New York: Head of City ’s Arabic School Steps Down Under Pressure

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Aug 11 22:54:59 UTC 2007

August 11, 2007
Head of City's Arabic School Steps Down Under Pressure


The principal of New York City's first public school dedicated to the
study of Arabic language and culture resigned under pressure
yesterday, days after she was quoted defending the use of the word
"intifada" as a T-shirt slogan. Debbie Almontaser, a veteran public
school teacher, stepped down as the principal of Khalil Gibran
International Academy, a middle school that is to open this fall in
Brooklyn. "This morning I tendered my resignation to Chancellor Klein,
which he accepted," she said in a statement, referring to Schools
Chancellor Joel I. Klein. "I became convinced yesterday that this
week's headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran
International Academy, even though I apologized."

Those headlines had become impossible for Ms. Almontaser and the
Department of Education to ignore. On Wednesday, a headline in The New
York Post called Ms. Almontaser the "Intifada Principal." Yesterday,
an editorial in the paper had the headline, "What's Arabic for 'Shut
It Down'?" Yesterday morning, speaking on his weekly radio call-in
program, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he continued to support the
school, but welcomed Ms. Almontaser's departure. "She got a question,
she's not all that media-savvy maybe, and she tried to explain a word
rather than just condemn," he said. "But I think she felt that she had
become the focus of — rather than having the school the focus — so
today she submitted her resignation, which is nice of her to do. I
appreciate all her service, and I think she's right to do so."

Chancellor Klein, who is vacationing in Colorado, acknowledged that
Ms. Almontaser's resignation was in the best interests of the school,
said David Cantor, a spokesman for the department. Ms. Almontaser's
resignation was the latest setback for a school that has been
bombarded with criticism since February, when the city announced plans
to open it. The attacks came from parents at public schools that were
to share their space with the Gibran school, as well as from local
conservative columnists, who said the school could promote radical

But the Education Department said yesterday that it was still
committed to opening the school and was searching for a new principal.
Ms. Almontaser is expected to be assigned to another position within
the department.

Ms. Almontaser's remarks, made last weekend, were in response to
questions from The Post over the phrase "Intifada NYC," which was
printed on T-shirts sold by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, a
Brooklyn-based organization. The shirts have no relation to her

"The word basically means 'shaking off,' " Ms. Almontaser told the
paper. "That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic."

With the help of the Education Department's press office, she
apologized on Monday, saying she regretted her remarks. "By minimizing
the word's historical associations, I implied that I condone violence
and threats of violence," she said in the statement. The word has come
to be associated with Palestinian attacks on Israel.

Education officials tried to tamp down the situation, saying Ms.
Almontaser had no direct connection to the Brooklyn group.

Her apology was followed by a rebuke on Wednesday from Randi
Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. Ms.
Weingarten, who had previously defended the school, called the word
"intifada" "something that ought to be denounced, not explained away."

And education officials said that after Ms. Weingarten's statements,
Ms. Almontaser had become an untenable distraction, and that the
school would be better served with a new principal.

Yesterday morning, speaking on his weekly radio call-in program, Mayor
Michael R. Bloomberg said he continued to support the school, but
welcomed Ms. Almontaser's departure. In an interview yesterday, Ms.
Weingarten said she respected Ms. Almontaser for resigning. "She was
becoming a lightning rod," she said. "Instead of debunking the
misapprehensions about the school, all she did was confirm them."

Ms. Almontaser had a major hand in designing the Khalil Gibran school,
which is to open in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, a
nonprofit group that has helped create many of the city's new small
schools. As described by its planners, the school will offer a
standard college preparatory curriculum, with instruction in Arabic
each day and a focus on international studies. Five teachers have been
hired so far.

The Education Department had planned for roughly half of the enrolled
students to have some background in Arabic, and the other half to be a
mixture of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

So far, the enrollment stands at 44, with most students identifying
themselves as black, and six Arabic speakers. The school planned to
have only sixth graders this year, then expand by a grade a year until
it includes grades 6 to 12.

Its first proposed location was in the building that houses Public
School 282, an elementary school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. But parents
there mounted vigorous opposition, saying there was insufficient room
for the two schools to share space.

They prevailed, and the school was reassigned to another site, in
Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. This time, Khalil Gibran would share space with
two schools: the Math and Science Exploratory School, a middle school,
and the Brooklyn High School of the Arts.

But parents there were just as antagonistic to sharing space with
Khalil Gibran, protesting at a contentious public hearing in the
school auditorium in May. The Education Department insisted that the
school would open as planned, though.

The department's decision was supported by many community leaders who
had worked with Ms. Almontaser, who has been active for many years in
community and interfaith outreach. She immigrated from Yemen when she
was 3 and is fluent in Arabic.

In an interview in May, Ms. Almontaser said she was unprepared for the
criticism she encountered from commentators. "What I am surprised
about, really, is how stuff like this is actually permitted and
allowed in public forums," she said.

Despite the department's efforts earlier in the week to defuse the
situation, by late Thursday afternoon, officials had stopped defending
Ms. Almontaser on the record. Yesterday morning, Mr. Bloomberg issued
his own version of a defense on his radio show. "She's very smart," he
said. "She's certainly not a terrorist. She really does care."

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