No earthquake or pandemic can ruin this virtual valedictorian’s future

By Keciah Bailey

Ten years after surviving an earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, single mom Wildine Lafontant and son Christian found themselves facing another natural disaster – the COVID-19 global pandemic.

When news of the coronavirus first hit New York, both mom and son found their lives – like so many other young learners and their families –  upended in unprecedented ways. Christian, an eighth-grader at Hebrew Language Academy Charter School (HLA), had to quickly adjust to the demands of remote learning while missing the usual social interactions with his friends. As an essential worker servicing a special needs population, Wildine had to show up to her job daily even while the majority of the nation was in quarantine.

“I was scared. I was very scared when I heard of all these people dying,” Wildine said. “I was really down but I didn’t show Christian how I was feeling. All I could do was call my friend and pray.” 

Compounding fears for herself and her son, as she commuted to work daily, Wildine also worried about exposing her elderly mother, who is battling cancer, to the virus. With a compromised immune system due to treatments, Wildine’s mother is extremely vulnerable to infections. Amidst those concerns, she was also anxious about the disruption quarantining would cause to Christian’s academics as he is on track to graduate middle school this year. However, she said many of her fears were tempered by the care and concern Christian received from his teachers at HLA and the commitment to his learning they showed at such an uncertain time.

“I had to put things in perspective,” Wildine said. “The people I work with have no family so they need me to take care of them. I may have been leaving Christian but the teachers at HLA… they treat him like family. They call just to ask how we are doing. I have hope now.”

Indeed, Wildine credits the teachers for Christian’s academic success as well as his swift adjustment to remote learning. In addition to the teachers, she says the warm, disciplined environment and the quality of work at HLA were some of the reasons she chose the school for him.

HLA is a diverse dual-language Hebrew-English school located in Mill Basin, Brooklyn that serves students of all backgrounds from kindergarten through eighth grade. HLA’s curriculum offers a common core aligned program that combines Hebrew language instruction with the study of Israel and a focus on global citizenship.

“At first, I was excited about having school online because it was only supposed to be two weeks,” Christian said. “But then it changed to one month, and then we were told it would be for the rest of the year. I wasn’t happy about that especially since I would miss being with my friends.”

Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Hebrew Public, the charter management organization for HLA, said that while the school made preliminary plans for remote learning instruction, they discovered that the sudden switch from in-person classes to online learning within twenty-four hours was drastic. 

“We have learned and refined our strategies,” Rosenberg said. “We are proud to have delivered live lessons to all of our students, including specials and enrichment activities at a time when anxieties were high and the city relied on schools to keep students inside and engaged.”  

Despite the challenges and necessary adjustments, this year Christian will graduate as class valedictorian  – an achievement eight years in the making based on years of exceptional academic achievement, exemplary student leadership, and a strong commitment to school culture. 

“Christian and his peers, who – along with graduating seniors across the country, if not also across the globe – are having an unusual graduation this year, are leaving Hebrew Public schools with a deep appreciation for diversity, community, and global citizenship, Rosenberg said. “The pandemic has taught tremendous lessons about patience, resilience, perseverance, and determination to succeed.”

In fact, perseverance and determination are character traits that define how Wildine and Christian have reached this momentous milestone.

Just two years after surviving the catastrophic earthquake that left Haiti in ruins, Wildine left for New York with her then five year old, hoping to rebuild their future. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 left 220,000 people dead, 300,000 injured, and rubble nearly everywhere. When the earthquake started, Wildine was inside a school building where she worked as a teacher’s assistant at an adult learning center. 

“I was with a co-worker when the building collapsed. He died. There was blood everywhere,” Wildine recalled. “I was trapped in the room with him for hours before friends came and pulled us out. The entire time I heard a phone ringing but I couldn’t even move.”

Wildine’s home, where Christian was staying with family at the time, was not destroyed. However, she decided soon after that it was time to join her family in the US. 

Both mother and son spoke no English when they first arrived in New York in 2012. Christian remembers walking into his first-grade class at HLA having no idea what was being said by his classmates or teachers. To help him learn English, Wildine decided to forgo speaking Creole to her young son during those first years. She remembers taking English classes at night and borrowing books from the library to help them both learn.

Not only was Christian faced with the challenge of learning English, but he was also learning Hebrew.

HLA instructs students in Modern Hebrew through a proficiency-based approach that allows them to engage in meaningful interactions in the language. Students are taught by native speakers, who only speak to them in Hebrew, enabling them to understand and speak in simple sentences in just a short time. 

