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