New York: How New Arabic School Aroused Old Rivalries

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 16 19:03:16 UTC 2007

How New Arabic School Aroused Old Rivalries

When aides to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein were presented last fall
with a proposal for an Arabic language and culture school, they thought
the idea could be controversial. But they said they could not resist the
appeal of a school that seemed right for the times and that would be a
piece of the school systems mosaic of dual-language programs.

Those intentions ran straight into the treacherous ethnic and ideological
political currents of New York and were overwhelmed by poor planning,
inadequate support for the principal and relentless criticism from some
quarters of the news media, primarily The New York Post and The New York

The founding principal of the school, known as the Khalil Gibran
International Academy, Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni immigrant with a long
pedigree in the school system, resigned on Friday under pressure after
defending the word intifada as a T-shirt slogan. On Monday, the schools
chancellor hastily appointed Danielle Salzberg, an educator who is Jewish
and speaks no Arabic, as the interim principal, prompting taunting tabloid
headlines like School Bad Idea Even Before Hebrew Ha-ha.

And Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was again explaining his administrations
handling of the school. You dont have to speak Arabic in order to run a
school, he said at an unrelated appearance yesterday in the Bronx.

We dont look at anybodys ethnicity in anything else and were not going to
start here. This is a school we should do, were going to do, and Im sorry
the last woman didnt work out, but I think were better off going out and
attacking the problem again, and I think weve got the right person.

But supporters and opponents alike wondered how the administration had
blundered so badly in a city where Mideast politics can be as passionately
debated as in Tel Aviv or in Gaza.

I believe there is nothing wrong with having a school related in Islamic
culture, said former Mayor Edward I. Koch.  I dont think there is anything
wrong with the idea at all. He added, referring to Ms. Almontaser: They
were too quick to fire her though. I thought she apologized and gave what
she thought was an adequate response and is believable.

The tumult continued yesterday morning, as dozens of parents and teachers
showed up for orientation at the school in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. A staff
member said that one parent asked Ms. Salzberg whether the children would
be the focus of relentless media attention.

Indeed, just a few moments after she tried to assure the parents, they
walked out to see television cameras outside.

This is their midsummer debacle, said Henry J. Stern, a former parks
commissioner. The idea was well-intentioned but utterly unreal.

Certainly the school system is no stranger to ideological and ethnic
ferment. School decentralization was born out of the clash in Ocean
Hill-Brownsville four decades ago that pit black activists against the
then-largely Jewish teachers union. Multicultural curriculums, the Harvey
Milk school for gay adolescents, and the ousting of black and Hispanic
school boards have all had their days of attention.

Ms. Almontaser was known as a community organizer in Brooklyn who had
worked with interfaith organizations and helped organize peace rallies
after 9/11. She was working with New Visions for Public Schools, a
nonprofit group that helped start dozens of schools in recent years.

Khalil Gibran was intended to serve 60 students, all sixth graders, with
just two classrooms.

Garth Harries, who is in charge of planning the citys new schools, said
the idea for an Arabic-themed school was appealing from the beginning.

It had a particular focus, it had an international studies theme, as well
as an emphasis on Arabic language, Mr. Harries said in an interview
yesterday. That dimension of it was something that we saw as useful and
enabling to that core goal of a quality rigorous core education.

He said officials knew there could be problems ahead. We were obviously
conscious that this was a sensitive subject, Mr. Harries said.  That was
something that the planning team had been aware of from the very

But if they were aware, they did little to help and defend Ms. Almontaser,
or even pave the way for the school with parents, many political figures
and education officials said.

Only months after plans for the school were announced, a group of vocal
parents and administrators at Public School 282 in Park Slope, which was
to share space with Khalil Gibran, managed to have it moved elsewhere.
Columnists in The New York Sun began attacking the school and suggesting
that Ms. Almontaser was an extremist. Some high-profile figures, like
Diane Ravitch, the historian of the New York school system, questioned why
the city should have specialized language and cultural schools at all.

And Ms. Almontaser, with her limited experience as an administrator in the
public eye, appeared unprepared for the onslaught.

This is not a job where you want to learn on the job, said one former
high-ranking school official who did not want to second-guess the
administration on the record because he still has dealings with the city.
If youre going to be thrown into the deep end, what you need is someone
who is an experienced official. Ms. Almontaser gave an interview to The
Post last week, and was asked about T-shirts sold by an organization that
shares space with a Yemeni group that Ms. Almontaser belongs to. Her
attempt to explain away the term intifada on the shirts began a weeklong
onslaught of damaging headlines.

I am surprised that in the few weeks before the school started, the
principal  as opposed to a Department of Education official  would be
talking to the press about an issue that doesnt relate to the school, said
Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, who
has been critical of Ms. Almontasers remarks.

She has no experience as a principal, and there was no support for her,
Ms. Weingarten said.

Education officials say that they were trying to keep the focus on opening
the school. We cant control all the ways that the discussion goes, Mr.
Harries said.

Education officials turned to Ms. Salzberg to take over the school. Robert
L. Hughes, the president of New Visions, said she was chosen based on her
experience with the school over the last several months.

I think that the calculation here was that we wanted to make sure that
there was continuity for the faculty, the students who had accepted the
school, and the planning process that had been in place for the last six
to eight months, Mr. Hughes said. Given those circumstances, Danielle was
the natural choice.

Ms. Weingarten compared Ms. Salzberg to a relief pitcher in the eighth
inning of a baseball game. Shes started a lot of small schools, she said.
They had to find somebody quickly who would have the confidence of opening
a new school.

But once again a principal seemed caught by surprise by the attention as
details emerged about her religious identity, where she goes to synagogue
and her signing of a petition to Orthodox rabbis asking them to do more to
help Jewish women whose husbands will not grant them religious divorces. A
person close to Ms. Salzberg said she has been stunned by the media
attention. The Education Department has declined to make her available for

Even as the department pressed on, promising to open the school on time
despite the criticism, it was faced with a relatively low enrollment  44
students, most of them black and Hispanic and only six with any
Arabic-language skills, according to officials.

Some were left wondering whether the whole effort was worth the fuss. Its
only worth it if you have gone into the Muslim community and found a
tremendous desire to have a school like this, Mr. Koch said. He said he
also found the selection of Ms. Salzberg strange. To put a principal
totally unimmersed in the culture seems like spitting in their eye, he

But Lena Alhusseini, the executive director of the Arab-American Family
Support Center, a partner with the school, said yesterday, Im very excited
about the school, and Im looking forward to working with Danielle.


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