BROOKLYN — Brooklyn College Professor Ken Estey's course on "Brooklyn and Its Religions" places a large emphasis on how leaders and citizens from different religious and cultural backgrounds work together to improve the borough. Brooklyn educator Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, recently addressed Prof. Estey's class at the college about the struggle she endured to create the academy.
Almontaser first told her attentive audience how excited she was to meet with them, and that she loved the ideology of the class. "We should have one in every borough, every state and every country in the world." Laughter and approval greeted this statement.
Khalil Gibran International Academy was intended as a secular school for multi-ethnic children citywide, Almontaser explained. It would be the only U.S. public school with Arabic taught in a dual-language program.
New Visions for Public Schools approached Debbie in the spring of 2005 with the proposal. Originally, they wanted to create a school that taught both Arabic and Hebrew. "I love it, I love it, we can be a little bubble inside the U.S." said Almontaser about creating a place where Arabic, Hebrew and American culture could coexist and learn from one another.
However, after consulting linguists, it was deemed too difficult for students to learn both of those complicated languages and English. (This is notwithstanding the fact that students in many parts of the world must learn two different languages simultaneously, In Israel and the Palestinian territories, Hebrew and Arabic are taught alongside English and French.)
Arabic won because "it is one of the most popular languages right now, even universities and government agencies are looking for Arabic speakers." After conducting an "informal" feasibility study, Almontaser found that politicians, interfaith clergy and community leaders thought it was a great idea and were willing to back her.
Out of 80 schools approved in Brooklyn in 2007, Khalil Gibran was the only one to make the news, being the first school with a 50 percent focus on Arabic, and a 50 percent focus on English.
"It is a fact that Brooklyn needs schools; it is one of the biggest boroughs in New York," said Almontaser.
She partnered with the Arab-American Family Support Center, and then canvassed the city for educators, parents, students and people of different ethnicities to form the design team and lead the project. Almontaser said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was so enthusiastic he granted permission for Kera Raffel, his education policy analyst, to be on the design team. Almontaser proudly presented the class a picture of the team: "Everybody's jaws would drop because they [the design team] were so diverse."
Plans went awry when newspapers such as the now-defunct New York Sun and the New York Post began to write about "home-grown terrorism," accusing Almontaser of having a militant terrorist agenda.
She stated very clearly to Prof. Estey's class that all the curriculum materials were sourced within the United States. American texts were translated by Scholastic into Arabic for usage in the school. Almonstaser felt that the resources needed to relate to the experience of American youth to "speak to students about what they are facing and dealing with here in the U.S."
It's You or the School
Following the misinformed media outrage, said Almontaser, the Department of Education on Aug. 9, 2007 gave her an ultimatum: her or the school. She stepped down to ensure that the school opened. However, Communities in Support of KGIA (http://kgia.wordpress.com) continues to support her and fight to reinstate her as its principal.
During a Q&A session, one student asked about conflict resolution and how the Palestinian-Israeli issue would be covered in the KGA curriculum. Almontaser, who believes it important that students be trained as critical thinkers, offered assurances that they would read from multiple sources on all viewpoints in order to develop their own opinions.
Responding to whether religion would be taught at Khalil Gibran Academy, Almontaser stated, "Absolutely not!" emphasizing that the whole idea behind the school was to teach Arabic in a secular setting.
Answering other questions, Almontaser said that the Khalil Gibran school is now in its second year, although it has fewer students than planned and none of the staff that she had so carefully chosen.
Gibran was an Arab-American philosopher, poet and author. His book, The Prophet, is considered the second most widely-read book in the world after the Bible. He was chosen as the school's namesake because he exemplified their fundamental values of bridge building among peoples. "When you read [The Prophet], you can't tell what his faith is. He was a humanist at heart," Almontaser said.
"The one important thing that always circles back for me is my love for Brooklyn. I love being in New York City, I love all of New York, but Brooklyn has a special place in my heart. When Ken actually approached me about coming and he told me what this class was about. I was so fascinated. There are so many different faith traditions and languages and cultural traditions and customs being practiced, it's such a unique borough."