As it begins its third year, Sela Public Charter School in Washington is adding a prekindergarten class for 3-year-olds and is expanding its science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, program.
Sela is one of a few public Hebrew-language immersion schools in the country and the only one in the Washington area.
Head of School Natalie Arthurs expects 148 students on the first day of class, Aug. 24. That’s up from 86 children last year. Sela enrolls students from pre-k through second grade.
For its STEM program, the school received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, Sidney M. & Phyllis O. Bresler Foundation and others donors. The money will be used for teacher training and equipment, according to Jessica Lieberman, chair of Sela’s board.
As a charter school, Sela, in Northeast Washington, receives public funds to serve the community at large. To conform to its charter, which prohibits the teaching of religion, the school is free of Hebrew’s Jewish religious and ethnic associations.
Lieberman said she and other school founders have learned a few things about why families choose —and don’t choose Sela — since doors first opened in 2013.
Critics feared that Sela would become a magnet and draw Jewish students away from area Jewish schools. “I’ve learned from parents who have elementary school kids, a lot of their choices come from logistics,” she said.
The school has a shuttle bus from Capitol Hill. But many parents, Jewish and non-Jewish, prefer to send their child to a neighborhood school or private school “because they are uncomfortable putting a 3-year-old or 4-year-old on a bus,” she said.
Also, “a Jewish family has to be interested in diversity as well as Hebrew for this to be the right fit for them.”
The student body is about 70 percent African-American, Arthurs said.
According to Lieberman, when Sela was being planned, Hebrew and Israeli culture were almost an afterthought.
“Originally, we were interested in language immersion, a strong academic program and diversity,” she said. “As we were contemplating, we didn’t think about Israel, as funny as it sounds.”
But with Israeli-born teachers and a curriculum that includes the latest Israeli children’s songs, Sela students “know the Israeli elementary school landscape,” Lieberman said.
One highlight last year was a visit to the school by Israeli songwriter and musician Miki Gabriela. Sela students begin each day singing a song he co-wrote, “Ani ve-Ata (You and I will change the world).”
Gavrielov heard about Sela when Israel’s Channel 10 broadcast a segment on the school in April, according to Lieberman.
“The kids talked to him in Hebrew about what they want to do to change the world,” Lieberman said. “Most of it was environmental. He said, ‘What about peace?’”