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A School, Not A Madrassa, Grows in Brooklyn: After All the Controversy, a Celebration
By AMANDA MILLNER-FAIRBANKS


“. . .I believe that you have inherited from your
forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy,
which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude
upon the lap of America..."
--Khalil Gibran, from “I Believe in You.”


Principal Debbie Almontaser will be the first to admit that the idea of creating the nation’s first Arabic-themed public school was not her own. But it soon became an idea that she refused to abandon, no matter how controversial it became.

After a recent public battle over its future space, Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic-English dual-language middle school, is set to open with Almontaser at the helm in September. The school specializing in Arabic language and culture will have a temporary home inside K655, a Boerum Hill school that also houses Brooklyn High School of the Arts and Math and Science Exploratory School, a middle school. Half of Khalil Gibran’s 60 sixth-grade students are expected to be Arab American and half will be “other,” however broadly defined.

The seeds for this unique school took root for Almontaser on the evening of September 11th as she was trying frantically to get home to Brooklyn after hearing about the attack on the World Trade Center. Her hijab, or head covering of a devout Muslim, was visible to passersby. The Arab-American educator recalled people staring and pointing fingers at her as she sat in the back seat of her friend’s car. She could hear yelling and screaming, though the car windows were up, and the doors were locked.

Her mind was elsewhere that night. She was worried for her son, Yousif, then 19 years old, who had been deployed to Ground Zero as a National Guardsman.

“Why are people fearing me in my own community?” wondered Almontaser (pronounced Al-mon-toss-er).

During the fall of 2001, she refused to go anywhere unaccompanied. Almontaser, 39, who emigrated from Yemen at the age of 3, began to understand the anti-Arab sentiment she was encountering came from a common human fear of the unknown. She eventually emerged from her retreat to begin building bridges, counteracting misinformation about Islam with knowledge about Arab culture.

Fast-forward to the spring of this year, when Almontaser found herself leading the creation of Khalil Gibran, a school named after the Lebanese-born poet of the same name, who was a Maronite Christian and author of “The Prophet.”

In many ways, Khalil Gibran is an extension of the work Almontaser has been doing for years. A former teacher and consultant with the New York City Department of Education, she co-founded the September 11th Curriculum Project, a group of educators that began developing materials and workshops to educate teachers and schoolchildren about Arab culture.

“My mind is set,” said Almontaser, with a calm and steady smile. She views Khalil Gibran’s opening as an historic event. “This school is going to happen.”

The Arabic language, it should be noted, is currently taught at Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical High Schools. But this school’s addition to the city’s pantheon of dual-language public schools has ignited a firestorm, long before it has even opened its doors. If anything, the difficulty the school has encountered in securing a location reveals a city still mired in its own intolerance and confusion.

“It’s been a revelation for the public, but not for me,” said Almontaser, referring to those opposed to the school. “I’m aware of all the ignorance that’s out there, the misunderstanding, the misconceptions about a school teaching Arabic. There are so many people who can’t differentiate between an Arab and a Muslim.”

The Department of Education has stood behind Almontaser’s concept from the outset. “This is a public school, not politically affiliated,” said Melody Meyer, the chancellor’s spokeswoman. “It’s not a vehicle for religious or political ideology.”

Like the Shuang Wen Academy, a public school on the Lower East Side and the Amistad Dual Language School, a public school in Inwood, the Khalil Gibran International Academy will follow a dual-language curriculum. But where Shuang Wen combines English with Mandarin Chinese, and Amistad teaches English and Spanish, Khalil Gibran fuses English with Arabic.

Dual-language schools in New York are hardly new—and have never been this controversial. “All things Muslim, all things Arab, all things Middle Eastern are full of all kinds of bigotry,” said Brooklyn College professor, Moustafa Bayoumi, author of a forthcoming book about Arab youth in post-September 11th Brooklyn called “How Does It Feel to be a Problem?” He was not surprised to see hateful names like “jihadi” and “public-madrassa” hurled at Almontaser and the school.

Hundreds of small schools have opened their doors across the city. New Visions for Public Schools partnered with the Department of Education to help create Khalil Gibran. It is largely funded by a four-year, Gates Foundation grant of $400,000. And like many small schools, it has partnered with a community-based organization, in this case, the Arab-American Family Support Center, to provide additional services.

Most of the 40 small schools opening in the fall plan to take up residence inside larger, pre-existing ones. Khalil Gibran’s search for a permanent home nearly delayed its opening until the fall of 2008. The first choice for the Arabic school was inside of P.S. 282 in Park Slope. But subsequent protests by parents made the location impossible. The Park Slope school had transformed its vacant classrooms into computer labs and art studios, space the parents were loath to lose.

“It felt like we didn’t have a choice,” said Susana Smoleac, co-president of P.S. 282’s parents’ association. Since hearing about the school in mid-March, she organized protests and a letter-writing campaign. “We’re not against the opening of the school,” she was careful to say. “It’s just if they come in, they’re practically going to have to squeeze in.”

Smoleac felt relieved when it was announced that Khalil Gibran would not open inside of P.S. 282. But it was an outcome she thought could have been avoided, had the Department of Education consulted with parents from the beginning. “I believe it was the right decision from our perspective, but I sympathize with those that wanted to open the school. It’s not easy for them,” said Smoleac.

It is safe to say that the other schools opening next fall have received far less publicity than has Khalil Gibran. Media commentary has not helped to calm fears. On April 24, The New York Sun published a column by Daniel Pipes, titled, “A madrassa grows in Brooklyn.” He referred to an earlier Associated Press article, where Almontaser explained that the school would incorporate Arabic language and culture. Like some in the blogosphere, Pipes equated learning Arabic with teaching Islam. “Islamic culture?” Pipes wrote. “Not what was advertised—but imbuing pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, proselytizing for Islam, and promoting Islamist sympathies will predictably make up the school’s true curriculum.”

