Denise Lockett, an African American and Catholic grandmother, sat in the lobby of a District charter school waiting to deliver lunch to her 9-year-old grandson.
“I’m Kobe’s savta,” she said with a grin, using the Hebrew word for grandmother to introduce herself.
Kobe, her precocious grandson who watches Israeli cartoons on YouTube in his free time, was in Hebrew class, where students learn to write from right to left in the Middle Eastern language.
“Mah shlomcha?” he asked a school visitor, using the Hebrew greeting for, “How are you?”
At Sela Public Charter School in Northeast Washington, students in preschool through fifth grade spend hours each week learning Hebrew — the official language of Israel and a language associated with Judaism.
But the school is not religious.
It’s a publicly funded, secular charter school that reflects the demographics of the District’s schoolchildren. More than 70 percent of the students are black, similar to the figure citywide in public schools. About 16 percent of the 180 students at the preschool and elementary school are white, with most identifying as Jewish. Nearly 10 percent of students are Hispanic. A small percentage are Asian.
Kobe and his classmates revel in surprising people with what they know — and in teaching their families and neighbors something new.
To celebrate Kobe’s recent birthday, his mother learned how to sing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. And Sydney Harris, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, said she was at a gas station in the District when she heard a woman speaking Hebrew.
Sydney thought the woman was speaking to her, so she responded in Hebrew.
The woman was shocked.
“Most of the time, people are really surprised and intrigued because they don’t think that people in D.C. can speak Hebrew,” Sydney said. “I’m proud that, for once, people don’t have to teach me something. I can teach them something.”
But Hebrew can be seen as something of an impractical second language for students to master, especially in a country where Spanish and Chinese are the most common languages spoken at home other than English.
There are no public Hebrew-language schools in the District for middle or high school students, so graduates of Sela would have to enroll in a private Jewish day school to continue learning the language, which some Jewish students have done.
While the school is trying to recruit more students to fill its classrooms, there’s a huge demand in the city for more Spanish- and Chinese-language immersion options. That has occasionally raised the question of whether public money should be used to pay for a Hebrew-language school in Washington, some Sela leaders acknowledge.
However, Jessica Lieberman, one of the founders of Sela and a current board member, said even if students aren’t using Hebrew in their everyday lives, they are still gaining the intellectual benefits that come with learning a second language.
As a new mother, Lieberman, who spent time living in Israel, opened Sela in 2013 with a group that wanted to see more foreign-language education options in the city.
Students are being exposed to a different part of the world through Sela, Lieberman said. Each week, students have an hour-long class that teaches them about Israeli culture, food and dance. While Sela is the only public Hebrew-language school in the District, there are similar charter schools in New York, Minnesota and California. The schools are affiliated through Hebrew Public, an organization that promotes Hebrew-language charter campuses and provides instructional and planning resources to schools.
“We really focus on the importance of studying a second language, just because of the cognitive development you get from it,” Lieberman said. “And anytime you learn a second language, it’s much easier to learn a third.”
Inside Sela, there are signs in Hebrew, bookshelves filled with colorful books in the language and Israeli music and dancing.
Some families, including Kobe’s, were attracted to the school because of its smaller size — along with the chance to learn another language. Kobe’s cousins also attend the school now.
Other families languished on waiting lists for spots in Spanish- and Chinese-language immersion charter schools but still wanted their child to learn a foreign language. So they enrolled in Sela.
Allison Blotzer, a parent of two young students at the school, said she never expected to have Hebrew-speaking children. Her husband is a native Spanish speaker who uses the language at home, so she wanted her children to be exposed to another language. But they got locked out of French- and Chinese-language schools during the school lottery, which places children in schools throughout the city.
“It wasn’t a top choice when we did the lottery, but we feel very fortunate to have been matched with Sela,” Blotzer said. “My kids are loving Hebrew.”
In preschool, students spend the entire day learning subjects in Hebrew. Meanwhile, elementary students have morning assembly in Hebrew and an hour-long class learning Hebrew each day, said Joshua Bork, the head of the school.
In language-immersion schools — Sela’s upper grades don’t technically qualify — students learn their core subjects in the foreign language each day.
Bork said Sela is trying to move to that model but needs to recruit more students to be able to pay for the additional instructors who can teach core subjects in Hebrew. He said Hebrew is a phonetic language, so it also helps students as they are learning to read English.
The school has a mid-level quality ranking, according to the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
Bork said the ranking does not reflect the achievements of its students. Sela has so few students in the upper-elementary grades that if a small portion of those students’ test scores do not improve, it greatly affects the school’s assessment, according to Bork.
Carmit Romano-Hvid, the Hebrew coordinator at Sela, is an Israeli native who taught Hebrew at a university in Denmark. But she has never taught the language in a school like Sela.
“It shows how you can teach language and connect it to the culture, without invoking religion,” she said. “These kids are curious, they want to learn a new language, and they want to learn about other parts of the world.”