodox  community.

“Many other schools in Borough Park and Williamsburg are testing the waters  about either doing away with secular studies altogether or ratcheting it down  another few levels.”

What the situation amounts to, Alpert and others say, is a school system  bigger than Boston’s operating virtually without oversight, making it easily the  largest unregulated school system in America. This week, DNAinfo.com New York  will take you inside that system, one the majority of New Yorkers and even the  education officials charged with policing it know next to nothing about.

As with anything in New York, big here means huge. More children attend  Brooklyn’s Jewish parochial schools than attend Catholic schools in Brooklyn and  Queens combined, and unlike their Catholic counterparts, yeshivas are  growing.

Although significant Jewish enclaves exist in all five boroughs, Brooklyn is  home to the majority of the city’s 1.1 million Jews, and the vast majority of  its most religious ones. In Kings County alone, the Orthodox emphasis on large  families has helped spur an education crunch of epic proportions: In just four  years, the borough’s Jewish parochial schools have seen an enrollment increase  of more than 12,000 pupils, according to state records.

“In some schools, they’re taught very similar to public school … where the  English department is fairly normative,” Alpert said, citing the United  Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights as a prime example. “But those schools are  very few in number and they’re rapidly disappearing.”

Though several yeshiva principals declined to comment on their curriculums  for this story, Rabbi Sholom Skaist of Williamsburg’s massive United  Talmudical Academy told DNAinfo.com New York the school does teach general  subjects — just not very much.

“We teach math, English, some social studies and some science,” Skaist said. “They do not have secular studies in all the grades, only from fourth to eighth  grade.”

Like other children in high-poverty schools both public and private, many of  Brooklyn’s Jewish parochial students receive federal, state and city aid, in the  form of free- and reduced-lunch programs, educational materials and federal  Title I allocations to educate students from poor families.

At least a few also receive Title III funds specifically earmarked for  English learners, which is hardly surprising in communities like Williamsburg  where the lingua franca is Yiddish and even adults often struggle to  communicate outside of that language.

“I can’t read, I don’t know anything about the outside world — I have to  struggle every time I have to read a menu for a  restaurant,” said Hershy  Gelbstein, 18, who got the majority of his education at United Talmudical  Academy.

“I have a good spelling, but not a good grammar. I lose the words. When I  start talking English in front of someone who knows a good English, it’s like  I’m speaking Spanish to someone who knows only English.”

Neither the city DOE nor its counterparts in Albany or Washington could tell  DNAinfo which of Brooklyn’s private schools benefited from Title III federal aid  for English instruction, although the DOE said the total Title III allocation  for private school students in the city is about $10 million. According to a  2009 report by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, almost $1.9  million in Title III money funded English instruction for students at the city’s  Jewish parochial schools.

Still, Title III is just the tip of the iceberg. The United States Department  of Education has repeatedly chastised both the state and the city for failing  either to retain adequate control over the much larger and more widespread Title  I allocations, about $50 million of which are parceled out to the city’s private  schools every year, or to account for how those millions are spent.

Year after year of reports from the United States Department of Education’s  Student Achievement and School Accountability Programs show federal education  officials practically begging the city and state to exercise more control over  how private schools in their jurisdiction spend federal money.

“The [New York City Department of Education] staff indicated that private  school principals have the final authority on which of the eligible students  receive Title I services,” the 2012 report says, citing one of many DOE  practices in direct violation of federal policy. “The [New York State Education  Department] must require all its LEAs [Local Education Authorities] serving  private school children to maintain control of their Title I programs.”

Equivalency of instruction, too, falls at the city’s feet. Federal and state  officials confirmed that the New York City Department of Education is ultimately  responsible for ensuring both that the city’s private schools spend government  money appropriately and that they provide the minimum standard of instruction  mandated by law.

“If a child attends a nonpublic school or is being educated at home, the  board of education of the school district in which the child resides must be  assured that the child is receiving instruction which is substantially  equivalent to that provided in the public schools,” said state DOE spokeswoman  Antonia Valentine.

In Brooklyn, that means the New York City DOE.

Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the city DOE, declined to respond to  specific questions about the admission by the head of United Talmudical Academy  and other allegations of insufficient secular instruction.

“We were notified of a situation last year regarding requirements,”  Feinberg said. “As a result, we engaged in the process outlined by NY State.”

It was unclear whether the “situation” involved any of the schools  DNAinfo.com New York asked about.

Libby Pollack, a Williamsburg native who was educated in the Jewish school  system, thinks it’s impossible that officials don’t know what’s going on.

“What’s going on is illegal, it’s totally illegal,” Pollack said. “Unless  somebody just arrived to Ellis Island, there’s no such thing that they grew up  here and they don’t speak the language of the land  — it’s a disgrace, and  it’s the norm in Hasidic Brooklyn.”

Pollack isn’t alone — the organization YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education), a  coalition of former yeshiva students, has spent more than a year trying to sound  the alarm to education officials. They say that Jewish parochial schools should  be free to teach what they please, so long as they also teach what the state  requires.

“Pick a random Hasid off the street and just talk to them, it will be obvious  that they’re lacking in education,” Pollack said. “With sex abuse, a lot of  people try to deny it, but here [with education] you can’t deny it — it’s not  something that could be hidden. If a person did not get an education, it’s going  to come across.”

Back at Lamplighters, English, science and math is integrated into religious  studies, said Director Yocheved Sidof, whose two oldest children, Uriyah, 7, and  Mayan, 4, attend the school.

“We give our children a sense from a very young age,” she said. “The whole  world is one, the whole world is God’s work, it’s not separate.”

Source: DNA Info

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Posted by on January 22, 2013. Filed under Jewish News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.