One of New York City's smallest public schools is probably one of the most controversial – the Khalil Gibran International Academy. The Brooklyn middle school, devoted to Arabic language and culture, opened its doors for the first time this week as the city's new academic year got underway. Paige Kollock reports.
Some 50 sixth graders arrived at their first day of school to heavy security and a gaggle of press. They are in the spotlight because they are the first to attend New York City's new Arabic school, Khalil Gibran International Academy.
Parent Najat Handou moved to the United States from Morocco nine year ago. She is thrilled that her son can now learn his parents' native tongue. "I feel so proud because we have, like, a public school that's going to teach Arabic, which is good for our kids."
But even before it opened its doors, the school has been a source of intense controversy.
New York City's Department of Education says the Khalil Gibran Academy is not a religious school – and is just one of some 70 other bilingual schools in the city's public school system where classes are taught in a language other than English.
But the academy is the first public school in New York to teach in Arabic and give some lessons in Arabic culture – this in a city still traumatized by the 9-11 terrorist attacks six years ago.
School opponents, who staged a small rally at City Hall in Manhattan attended by more media than protesters, fear the school could be a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism.
Jeff Wiesinfeld is a member of 'Stop The Madrassa Coalition'. He says the school has no place in the public education system. "While most Muslims are not terrorists, virtually all terrorists are Muslim, says Wiesinfeld. “Yes, the world is different since 9/11. The Saudis have funded terror. Other Arabic groups have funded terror, and we have to look at those schools a little bit differently than we look at the Chinese and the Greek and the French [schools]."
But the school has many supporters, including Rabbi Ellen Lippman. "Many of us feel that there is room in this city for this new public school and that it will grow and thrive and perhaps build bridges between people, instead of having so much divisiveness."
Earlier this year, arguments surrounding the school were so intense, that the school's original principal resigned, and the building's location had to be moved.
But on opening day, there was no sign of protesters at the school, only supporters welcoming the students to a school they think is crucial to keeping America's children competitive in a world where Arabic and the Middle East play a significant role.