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How New Arabic School Aroused Old Rivalries

Aug 15, When aides to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein were presented last fall with a proposal for an Arabic language and culture school, they thought the idea could be controversial. But they said they could not resist the appeal of a school that seemed right for the times and that would be a piece of the school system's mosaic of dual-language programs.

Those intentions ran straight into the treacherous ethnic and ideological political currents of New York and were overwhelmed by poor planning, inadequate support for the principal and relentless criticism from some quarters of the news media, primarily The New York Post and The New York Sun.

The founding principal of the school, known as the Khalil Gibran International Academy, Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni immigrant with a long pedigree in the school system, resigned on Friday under pressure after defending the word "intifada" as a T-shirt slogan. On Monday, the schools chancellor hastily appointed Danielle Salzberg, an educator who is Jewish and speaks no Arabic, as the interim principal, prompting taunting tabloid headlines like "School Bad Idea Even Before Hebrew Ha-ha."

And Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was again explaining his administration's handling of the school. "You don't have to speak Arabic in order to run a school," he said at an unrelated appearance yesterday in the Bronx.

"We don't look at anybody's ethnicity in anything else and we're not going to start here. This is a school we should do, we're going to do, and I'm sorry the last woman didn't work out, but I think we're better off going out and attacking the problem again, and I think we've got the right person."

But supporters and opponents alike wondered how the administration had blundered so badly in a city where Mideast politics can be as passionately debated as in Tel Aviv or in Gaza.

"I believe there is nothing wrong with having a school related in Islamic culture," said former Mayor Edward I. Koch. " I don't think there is anything wrong with the idea at all." He added, referring to Ms. Almontaser: "They were too quick to fire her though. I thought she apologized and gave what she thought was an adequate response and is believable."

The tumult continued yesterday morning, as dozens of parents and teachers showed up for orientation at the school in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. A staff member said that one parent asked Ms. Salzberg whether the children would be the focus of relentless media attention.

Indeed, just a few moments after she tried to assure the parents, they walked out to see television cameras outside.

"This is their midsummer debacle," said Henry J. Stern, a former parks commissioner. "The idea was well-intentioned but utterly unreal."

Certainly the school system is no stranger to ideological and ethnic ferment. School decentralization was born out of the clash in Ocean Hill-Brownsville four decades ago that pit black activists against the then-largely Jewish teachers union. Multicultural curriculums, the Harvey Milk school for gay adolescents, and the ousting of black and Hispanic school boards have all had their days of attention.

Ms. Almontaser was known as a community organizer in Brooklyn who had worked with interfaith organizations and helped organize peace rallies after 9/11. She was working with New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that helped start dozens of schools in recent years.

Khalil Gibran was intended to serve 60 students, all sixth graders, with just two classrooms.

Garth Harries, who is in charge of planning the city's new schools, said the idea for an Arabic-themed school was appealing from the beginning.

"It had a particular focus, it had an international studies theme, as well as an emphasis on Arabic language," Mr. Harries said in an interview yesterday. "That dimension of it was something that we saw as useful and enabling to that core goal of a quality rigorous core education."

He said officials knew there could be problems ahead. "We were obviously conscious that this was a sensitive subject," Mr. Harries said. " That was something that the planning team had been aware of from the very beginning."

But if they were aware, they did little to help and defend Ms. Almontaser, or even pave the way for the school with parents, many political figures and education officials said.

Only months after plans for the school were announced, a group of vocal parents and administrators at Public School 282 in Park Slope, which was to share space with Khalil Gibran, managed to have it moved elsewhere. Columnists in The New York Sun began attacking the school and suggesting that Ms. Almontaser was an extremist. Some high-profile figures, like Diane Ravitch, the historian of the New York school system, questioned why the city should have specialized language and cultural schools at all.

And Ms. Almontaser, with her limited experience as an administrator in the public eye, appeared unprepared for the onslaught.

"This is not a job where you want to learn on the job," said one former high-ranking school official who did not want to second-guess the administration on the record because he still has dealings with the city. "If you're going to be thrown into the deep end, what you need is someone who is an experienced official." Ms. Almontaser gave an interview to The Post last week, and was asked about T-shirts sold by an organization that shares space with a Yemeni group that Ms. Almontaser belongs to. Her attempt to explain away the term intifada on the shirts began a weeklong onslaught of damaging headlines.

"I am surprised that in the few weeks before the school started, the principal - as opposed to a Department of Education official - would be talking to the press about an issue that doesn't relate to the school," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, who has been critical of Ms. Almontaser's remarks.

"She has no experience as a principal, and there was no support for her," Ms. Weingarten said.

Education officials say that they were trying to keep the focus on opening the school. "We can't control all the ways that the discussion goes," Mr. Harries said.

Education officials turned to Ms. Salzberg to take over the school. Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions, said she was chosen based on her experience with the school over the last several months.

"I think that the calculation here was that we wanted to make sure that there was continuity for the faculty, the students who had accepted the school, and the planning process that had been in place for the last six to eight months," Mr. Hughes said. "Given those circumstances, Danielle was the natural choice."

Ms. Weingarten compared Ms. Salzberg to a relief pitcher in the eighth inning of a baseball game. "She's started a lot of small schools," she said. "They had to find somebody quickly who would have the confidence of opening a new school."

But once again a principal seemed caught by surprise by the attention as details emerged about her religious identity, where she goes to synagogue and her signing of a petition to Orthodox rabbis asking them to do more to help Jewish women whose husbands will not grant them religious divorces. A person close to Ms. Salzberg said she has been stunned by the media attention. The Education Department has declined to make her available for interviews.

Even as the department pressed on, promising to open the school on time despite the criticism, it was faced with a relatively low enrollment - 44 students, most of them black and Hispanic and only six with any Arabic-language skills, according to officials.

Some were left wondering whether the whole effort was worth the fuss. "It's only worth it if you have gone into the Muslim community and found a tremendous desire to have a school like this," Mr. Koch said. He said he also found the selection of Ms. Salzberg strange. "To put a principal totally unimmersed in the culture seems like spitting in their eye," he said.

But Lena Alhusseini, the executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, a partner with the school, said yesterday, "I'm very excited about the school, and I'm looking forward to working with Danielle."

The New York Times
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