Such language is “irresponsible and defamatory; it has nothing to do with an Arabic school,” said Marcia Kannry, founder of the Dialogue Project, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that hosts monthly conversations between people of different faiths to promote better understanding.

More recently, also in The New York Sun, columnist Alicia Colon was outraged that an Arabic-themed school was even being considered. “ This proposal is utter madness,” wrote Colon. “We're bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again. Smart, really smart.” Colon went on to write that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are “bowing down in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future radicals.”

Pipes, Colon and several others are among the “loud minority voices based on ignorance, who equate Arab with Islam,” said Almontaser. “Islam is a religion. It has no culture.”

The press attacks are further evidence of widespread ignorance, noted Lena Alhusseini, director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, which is slated to provide English and Arabic-language classes for parents at Khalil Gibran, as well as social workers and after-school workshops. “Arabic is a language, no more, no less,” she said, adding that 67 percent of Arab-Americans identify not as Muslim but as Christian. “If I taught Russian in the 1970s and 1980s, was I bringing communism to the country?”

It is estimated that about 600,000 Muslims live in the five boroughs and represent about 8 percent of the city's population. Almontaser sympathized with students who felt guilt, shame and betrayal in the months following the terrorist attacks.

“But the Arab community didn’t arrive on September 12, 2001,” cautioned Bayoumi, who conceded that September 11th did, in many ways, heighten the profile of Arab Americans in New York.

With 40 percent of the city’s public schoolchildren living in households where a language other than English is spoken, Bayoumi views schools that promote a bilingual agenda as part of the contract of living in a multi-cultural society. “It’s the choice between mono-culturalism and multi-culturalism,” said Bayoumi. “American mono-lingualism is a hindrance to modern society in the global era.”

Outside of New York, the perception is that Arab Americans are still unfairly targeted. In September 2001, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 50 percent of those surveyed believed it was very likely that Arab Americans, Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East would be singled out by people in this country. That number dropped down to about 30 percent by January 2002 and has remained fairly consistent since then, with minor jumps in percentage points when the polls coincided with the anniversary of September 11th. Most recently, a January 2005 Intergroup Relations Survey found that 38 percent thought it was very likely that the same group was still unfairly singled out.

Not everyone believes the Khalil Gibran experiment is the best way to quell social bigotry. Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University, does not approve of any public school that singles out one ethnic or cultural group. “That is not the purpose of public education, which exists to teach our common pluralistic heritage and to prepare for the responsibilities of citizenship in our society,” she said.

Ravitch considers dual-language schools to be a good thing, but only when placed within the context of a public school that espouses no particular ethnic or cultural slant. She sees schools like Khalil Gibran forging separate paths and dividing young citizens into ethnic enclaves. “Public schools seek to bring us together, not to divide us into ethnic groups,” she said.

Almontaser hopes to enroll as diverse a student population as possible. “We want students who choose to be there and who are able to make the commitment,” said Almontaser. “We want students who are interested in staying until the 12th grade.” At dual-language schools, like Khalil Gibran, students who enroll are already proficient in English and want to master another language. Research shows the younger a child is introduced to a second language, the higher the chances are that the child will master both languages. Physiological changes that occur in the maturing brain as a child enters puberty help explain this unique window of opportunity.

Almontaser’s soon-to-be sixth graders are ripe for a second language to take root. Recruitment has been difficult since the location was not decided until the second week in May. But since it is open to any fifth grader citywide who wants to attend, it is not constrained by district limitations.

Almontaser was buoyed by e-mails she has received from all over the country. Recently she received one from Mariella, a 10-year-old from Queens, who is eager to attend. She is excited to continue learning the language, after having traveled in the Middle East, and gain a deeper understanding about its culture. Mariella even included a brief autobiography for Almontaser’s consideration.

Others in the community see in Khalil Gibran a way to smooth interactions between people of different faiths and cultures. “Encounters when buying olives at Sahadi’s aren’t enough,” said Kannry, referring to the Middle Eastern gourmet food store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. “School is a way of providing children with those sustainable encounters—not in a touchy-feely way, but a meaningful one.”

Like any new principal across the city, Almontaser’s summer is bound to be busy. Orders for Scholastic’s “My Arabic Library” are set to arrive before the inaugural class does. “Let us open, let us settle down,” she said. “Everyone is more than welcome to come in and visit.”

***


“I Believe In You”
By Khalil Gibran

I believe in you, and I believe in your destiny.

I believe that you are contributors to this new civilization.

I believe that you have inherited from your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy, which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America.

I believe you can say to the founders of this great nation, "Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful.

And I believe that you can say to Abraham Lincoln, the blessed, Jesus of Nazareth touched your lips when you spoke, and guided your hand when you wrote; and I shall uphold all that you have said and all that you have written"

I believe that you can say to Emerson and Whitman and James, "In my veins runs the blood of the poets and wise men of old, and it is my desire to come to you and receive, but I shall not come with empty hands.

I believe that even as your fathers came to this land to produce riches, you were born here to produce riches by intelligence, by labor.

And I believe that it is in you to be good citizens.

And what is it to be a good citizen?

It is to acknowledge the other person's rights before asserting your own, but always to be conscious of your own.

It is to be free in thought and deed, but it is to know that your freedom is subject to the other person's freedom.

It is to create the useful and the beautiful with your own hands, and to admire what others have created in love and with faith.

It is to produce wealth by labor and only by labor, and to spend less than you have produced that your children may not be dependent on the state for support when you are no more.

It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, "I am the descendant of a people that builded Damascus, and Biblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will."

It is to be proud of being an American, but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God hid his gracious hand and raised His messengers.