Khalil Gibran International Academy
|Khalil Gibran International Academy|
|50 Navy Street
Brooklyn, New York, 11201
|School type||Public middle school|
|School board||New York City Department of Education|
|Vice principal||Maria Huliaris|
|Grades||7 - 12 (Currently only 7 & 8)|
|Enrollment||61 (October 2007)|
|Language||English and Arabic|
|Website||NYC DOE School Portal|
The Khalil Gibran International Academy is a public school in Brooklyn, New York City, New York that opened in September 2007 with about 60 sixth grade students. As the first English-Arabic public school in the country to offer a curriculum emphasizing the study of Arabic language and culture, it has been placed at the centre of controversy by opponents Khalil Gibran, the school's namesake, was a Lebanese-American Christian Maronite poet.
The committee that designed the school included the original principal Debbie Almontaser (a former teacher and community activist) and several nonprofit groups, including Lutheran Medical Center, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Salaam Club of New York, and the lead partner, the Arab American Family Support Center, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit.
The school's stated mission is
to prepare students of diverse backgrounds for success in an increasingly global and interdependent society. Our focus is on holistic student development and rigorous academics. Through our multicultural curriculum and intensive Arabic language instruction, students graduate with the skills they need to become empowered independent thinkers who are able to work with cultures beyond their own. Students graduate with a deep understanding of different cultural perspectives, a love of learning, and a desire for excellence, with integrity preparing them for leadership in today’s constantly changing global world.
Further, the federal government has stated that the country is in critical need of Arabic and Chinese speakers, and grants have been given out for schools teaching those subjects. Modern Arabic language is a dialect continuum with two dozen varieties that might be considered languages in their own right. They are the majority language in 20 countries of the Arab world, which has a population of some 325 million people.
The BBC reports that some attendees have joined to reconnect with their families' culture and homeland; others, with no Arab or Muslim background, because they believe learning the language will give them a valuable skill.
A Brooklyn College professor, Moustafa Bayoumi, says that "It's not uncommon for Arab students to feel isolated — I think [the school is] seen as a foothold" and that he believes that the school is making them feel more at home in the city.
Although the Khalil Gibran International Academy is one of 67 dual language schools in the city of New York, its unique position as the first public school focused on Arabic language and culture in the USA has made it the target of much criticism. Indeed, an organization called "Stop the Madrassa" held a protest outside New York's city hall calling for the school to be shut down. The New York Times reported that KGIA had become the center of controversy as a result of an "organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life."
Objections to the curriculum
While opponents argue that such a school is unnecessary and that creating it only promotes non-assimilation, supporters of the school say that contrary to preventing social cohesion, the school could act to improve integration by providing the school community with health services, counseling, youth leadership development, and English as a second language classes for parents.
Daniel Pipes, an adviser to "Stop the Madrassa" and the founder of Campus Watch, has said that as the school is teaching the Arabic Language, it needs to be held under a "special scrutiny," adding that "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." However, Pipes has been roundly criticized for being a "propagandist" of "anti-Arab racism" and for his attacks on academic freedom. Also, Garth Harries, a school official, has denied any religious activities would be taking place inside: "Religion plays absolutely no part in the school. This is a public school, it wouldn't play a part in any of our schools."
The BBC reported that in searching the Internet they found many hateful messages about the school that conflate the Arabic language, Islam, and terrorism. Anthony DiMaggio, assistant professor of Middle East Politics at University of Illinois at Chicago, has described the criticism of the school as "racist", adding that the controversy contained "fundamentalist efforts to demonize not only Islam, but the Arabic language itself." DiMaggio further noted the flaw of equating the Arabic language with Islam: "there's nothing inherently linking Islam with Arabic ... claiming that the Arabic language is inherently Muslim makes about as much sense as claiming that English is inherently Christian."  In addition to followers of Islam, the Arabic language is spoken by people in a number of other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Bahá'í, Druze, Yazdanism, and Zoroastrianism.
"Intifada NYC" and changing leadership
Another controversy erupted in August, 2007, around original principal Debbie Almontaser's response in a New York Post article to a T-shirt that read "Intifada NYC." The organization responsible for the T-shirt (Arab Women Active in Art and Media) shares an office with an organization (SABA - The Association of Yemeni-Americans) for which Almontaser is a board member and public relations officer. The Post quoted Almontaser:
The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society ... and shaking off oppression.
The Post claimed Almontaser was trying to downplay the T-shirt worn by Arab women in New York, and attacked Almontaser and KGIA, referring to Almontaser as the "'Intifada' Principal" and agitating for the closure of the school. Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, also criticized Almontaser for failing to condemn the T-shirts immediately.
According to Almontaser, during the interview, she was asked about the origins of the word intifada, to which she gave a "lengthy explanation" about the history of the word and the negative connotation it has now acquired; intifada in Arabic is a "valid term for popular resistance to oppression," but most of the English-speaking world, equates intifada with the violent uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation. The federal appeals court determined that The New York Post quoted Almontaser "incorrectly and misleadingly."
In February, 2008, Federal appeals judges made comments suggesting they thought the city of New York overreacted in its handling of the case, and noted that a Department of Education spokesperson who monitored the interview thought it went well. According to Judge Jon O. Newman, "this was a situation where she was subject to sanction not for anything she said, not for anything she did, but because a newspaper reporter twisted what she said and the result of it was negative press for the city and the Board of Ed."
Almontaser alleges that she was forced to resign due to this remark, and has sued the city for breaching her free speech rights. Almontaser claimed that members of the ‘Stop the Madrassa’ coalition stalked her wherever she went and verbally assaulted her; that to stir up anti-Arab prejudice, they constantly referred to her by her Arabic name, a name that she does not use professionally; and even created and circulated a YouTube clip depicting her as a radical Islamist. She was replaced by an interim principal Danielle Salzberg, who is Jewish and cannot speak Arabic, while a national search for a permanent principal was underway. In January, 2008, Holly Anne Reichert was appointed principal. Parents had complained of a chaotic school environment.
On March 16, 2010 Reichert resigned following an EEOC office's determination that Almontaser's rights had been violated in her dismissal. The Department of Education replaced Reichert with Beshir Abdellatif, a secular Muslim from Tunisia, who in filling the Gibran post resigned from Law, Government and Community Service High School in Cambira Heights, Queens, where he had served since 2008. The New York Times reported: "A lawyer for the founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim of Yemeni descent, said he found the timing of the move “curious” and suggested that it was a “cynical ploy” intended to divide supporters of the school and of Ms. Almontaser." In the second week of April, 2011 the Department of Education announced that it would close the school for poor performance and difficulty in attracting new students.
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