Following Principal’s Resignation, Calls Increase to Shut School
BY ELIZABETH GREEN – Staff Reporter of the Sun
August 10, 2007
Activists and a lawmaker are calling on the Department of Education to shut down the city’s first Arabic-language school immediately after the school’s principal resigned Friday morning following comments that seemed to support the violent Palestinian Arab uprising known as the intifada.
Speaking to The New York Post last week, the school’s founder, Debbie Almontaser, said T-shirts that say “Intifada NYC” were not endorsements of violence but rather “an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.”
Lawmakers and activists outraged by the remarks were planning a protest Sunday at the Department of Education headquarters to demand Ms. Almontaser’s resignation, but after Mayor Bloomberg announced that Ms. Almontaser had resigned Friday morning in his weekly radio broadcast, the rally has been canceled, and some critics are now calling for the school to be shut down altogether.
“I hope that this is the beginning of the end for this entire project,” a Democrat who represents Boro Park in New York’s state Assembly, Dov Hikind, told The New York Sun Friday. “If this woman, who I hear is a nice woman, if she couldn’t get this right, then I think the whole concept just doesn’t work.”
The Department of Education had backed Ms. Almontaser after her statements about the “Intifada” T-shirts, saying it accepted her quick apology, in which she said she regretted “minimizing the word’s historical associations.” But after the president of the teachers union, Randi Weingarten, issued a condemnation of Ms. Almontaser, the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, said he admired her decision to resign, saying the “controversy about her remarks threatened to destabilize the school.”
In her letter of resignation, obtained by The New York Sun, Ms. Almontaser said she was stepping down out of concern for Khalil Gibran’s students. Khalil Gibran critics’ “intolerant and hateful tone has come to frighten some of the parents and incoming parents,” she wrote.”I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens its doors on September 4th. Therefore, I have decided to step aside to give the Academy and its dedicated staff the full opportunity to flourish without these unwarranted attacks.”
Ms. Weingarten applauded the principal’s decision, but vowed not to end her support for the school’s concept, a curriculum taught both in English and Arabic, with some attention to Arab culture. “Getting a new school up and running is challenging under the best of circumstances, and the controversy surrounding [Ms. Almontaser] was a distraction that kept concerned parents and educators from focusing on the benefits and potential of this dual-language school,” Ms. Weingarten said.
Mr. Klein also vowed to support the school. “I continue to believe that an Arabic dual language program, much like our other successful dual language programs, offers unique preparation for the global marketplace,” he said, “and I remain committed to the success of Khalil Gibran International Academy.”
Critics of the school have raised concerns that Ms. Almontaser’s public commitment to peace might be a front for a violent agenda. A group of over 70 community members, including some parents and at least one city teacher, formed a group, the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, to investigate the school’s possible ties to terrorist organizations. It was pictures of the “Intifada NYC” T-shirts posted on their website that led The New York Post to ask Ms. Almontaser her thoughts about the shirts, which were created by an Arab American art group that shares office space with an organization Ms. Almontaser advises.
The Stop the Madrassa group is now calling on the Department of Education to shut down Khalil Gibran.
Ms. Almontaser founded Khalil Gibran as part of the Department of Education’s efforts to build new schools across the city. Its dual-language curriculum borrows a model used by culturally themed public schools across the city that teach languages such as Chinese and Greek.
According to a Department of Education spokeswoman, Melody Meyer, the school is not yet fully enrolled. It has capacity for 60 students, but fewer than 50 have signed up. Only six of those students identify as Arabic speakers, Ms. Meyer said, and a large majority are African American.
The protest planned for Sunday would have included Mr. Hikind and several other lawmakers, Mr. Hikind said. He said this afternoon that he plans to ask colleagues in Albany to join him in asking the Department of Education to shut down the school altogether. Calling the dual-language idea a flawed model, he said the mission of promoting the Arabic language would be better waged inside traditional public schools.
“If she got herself into trouble,” he said, “imagine what the kids will do.”
Some of the school’s five teachers’ training in Arabic education was paid for by a federal grant designed to promote the teaching of Arabic and Chinese in public schools, Ms. Meyer said.