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NY Arabic School Caught in Controversy

A New York City public school embroiled in controversy opened its doors two weeks ago in the borough of Brooklyn. The small middle school devoted to Arabic language and culture has received vast media attention since its principal was forced to resign over a contentious remark in a newspaper interview. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has details.

In addition to the 50 or so sixth-grade students who arrived on the first day of school two weeks ago, so too did security guards and a horde of reporters.

The Khalil Gibran International Academy has been in the media spotlight since New York's Department of Education decided to establish and open its first Arabic-English public school.

New York has about 70 dual-language schools that feature Chinese, Spanish, and French, but this is the first school that has incited such strong controversy.

The school's founding principal Debbie Almontaser gave an interview last month to the New York Post, a conservative newspaper. In the interview, the reporter asked about a T-shirt slogan that was created by a group of Arab women who share office space with another group that Almontaser leads. The shirts read "Intifada NYC" (New York City).

Media reports say Almontaser defended the slogan, saying the message did not advocate violence but rather a "shaking off." Some reports say Almontaser, who speaks Arabic fluently, even consulted a dictionary in the interview to show the reporter the original meaning of the word, now synonymous with the Palestinian uprising. Almontaser later apologized publicly but resigned under pressure.

Supporters like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz say the school and Almontaser are victims of a discriminatory campaign aimed at closing the school.

"Debbie's comments were no excuse for the treatment she and the school received from certain media outlets which jumped at the chance to make bigoted claims that the school was somehow connected to an agenda of violence," said Marty Markowitz.

Markowitz spoke at a news conference this week where defenders of the school called on education officials to show more support and to reinstate Almontaser.

He says the principal's comments last month may not have been well thought out, but the Board of Education should not have caved into pressure from conservative media and groups. He says opponents of the school are using every opportunity to smear Almontaser and her religion. Almontaser is Muslim and wears the hijab, or headscarf.

One group that is strongly opposed to the school is Stop the Madrassa.

It states on its website that Almontaser, given her radical views, should not have any position in public education. Adviser to the group, Jeff Wiesenfeld, says the school is a concession by the city to the Islamic community.

"That group must be treated separately for what reason? For the reason that perhaps if we are nice, we will not fall victim the way the Spaniards did, or the Israelis have. It's an undercurrent of fear," said Jeff Wiesenfeld.

There have been claims that the school is a religious one, an assertion Markowitz says is ridiculous.

"Certain articles and groups have also claimed that the school would be a religious school, which is a public school in America," he said. "It could never be and it will not be."

New York's Department of Education refused to comment on the issue for VOA, but released a statement this week saying it has no plans to reinstate the former principal, but it fully supports the school.

Carmen Colon says she withdrew her son from the school when Almontaser was "forced to resign." She says she is appalled that the mayor, the city's schools chancellor, and the Department of Education have not stood up for Almontaser.

The school received even more publicity when education officials replaced Almontaser with a Jewish, non-Arabic speaking woman as interim principal. Colon says she does not know the new principal and is more comfortable with the school under Almontaser's direction. She says that while she loves the curriculum and the idea that her son can learn Arabic in Brooklyn, she will not re-enroll him unless Almontaser returns.

"I thought that my son who is brought up Catholic, who is Puerto Rican, might actually gain something from a community school that he could actually walk to and learn more about his fellow neighbors," said Carmen Colon.

Brooklyn has a large Arab-American community with both Christian and Muslim immigrants from the Middle East.

Wiesenfeld says an Arabic school cannot exist without a connection to Islam.

"There is no such thing as learning Arabic and being in that type of setting without having religion imbued," he said. "If you know about pedagogy, when you're learning Arabic it means you're going to a higher level. You're possibly converting to Islam."

The Khalil Gibran International Academy is named after a Christian Arab poet, and school officials say the majority of the students are non-Arab and non-Muslim. In fact, they say the school is intended to be a multicultural institute that follows the same rules and regulations as any other New York City public school.