New York: Plan for Arabic dual-language school in Brooklyn protested

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri May 4 13:09:00 UTC 2007

May 4, 2007

Plan for Arabic School in Brooklyn Spurs Protests


The Khalil Gibran International Academy was conceived as a public embrace
of New York City's growing Arab population and of internationalism, the
first public school dedicated to the study of the Arabic language and
culture and open to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. But
nearly three months after plans for the middle school were first
announced, a beleaguered Department of Education is fending off attacks
from two angry camps: parents from Public School 282, the elementary
school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that was assigned to share building space
with the Khalil Gibran school, and a handful of columnists who have called
the proposed academy a madrassa, which teaches the Koran.

Now the chancellor of schools, Joel I. Klein, is considering other
locations for the school, or even postponing the opening for a year,
according to several people involved in the discussions, and the whole
endeavor has been turned into a test of tolerance and its limits in
post-9/11, multiethnic New York. The principal, Debbie Almontaser, who
came to America from Yemen at age 3 and who organized peace rallies and
urged tolerance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been vilified on
Web sites as having an Islamist agenda. Ms. Almontaser said she was
prepared for the reaction. Quite frankly, I don't let it bother me, she
said. I don't lose sleep over it. My main objective is the opening of the

Friends of the teacher, who is known as a moderate active in interfaith
groups, call the accusation preposterous. Its tragic that they should be
targeting her, said the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First
Reformed Church in Park Slope. Some call the controversy over the school
heartbreaking. Now is the critical time to teach young people Arabic, said
Eileen F. Reilly, a director at Camba, a Brooklyn social services agency,
and a friend of Ms.  Almontaser's. If a school like this cant happen in
Brooklyn, where can it happen? Others say that there is no room for such a
school in New York. Alicia Colon, a columnist for The New York Sun, wrote
that Osama bin Laden must have been delighted to hear the news of the
school. New York City, the site of the worst terrorist attack in our
history, is bowing down in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future
radicals, she said. I say break out the torches and surround City Hall to
stop this monstrosity.

Khalil Gibran, named after the noted Lebanese-born poet and philosopher
who wrote The Prophet, is a partnership with New Visions for Public
Schools, a nonprofit agency that has helped open dozens of schools, and
the Arab-American Family Support Center, a social service agency in
Brooklyn. Plans for the school called for it to enroll 81 students for the
2007-8 school year, beginning with sixth graders only, and eventually
expanding to Grades 6 through 12. It was envisioned like other
dual-language schools in the city, like the Shuang Wen Academy, a
top-performing elementary school on the Lower East Side that teaches
classes both in English and in Mandarin.

The first sign of discontent came from the parents of P.S. 282, where the
school was supposed to share space. They staged protests and besieged Mr.
Kleins office with e-mail messages this winter and spring.

Their litany of complaints was long: They objected to sharing space with
another school, particularly with middle and high school students who they
said could put their elementary school children in danger. They predicted
that class sizes at P.S. 282, now comfortably small, would increase close
to capacity. And they were indignant when told that they would have to
sacrifice space they used for activities like computer instruction and

We all just want 282 to remain an elementary school with the same space
and services that we have now, said Xiomara Fraser, the PTA president.
Their interest is getting a whole new school that has nothing to do with
this school and that will encroach on our space and disrupt the flow of
this school.

As the efforts by the parents of P.S. 282 stalled, another form of protest
was just getting started. Ms. Almontaser had become a high-profile figure
in Brooklyn after 9/11 and had spoken in interviews about her embrace of
Muslim customs, including wearing a hijab, and how she was a part of the
American melting pot.

A Web site called Militant Islam Monitor recently posted side-by-side
photographs of Ms. Almontaser wearing different types of headscarves,
suggesting that she had changed her appearance to disguise her Islamist

In The New York Sun, a column by Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle
East Forum, a conservative research center that says its goal is to
promote American interests in the region, declared that A Madrassa Grows
in Brooklyn, contending that the school would generate problems and
promote an Islamic outlook.

Mr. Pipes, who lives in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview, What
you find is that the materials that are included in an Arabic curriculum
have a natural tendency to promote Islam.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said the school would have a
standard college preparatory curriculum, with separate Arabic language

Ms. Almontaser said she planned a curriculum that was not religion-based,
and that would include the history and contributions of the Arab people.

Supporters of the school, many of them residents of heavily Muslim
communities in Brooklyn, have come out in large numbers to defend Ms.

Its just outrageous, said Mohammad Razvi, the executive director of the
Council of Peoples Organization. It is not fair for anyone to make such
negative remarks just because the school is going to be teaching Arabic as
a language. She's a person who brings communities together and makes them
understand and works on peace.

Mr. Razvi said he intends to send his 11-year-old son, Akeel, to Khalil
Gibran if it opens this fall.

People are very much excited, very much encouraged by the school, said
Shamsi Ali, an imam at the Islamic Center on East 96th Street in Manhattan
and a member of the advisory board of Khalil Gibran. After Sept. 11,
particularly, Arab communities felt misunderstood. Such a school, I think,
will show our good intentions.

If the school is postponed, it may be because of logistics as much as
controversy. Since a location has not been confirmed yet, the Education
Department has not been able to accept applications formally. At this
point in the year, most fifth graders already know where they will be
attending sixth grade in the fall.

The location right now is being worked on by the Department of Education,
and I'm confident that they are working to find us a home that will be
embracing and positive, Ms. Almontaser said.

Meanwhile, the parents of P.S. 282 have labored to distance themselves
from the schools other opponents. Linda Littlefield, a parent and PTA
member, said the parents were horrified by the ideological opposition by
columnists to an Arab language school. We felt that was so damaging, she
said, emphasizing that the Park Slope parents did not have a problem with
the theme of the school, but did not want to share the school itself.

We don't talk to them, Ms. Fraser added of the columnists. They do what
they have to do to sell their papers.

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