“I spent the first two years at HLA putting the pieces [of both languages] together,” Christian said. “By the third grade, I could have a conversation in both English and Hebrew. My French kind of slipped away though because as an eight-year-old it was hard to keep up, but I can always learn it later.”

In the meanwhile, practicing Hebrew and learning about Israel prepared Christian for the experience of a lifetime. 

This past February – just before the world was placed on lockdown –  Christian and a group of his fellow eighth-graders at HLA embarked on a capstone trip to Israel. Every year Hebrew Public offers graduating middle school seniors across the network a chance to visit the country they have studied for years as they immerse in the culture, explore the geography, and engage with Israeli locals. 

Christian and his peers visited significant Israeli sites such as the Old City’s Christian and Muslim Quarters in Jerusalem. They ate authentic Israeli food and participated in activities such as hiking the Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, and riding camels in the Negev. 

For Christian, the most memorable part of his experience in Israel was finally meeting the pen pals he wrote to in school. Before going to Israel, the eighth-graders became pen pals with their peers at the Ein Gedi school. After hiking to the top of Masada, students finally met each other and spent time speaking with each other in Hebrew and English.

“I really enjoyed meeting my pen pals. We cracked jokes, spent time hanging out and we exchanged Instagram accounts.” Christian said. 

In addition to his trip to Israel, Christian considers his entire experience at HLA rewarding and unique. 

“In 2015, I had the opportunity to go to California to represent my school and that was awesome. I think people wouldn’t expect someone like me to speak Hebrew so I think it is usually kind of a surprise to them. It makes me kind of… special.”

And that makes Wildine beyond proud. As New York and America prepare to re-enter some normalcy after nearly four months of quarantine, both mother and son are preparing to celebrate Christian’s virtual graduation ceremony at the end of June. He will give his valedictorian speech in both English and Hebrew and when Wildine looks back at those earlier years of working hard to help Christian learn English, she considers this celebration just as much her victory as it is his.

“I was really looking forward to getting dressed up and seeing him walk the stage,” Wildine said. “But I am so proud. It is his joy, but it is my joy too.”

Teacher Spotlight — Morah Orna!

Learning Tips for a Fun and Productive Summer


Summer is officially underway …and while we are sure that having your children at home is lovely, it can also be challenging to think of ways to keep them busy. Let’s remember that their brains need to stay active too! Encouraging your child to engage in summer learning activities will help prepare them for the following school year and form great studying habits for the future.

Below are a few tips that can help make sure that children are staying engaged with their studies over the summer:

  1. Read Every Day: 

    Did you know that reading daily for 30 minutes can significantly increase your child’s reading skills? Reading is an excellent way to exercise children’s brains, improve concentration, vocabulary, language skills, and much more. Make a fun trip out of it and let your child choose a book from the library, then go for ice cream afterward!

    As a way to inspire a lifelong love of reading, here is a list of websites that include book suggestions and recommendations for fun summer reading activities!

    Book Lists:  

  2. Write Every Week:

    Start a summer journal! Children can write about what they read, their summer activities, or write a letter to their best friend.

  3. Practice Social Emotional Learning (SEL):

    Be an active citizen by volunteering at a shelter, making a donation to a cause that your child feels passionate about or practice gratitude every day. Show them that politeness and manners can go a long way. Students who practice skills such as mindfulness and social awareness become exceedingly empathetic, understanding, and more open to other cultures.

  4. Practice Hebrew:

    Watch videos, read books written in Hebrew or listen to Hebrew songs! It’s important for children to brush up on everything they’ve learned throughout the year. We encourage you to take advantage of summer resources that were sent home; try practicing a few sentences a week.

    For younger children, here are a few songs your child can sing along to:
  5. Try Interactive and Fun Learning Games: 

    Try playing an outdoor memory game, visit a museum, get artsy and paint or create a scrapbook. Summer learning activities don’t have to be a bore. There are plenty of ways to spice things up in a way that kids forget that they are even learning something new!  You can check out a few ideas from Oxford learning here.

While pulling your child away from their electronic device or limiting screen time may not always be a simple task, the effects of not trying can be detrimental. Try using screen time as a reward for completing chores, practicing math and reading, or spending a certain amount of time doing physical activity.

We hope that you find these summer learning tips to be helpful. We can’t wait to see you all in September!

Have a wonderful summer!

By Elisabeth Castera

Meet Emily Fernandez — Our Chief Schools Officer!

We are absolutely thrilled to announce that Emily Fernandez will be joining our team in July as Hebrew Public’s new Chief Schools Officer!

