As children, joking and gossiping, spilled out of Brooklyn's Khalil Gibran International Academy on a frigid Friday afternoon recently, one stopped to answer a waiting reporter's question about his experience there.
"It's a cool school," he said. "It's a good school to go to —" he continued, before another student cut him off.
"Don't say that! Don't say that!" his friend said. "It's neutral."
Whether New York City's first public school dedicated to the study of Arabic language and culture is good, bad or neutral will have to remain an open question, however, because press access to the school, its administrators, teachers and staff is sealed as tightly as a fortress.
Two teachers emerging from the building would not even look at a reporter as she tried to introduce herself. "No comment," one said, staring straight ahead.
Controversy existed almost from the moment of the school's inception. But it wasn't until a reporter at the New York Post interviewed the founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, that the school she had created was changed forever.
And so, several sources say, not even teachers who no longer teach at the school are willing to be interviewed. "It was an interview with a reporter that destroyed Debbie's vision," said a woman who helped to plan the establishment of the school. "Why would they want to talk to a reporter now?"
Calls to the school's parent coordinator, and e-mails to several former teachers, were not returned. A spokesperson for New Visions for Public Schools, the non-profit that administers KGIA for the New York City Department of Education, declined a request from the Forward to visit the school.
In 2005, New Visions, the school's developer, tapped educator Almontaser to lead a dual-language Arabic-themed public school, following in the path of similar schools that have been established, emphasizing such languages and cultures as Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian and Greek. With mixed enrollment, the school would help Arab immigrant children to assimilate and non-Arab students to learn about their classmates' language and culture. Almontaser — widely known as an interfaith bridge builder and as an ambassador for Muslim Americans — assembled an advisory board that included rabbis, imams and Christian clergy.
But from the beginning, critics such as Daniel Pipes, director of the conservative think tank the Middle East Forum, criticized the school, accusing it of harboring an Islamist agenda.
Still, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Department of Education stood behind the school and Almontaser until August 2007, when a New York Post reporter asked Almontaser about a T-shirt, emblazoned with the message "Intifada NYC." The shirts, the reporter noted, were produced and sold by a group for young Arab women that rented office space in the building of a Yemeni-American organization on whose board Almontaser sat.
"The educator in me responded," Almontaser later told The New York Times. She explained to the Post reporter that "intifada" derived from the Arabic word "shaking off," and gave an extended explanation of its political evolution. She said she doubted the group that produced the shirts meant to advocate violence in New York.
The next day, the Post's headline read, "City Principal Is 'Revolting': Tied to 'Intifada NYC' Shirts." A judge has since ruled that the article "incorrectly and misleadingly" made Almontaser's comments sound more inflammatory than they were. But the article was the final blow. Both teachers' union head Randi Weingarten and the mayor publicly criticized Almontaser for not denouncing the T-shirts. She resigned under pressure, less than a month before the school was set to open.
Since then, the school has had two different principals (the first, Danielle Salzberg, was an Orthodox Jew with no knowledge of Arabic). It has gone from a cramped space in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill, a neighborhood with a large Arab-immigrant population, to a space shared with P.S. 287 in Fort Greene — a better facility, but one far from most students' homes and from public transportation. Last June, a group of 16 parents wrote a letter to DOE Chancellor Joel Klein and the mayor that they were concerned about behavior problems at the school, about a "lack of resources and leadership" and, "most significantly, we worry about the school losing its identity as an Arabic dual language program."
On the other hand, the Academy scored an 'A' on its 2008–2009 DOE Progress Report, the most recent year for which data are available. It has 117 students in sixth through eighth grades, with five classroom teachers, according to a New Visions representative. The school will add a ninth grade next year, with 81 seats. All students take one 45-minute class period of Arabic language daily, and sixth graders take two additional periods of Arabic culture each week.
With the school's severe limits on media access, it is hard to assess how its troubled beginning affects its present. But it's clear that KGIA's students are aware, however dimly, of that beginning.
As her classmates milled around after school in their heavy winter coats and backpacks, Davina, a sixth grader in her first year at the school, said she knew of the controversy that preceded her. "I heard about it," Davina said. "A lady owned it, and she lost it, because she made students wear Arabic T-shirts saying something."
Contact Beth Schwartzapfel at firstname.lastname@example.org