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Mideast-focused public school causes protests

Few of New York City's dozens of small public schools that focus on themes have generated controversy.  Then, someone decided to start a Middle Eastern-themed school and a storm of protest has ensued.
Debbie Almontaser
Debbie Almontaser, the New York City teacher who will lead the proposed Khalil Gibran Academy.Diane Bondareff / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This city has dozens of small public schools that focus on themes — sports careers, the arts and social justice. Few generate controversy.

Then, someone decided to start a Middle Eastern-themed school.

“Jihadi,” “public madrassa,” and “segregationist” are some of the labels tossed at the plan. Conservative Web sites have ranted against the idea, as have some members of the public. Even concerns about finding space for the school have been coupled with questions about security.

All this before the school has enrolled a single student.

“It’s hard not to believe that this is in some way a political statement,” said one opponent, 72-year-old Lorna Salzman. “I think it can very easily deteriorate into something that people could see as confrontational.”

Expected to open in fall
Debbie Almontaser expected the reaction. The New York City teacher, a Muslim of Yemeni background, will lead the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which is expected to open in the fall. She has done extensive interfaith and cultural work to fight stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims since Sept. 11.

If anything, she says, the school is needed more than ever.

“It is a school that is going to be working quite hard in building bridges of understanding, tolerance and acceptance, valuing diversity and truly just developing students into global citizens,” she said.

The school, which is named after the famed Lebanese-American Christian poet who promoted peace, would be one of a few nationwide that incorporate the Arabic language and Islamic culture. Almontaser and city Department of Education officials say the curriculum will be in line with basics required from public schools while integrating elements of its theme.

For instance, the role of Arabs in developing algebra would be explored in math. In history, students may study Egypt’s extraordinary past. And Arabic will be offered as a second language. The goal is to eventually teach half of the classes in Arabic.

Plans are to open this September with a 6th grade and gradually expand into a middle school and high school. About half the students are expected to be of Arab heritage, though the school will have open admission.

Fierce reaction
New York already has schools specializing in Asian culture and Chinese language, and is opening one that centers on Latin American culture. When the education department revealed plans for the Middle Eastern school earlier this year, the reaction was fierce on right-wing Web sites.

Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator who frequently rails against militant Islam, wrote on his blog: “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.”

Critics questions whether the school can separate religion from Arab culture and language in its teaching.

“Being that we are a public school, we certainly are not going to be teaching religion,” said Almontaser, 39. “Islam does not have a culture. Islam is a religion.”

She said the school won’t shy away from sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

“Teachers are going to be expected to provide students with multiple perspectives on whatever the issue is,” Almontaser said. “Students will, through the critical-thinking skills that they will develop, make informed decisions on the perspective that they want to believe.”

Almontaser said she has heard interest from parents of all backgrounds, and stresses that a multi-ethnic, multi-religious group of people played a role in the devising the school. She expects to easily fill 81 slots this year — if the academy finds a place to teach the students.

Site in Brooklyn eyed
The education department has proposed that the school share the Public School 282 building in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood for the first three years. Parents of students at PS 282, an elementary school, say squeezing another school inside the building would hurt resources available to their children.

Some have noted that the school has generated ideological controversy, and have questioned if that could mean a security risk. And some say they don’t want older students sharing a building with their young children.

Almontaser said she hopes the space issue will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. And she has a suggestion for those who persist in questioning her school’s existence: “Come visit us.”