Emily is an inspirational and strategic leader entering her fifteenth year as an educator. She is currently finishing the school year as Founder and Principal at Brownsville Ascend Middle School (part of the Brooklyn-based Ascend school network, on whose Board I have the privilege of serving).

Emily is an expert in instructional coaching, school leadership, student and staff culture, and evaluation. Students at her school have shown significant academic growth. She has a deep knowledge of how to ensure that growth while also creating warm and supportive school environments for children, staff, and parents. In addition to her work at Ascend, Emily has held roles at KIPP NYC and Teach For America in Miami-Dade, Florida.

Emily is driven by a deep belief in the ability of young people to excel when presented with rigorous challenges and unwavering support.

Upon accepting the position, Emily said, “There are many things that drew me to Hebrew Public. I’ve seen the network’s passion and motivation for children of all backgrounds to flourish while receiving an exceptional education in a diverse community. Teaching the Modern Hebrew language is a great way to expose young people to the world, a new language, and achieve high levels of academic achievement through instruction in two languages. In touring the schools, I’ve seen wonderful, positive, and kind children that have the character not just to excel for themselves, but to make a difference locally and globally. It is a unique movement, in unique schools, and I am so excited to be joining Hebrew Public at this pivotal time!”

Please join us in welcoming Emily to the Hebrew Public team!

Jon Rosenberg
President and CEO

P.S. Emily lives in Brooklyn and spends most of her free time reading to, playing with, or chasing after her two young children. She also loves exploring new restaurants and parks with friends.

A Broadway Benefit to Remember


Witty, funny, touching, and REAL.

Every year, our network hosts a Broadway Benefit. These events have raised a total of over $1.3 million to support our schools. It has become an annual tradition  — a celebration of Hebrew Public, and an opportunity to connect with our community.

This year, we watched the show Tootsie. The new musical is based on the acclaimed 1982 comedy classic. The story follows talented but difficult actor Michael Dorsey, played by Tony nominee Santino Fontana, who struggles to find work until an audacious, desperate stunt lands him the role of a lifetime.

The show was a representation of real-life scenarios. Each character revealed their true colors, the good AND the bad. The show touched on topics that most Broadway musicals would probably steer away from, such as gender politics, rejection, unemployment, difficult relationships, and the obstacles that one may face when pursuing their dream — with a hilarious spin.

We’ve all been through at least one of these situations, right? The show is relatable. I’m not sure if anyone of us would go to the extent that Michael Dorsey did by pretending to be someone they are not, but desperate times do call for desperate measures.

I must say that Tootsie did not let us down. It also confirmed that being a woman, is no job for a man!

Prior to the show, we enjoyed a performance from our third and fourth-grade chorus during our pre-show reception. They sang beautifully while families enjoyed hors d’oeuvres. It was a wonderful afternoon, with a room filled with family, friends, and laughs.




As our families walked out of the theatre — you could see the smiles and joy on their faces, which only meant one thing — that our Broadway Benefit was a success. We are truly grateful for the support we receive from each and every one of you.

Until next year!


By Elisabeth Castera

Meet Hadar Dohn — Our Head of School!

We are thrilled to announce that after a thorough search, Hadar Dohn has been named the new Head of School for Hebrew Language Academy.

Hadar Dohn has been a leading educator for over three decades. As a lifelong learner, Hadar strives for continuous professional development for herself and all those around her. She is committed to and experienced in, meeting the needs of diverse learners. Hadar knows how to mentor, coach, and support teachers, and always has students’ best interests at heart. She has been described by former colleagues as collaborative, an effective communicator, empowering, and radiating camaraderie.

Most recently, Hadar was the Principal of Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, which is a K-8 school. Before Schectner, Hadar served as the Head of School at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor for four years. Prior to that, she was at Temple Israel in Hollywood Day School in California for nineteen years. During that time, Hadar served in a variety of roles, including a Hebrew Teacher and Head of the Hebrew Department, and finally, as Principal. Hadar was also an elementary school art teacher earlier in her career.

Hadar has a Bachelor degree in Art from California State University, and a Bachelor of Literature and a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University. In addition, she is a Fellow and Graduate of the Day School Leadership Training Institute and Harvard University Principals Center.

During her spare time, Hadar enjoys reading and taking walks with her three dogs. She also loves cooking, but not baking, since it requires measuring. Hadar and her husband Mark, also an educator, are the proud parents of three children.

Hadar will start full-time this summer and will be making periodic visits to the school in the interim, so be sure to say hello and introduce yourself!

