Waiting game puts Lowell High Hebrew program in limbo

Hebrew classes at San Francisco's Lowell High School are continuing as usual this spring while backers scramble to save the beleaguered language program.

Instructor Michal Dramen, an Israeli native, said she's teaching 26 students as she waits to hear if she qualifies for a California teaching credential.

In December, district officials warned her that she needs the credential to keep her job.

Lowell is believed to be the only public high school in the Bay Area that offers courses in Hebrew.

"I'll teach this semester, and we'll see what happens," said Dramen, who has taught Hebrew at Lowell since 1989 as an independent contractor. She received a teaching diploma from the University of Haifa in 1965.

But according to district officials, Lowell, a public school with competitive entrance requirements, must employ only credentialed teachers to keep its state accreditation.

Though former Superintendent Bill Rojas waived Dramen's credentialing requirement in 1994, school officials recently decided that waiver is not valid.

While an agency hired by the state reviews her transcripts, Dramen said she has been offered help by the dean of San Francisco State University's College of Education.

Dramen said the dean, Jacob Perea, heard of her dilemma and offered to assist her with any additional training she needs.

Another possibility, according to Perea, would be to continue offering Hebrew at Lowell as a San Francisco State course, where Dramen "would be employed by us."

"I thought we had some alternatives," Perea said last week. He predicted that the outside review of Dramen's transcript could take six to eight weeks.

Meanwhile, the Lowell Alumni Association is awaiting word on Dramen's status before actively seeking private funds to finance the program for at least the next four years.

The program has faced declining enrollment in recent years, and first-year Hebrew was eliminated altogether this year.

Given the shrinking enrollment, a school budget committee decided last year that the classes must be supported by outside funding instead of district money.

Alan Wendroff, an alumni association board member and a professional fund-raiser, said two foundations already "have expressed interest" in supporting the Hebrew program.

"We want to get on," he said, noting that supporters hope to guarantee the program's survival before students select their courses for the fall.

He estimated the annual cost of instruction at $20,000.

Lowell Principal Paul Cheng couldn't predict the ultimate outcome of Dramen's credentialing issue, but said, "We'd like to help her in any way possible."

A group of Lowell parents planned to meet this week to come up with additional strategies for saving the program — and boosting its enrollment in coming years.

"We're kind of in a Catch-22 situation," said Tami Zemel, the mother of a junior taking Hebrew. "We need to generate interest in the community but we don't have funding for the program yet."

One idea would be to have current Hebrew students visit local middle schools to describe the course to incoming students.

"This is really a beloved program," Zemel said. "I think that's a really important thing to get across."