Pesach Eisen stands in front of a yeshiva he attended as a child in Brooklyn. Eisen left his Orthodox community in his late teens. A lawsuit seeks to overturn a New York law allowing such schools to ignore requirements on secular education. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

New York City education officials were denied entry into half of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools under investigation over allegations of not providing state-mandated secular education, according to a letter the city schools chancellor sent to state authorities.

The Wednesday letter from Chancellor Richard A. Carranza to New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia updated an investigation by the city’s Education Department that started in 2015 amid concerns about the education boys were receiving at 39 of the schools, known as yeshivas.

Three years ago, 52 former students and teachers — along with parents of current students — wrote the city education department charging that the yeshivas were ignoring state law. The law requires private schools to provide an education “substantially equivalent” to what is available in public schools. Instead, boys at these schools got little if any education in English and subjects such as science and history. In some cases, attendance in secular education was said to be voluntary.

The department said it quickly began an investigation into 30 of the 39 yeshivas but never announced findings. That prompted an advocacy organization seeking yeshiva reform to file a lawsuit this month in district court. The suit seeks to block an exemption approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) that allows yeshivas to ignore state rules on providing secular education.

The chancellor’s letter to Elia says investigators worked in 2015 and 2016 on the issue and scheduled meetings at the yeshivas. They visited 15 elementary schools, but the other half of the 30 schools under investigation refused to let them in after “repeated attempts to gain access” since Aug. 3, 2016. (Nine of those 15 are elementary schools.) It also says:

While at one point it received a commitment that access would be provided for the nine remaining elementary schools, it never received such a commitment for the six high schools, and, in any event, the simple fact is that the DOE has not been provided access to any of them. The long delay in scheduling visits to this group of 15 schools is a serious concern.

Carranza says in the letter that some of the yeshivas had adopted new curriculum in English and math and provided the department with an outline and samples. But the department can’t assess the quality of it, he writes:

The schools have clearly made progress by creating culturally appropriate secular curricula and enlisting the supports necessary to implement them, including hiring qualified external trainers, as described above. Although the DOE did receive an outline and several samples of the curricula, the schools have not provided DOE with a full set of materials and therefore, DOE cannot currently assess the quality of the curricula.

The chancellor asks Elia for guidance on how to proceed with the 30 schools. Elia said late last year that state education officials are revising guidelines for private K-12 schools, but there is no date for the release.

There are about 275 yeshivas in the state of New York, and most provide secular education, but about 80 don’t, according to the group that filed the lawsuit, the nonprofit Young Advocates for Fair Education. The chancellor’s letter deals with schools in New York City.

This is part of the letter the chancellor sent, describing what interviewed complainants had told investigators about educators in some of these yeshivas:

Interviews with Complainants

Commencing in the fall semester of 2015, and continuing until the summer of 2016, the [city Department of Education] met with complainants to determine whether the allegations in the complaint letter constituted a “serious concern” under the [state Education Department] guidance. The DOE conducted both a small group meeting in December 2015 and individual interviews during the spring semester of 2016 with complainants who either had attended or whose children attend(ed) yeshivas listed in the complaint letter. At the small-group meeting, former students and parents of current students described the secular education they or their children received in yeshivas they or their children attended. Most said that the boys’ schools provide secular instruction in English and math for at most 90 minutes a day (except for Fridays) until the boys reach the age of 13 and, after that, no secular instruction is provided — only religious instruction. Below is a summary of the information provided by individual complainants interviewed during the spring semester of 2016 who were also signatories of the complaint letter. In total, individuals who were interviewed — either at the small-group meeting or individually — provided information about 11 of the schools named in the complaint letter.

Secular Instruction for Grades Pre-K though 7: All of the interviewed complainants stated that, at the yeshivas serving male students, classes typically began at 8 a.m. and often did not end before 5 p.m. for the lower grades and 6 p.m. or later for the middle and upper grades. During that time, they received approximately 1 to 2 hours (usually 90 minutes) of secular instruction each day (except Fridays) until the students reached the age of 13, at which time secular instruction ceased. They further stated that secular instruction typically was the last subject of the day. Some interviewed complainants reported that attendance at the secular instruction periods was treated as voluntary rather than mandatory, since the school administrators did not compel attendance.
Mathematics: All of the interviewed complainants stated that students learned basic arithmetic, such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication. For many of these complainants, the last content topic taught was fractions. For some, division was the last subject taught. Many stated that topics were presented in an introductory way, with little development or follow-up.

English Language Arts: All of the interviewed complainants stated that, because instruction begins with the Hebrew alphabet in the very early grades (e.g. Pre-K and kindergarten), instruction in English was delayed until first, second or third grade. Some of these complainants said that they did not learn to read until the third grade. One said that, in kindergarten and first grade, students learned the English alphabet and started learning to spell words. They further stated that students typically learned how to read in English at around age 7 or 8 (i.e. second or third grade). Some of these complainants reported that they learned cursive writing but did not receive formal instruction in grammar or essay writing. Many of them said that they now have difficulty writing prose.

Science: All of the interviewed complainants reported that students did not receive instruction through a science curriculum. One of them said that there were sporadic science experiments done in class, but these were not part of any organized curriculum.

History: All but two of the interviewed complainants reported that little to no instruction was provided to them in U.S. history and New York history. Some of them reported that there was some instruction in geography, such as the names of states and state capitals.

Language of Instruction: Interviewed complainants reported that the language used for instruction in secular classes was English or Yiddish, or a mixture of both. Textbooks in the secular subjects were written in English. One interviewed complainant stated that, in the early grades, secular books had mostly pictures with no more than three words on a page. He further stated that as the books got more complex — through the sixth grade — pictures and text were abridged to make the books consistent with the cultural or religious values of the school. Another interviewed complainant stated that he never used a reading book.