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Embattled Arabic School Set to Open in Sept.

Posted by vmsalama on September 1, 2007

By Vivian Salama

Forward Magazine  

NEW YORK – With only days until school bells around the United States signal the start of the 2007-2008 school year, much attention will be focused on one particular school in Brooklyn, New York. 
In so many ways, the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) is like any of its neighboring schools: it teaches math and science; physical education and art.  However, this middle school has introduced a curriculum with a feature unique to any other school in New York: Arabic language and culture.
In this city of 22 million, there are numerous schools focusing on particular themes, though few have generated as much controversy.  Even before a single student was enrolled, labels such as “public madrassa,” “segregationist,” and “jihadi” were associated with the school.  
Named after famed Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, the school would be one of few across the United States that incorporates the Arabic language into its curriculum.  It joins 70 other dual-language programs, including Spanish, Chinese, Haitian-Creole and Russian, which already exist in New York City. The school’s advisory board is comprised of a diverse range of people from all walks of life, including three rabbis.  Currently 44 students of Middle Eastern descent are enrolled to begin classes in this month. 
Designated to the post of principal of this controversial school was 39-year old Debbie (Dhabah) Almontaser, a Yemeni-American veteran of the New York City public school system.  Having worked to bridge some of the cultural gaps that developed following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Almontaser fiercely defended the Khalil Gibran School saying it was in line with the basic public school requirements for grades 6 through 12. 
Then controversy came knocking on Almontaser’s door.  At a press conference last month in New York, Almontaser defended t-shirts linked to her work on which there was a printed message reading “Intifada NYC.”  Behind the t-shirt is an organization called the Arab Women Active in Art and Media (AWAAM) which printed the t-shirts as a show of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.  Sharing office space with AWAAM is the Saba Association of American Yemenis.  Almontaser is on the Saba board.
When questioned about the t-shirts, Almontaser explained that the Arabic word “Intifada,” literally means “shaking off.”  When further questioned a day later, she took back the comment, but the damage was done.  The president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers slammed Almontaser for making comments she deemed inflammatory in a sensitive post-September 11th era.  In a statement made to the New York Post, UFT President Randi Weingarten explained “I’m very concerned about it…it’s not OK to explain away ‘Intifada,’ ” she said. “Maybe this was just a real error in judgment for which she has now apologized, or maybe, ultimately, she should not be a principal.”
Sure enough, it was only a matter of days before Almontaser stepped down.  Mounting pressure was not enough to close the school down but it was more than enough to dissuade Almontaser from assuming the role as principal of the academy.
“This morning I tendered my resignation to Chancellor Klein, which he accepted,” Almontaser said in a statement, referring to New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. “I became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized.”
The saga did not end there.
Within days of Almontaser’s resignation, the New York Department of Education announced that it had selected an interim principal to replace her.  To take her place is Danielle Salzberg, a woman raised as an Orthodox Jew.  All in all, the seemingly forced resignation of Almontaser coupled with the selection of Salzberg, a longtime educator at the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools in New York, has been viewed by many as a victory for a faction of the Jewish community that had waged a months-long battle against the school.
         On August 20, some 200 protesters gathered in front of the headquarters of New York’s Department of Education calling for the reinstatement of Almontaser.  Their sentiments were expressed in a New York Daily News editorial written by Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy.  She wrote, “In any language, a witch hunt is what led Debbie Almontaser to step down as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy,” adding, “New York is not as free of hate and racism as I once thought.”
Still plenty of critics continue to speak out against the school, saying that it risks opening the door to extremist Islamic thought.  Conservative American commentator Daniel Pipes wrote on his blog danielpipes.org: “”In principle it is a great idea _ the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands.”
In all likelihood, this Brooklyn middle school has not seen the last of controversy, but parents and administrators alike say the priority is providing a stable environment for its young pupils.  In the meantime, the 44 students currently enrolled in the Khalil Gibran International Academy are scheduled to begin classes – as planned – on September 4, 2007.

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