We are delighted to welcome Hadar Dohn to our community!

Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School Awarded Startup Grant

For immediate release
May 1, 2019

Philadelphia – Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) awarded Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School a $600,000 startup grant for the 2019-20 school year, with the potential to grow to $1.5 million over four years.

Hebrew Public is leading a national movement of exceptional, diverse public charter schools that teach Modern Hebrew to children of all backgrounds and prepare them to be successful global citizens. This grant supports the startup of Hebrew Public’s first school in Philadelphia that will be a citywide, open-enrollment public charter school.

PSP’s multi-year investment will enable Philadelphia Hebrew Public to launch with only grades K-1 in 2019-20 and grow to serve K-8 by 2026-27. After nearly three years of planning, the new school will open serving 156 students in September. Grounded in extensive outreach and demographic research, the school will be located at the junction of diverse neighborhoods in East Falls and Allegheny West and draw a diverse student body from across the city. Even in its first year, Philadelphia Hebrew Public has seen significant interest and is already engaging registered families in regular social events to build this unique school community.

“We are deeply grateful for PSP’s help in making it possible to bring Hebrew Public’s diverse by design school model to Philadelphia,” said Jonathan Rosenberg, President, and CEO of Hebrew Public. “Thanks to this investment, we’ll be able to launch thoughtfully and deliberately growing from a K-1 to a K-8 by 2026,” Rosenberg reflected.

Investing in Today’s Technology for Tomorrow’s Future

In the 2018-2019 school year, our New York City campuses have received technology equipment worth over $600,000. The competitive grants received from local government officials will help prepare students for the future in today’s digital economy.

The support from Brooklyn Borough President — Eric Adams, Manhattan Borough President — Gale Brewer, and Council Member — Alan Maisel allows staff from Hebrew Language Academy Charter School (HLA), Hebrew Language Academy and Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School to upgrade technology and infrastructure, make learning more fun, and ensure that students reach their academic potential.

“Our students are looking forward to improving their computer skills, such as computer coding and 3D printing,” says Sasha Kogan, Community Relations and Alumni Coordinator at HLA. “It’s really great to see the enthusiasm on their faces as they learn new digital skills. The kids have been using the laptops to access eLearning platforms, such as CompassThinkCerca, and keyboarding Without Tears — each program provides a personalized learning path for our students.”

Research has found that when schools provide students with laptops for use in the classroom and at home, learning improved in a number of subjects, including science, math, and English. “Students received more feedback on their writing, edited and revised their papers more often, drew on a wider range of resources to write, and published or shared their work with others more often,” the study concludes.

“These funds have allowed us to provide technology that we could not afford before. We are truly grateful to our local officials for the generous support of Hebrew Public students in Brooklyn and in Harlem,” says Valerie Khaytina, Chief External Officer of Hebrew Public, the grants will help support the network’s commitment of providing students with a high-quality education and equip them with 21st-century skills.”


We are grateful for the support we’ve received from Eric Adams, Gale Brewer, and Alan Maisel for investing in our schools and believing in our mission.

An Acceptance For All in the Workplace

Staten Island Hebrew Public approved by Board of Regents

For immediate release
November 14, 2018

Staten Island Hebrew Public approved by Board of Regents
New Charter School in Ocean Terrace set to open to students in
Fall of 2020 

Staten Island, NY – The New York State Board of Regents has authorized the opening of Staten Island Hebrew Public Charter School, a school that will be part of the Hebrew Public school network. 

Hebrew Public, a New York-based nonprofit that manages three public charter schools in New York City, will work with the new school’s board to open the school in the Fall of 2020. 

The school will be located in the Community  School District (CSD) 31, on Staten Island’s North Shore. The school is open to all children eligible for kindergarten and first grade residing in New York City, with preference given to residents of Staten Island. Staten Island Hebrew Public proposes to serve 162 students in grades K-1 during the first year of the charter term and grow to serve 522 students in grades K-5 at full capacity.  

Each Hebrew Public network school emphasizes global citizenship, serves students from all backgrounds, and provides a rigorous and supportive academic program that includes a focus on the study of Modern Hebrew. 

Jon Rosenberg, President , and CEO of Hebrew Public, which also works with five affiliated schools around the country, said the Regent’s approval is a testament to the network ’s hard work, dedication, and commitment to our great city’s children. 

For those looking for more information on the school and pre-enrollment are encouraged to visit: 

Hebrew Public’s mission is to lead a national movement of exceptional, diverse public charter schools that teach Modern Hebrew to children of all backgrounds and prepare them to be successful global citizens.