Hebrew wins in Deerfield, loses in Evanston

Citing strong demand, parents, students, and interested community members have urged public school administrators in Deerfield and Evanston to offer Hebrew as a world language in the 2018-19 academic year. Those efforts have yielded results in Deerfield District 109, where Hebrew will be offered for the first time to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Caruso and Shepherd middle schools in the fall. 

The school board approved the administration's recommendation at its January 22 meeting. 

Adding Hebrew in the middle schools will align their world language offerings with Deerfield High School and the objectives of the District's 2017 Strategic Plan, wrote District Superintendent Michael Lubelfeld in a letter to staff, parents, grandparents and community members. 

The Hebrew program at Deerfield High School is booming, with enrollment jumping from 60 students four years ago to more than 100 students in the current academic year. 

Meanwhile, Evanston Township High School (District 202) will not be offering Hebrew to incoming freshman, despite a clamor of support from community members who pressed the administration to address what they say is strong prospective demand for the language. 

Current students of Hebrew at ETHS will be able to sign up for the language next academic year, although the school has not yet indicated whether the course will be taught online or in the classroom.

ETHS administrators determined to terminate the program last October, citing a decline in enrollment to 34 students from a high of more than 90 students. That decline is linked, in part, to difficulties in recruiting a qualified replacement following the retirement of a 17-year veteran Hebrew teacher two years ago. Evanston parents say there's every reason to believe growth similar to that in Deerfield would occur, were the school district to recommit to offering the language.

Evanston community members who wanted the district to commit to Hebrew launched a petition drive in December, garnering more than 2,200 signatories. The petition implored District 202 administration "to leave no stone unturned to maintain and grow Hebrew language instruction at ETHS," asking school officials to work with the community to ensure that the school continues to offer a Hebrew program "that reflects Evanston's values of diversity and inclusivity." 

Advocates of Hebrew testified at two public school board meetings; in a private meeting with administrators, they provided the resumes of several qualified teachers and offered help in finding creative solutions to the teacher-pipeline problem. 

Demand for Hebrew in Chicago-area public schools has been uniquely strong, with as many as eight Hebrew programs in operation since the early 1970s. That demand is largely fed by Jewish families and students, who grasp the global--and personal--importance of the language 

According to various sources, Hebrew is the mother tongue of at least five million people, and is spoken with some proficiency by as many as nine million people worldwide. As the primary language of modern Israel, Hebrew (as well as Arabic) is spoken by Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze; as such, it fuels one of the world's most diverse and dynamic literary, musical, commercial, and political cultures.

In that vein, the JUF-supported SAFA Foundation for Promotion of Hebrew Language and Israel Culture in Public Schools, along with the iCenter, have helped Deerfield and Evanston community members to assess the demand for Hebrew and identify qualified Hebrew teachers. 

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