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Exclusive: Almontaser speaks! Gibran school principal stares down her critics

The Brooklyn Paper

First Park Slope parents, and then their Boerum Hill counterparts, have been engaging in a seemingly epic — and nasty — scuffle about the placement of an Arabic language and culture academy into an existing school building.

But amid all this shouting, one voice was largely absent: that of Khalil Gibran International Academy Principal Debbie Almontaser (pictured).

Almontaser is a native of Yemen and a longtime veteran of the Brooklyn public school system, having worked for years as an elementary school teacher and diversity consultant.

This week, Almontaser spoke with The Brooklyn Paper about her school, her vision, and the ensuing brouhaha.

Q: This week, you attended a Boerum Hill PTA’s “emergency” meeting about the city’s latest plan to house your school within the existing High School for the Arts on Dean Street. How did you feel about the parents’ concerns?

A: These are issues and concerns that parents have a right to raise. I feel for them. I know how they feel in terms of being in this situation. I’m also in this predicament, in that my school is going to be placed in a building that already has two other schools, and I won’t have the luxury of space that ideally I would like to have or had envisioned when proposing this school to [the city]. But the school is approved, and we’re determined to open it, and we’re determined to work collaboratively with the other principals to make it work.

Q: At the meeting, you said that you had no role in deciding the school’s location, except for your preference for Brooklyn. That said, did you expect the process of placing the school to be so difficult?

A: I did. This is just the nature of New York City and the lack of space for many things. … The Academy is quite an intriguing school for many people, and I’m not surprised by some of the questions that were raised … because … you have people who are not very well informed about the public school system, [who don’t] understand [that the schools] are not religion-based. I’m glad [questions were] raised. I’ve answered them. Deputy Mayor [Dennis] Walcott answered them. This is a public school providing a non-religious education for students who are interested in learning Arabic as a second language.

Q: What will the school’s curriculum be like?

A: All of the [city’s] core curriculum expectations [will be met]. Sixth graders will learn about the ancient world … We will have reading and writing, math, science. What will be different [is that] we will be able to infuse historical information into math and science and literature. … With any foreign language you engage in, you need to learn the history, culture and customs of the people in order to navigate the language effectively and not offend anyone.

Q: Could you give us an example of how Arabic history and culture will infuse the core curriculum?

A: In math, as you know, algebra originated from the Arab world. So, we’ll look at the historic background of algebra, at the historic background of the Arabic numbers. The numbers we use today are Arabic numerals.

Q: How much of the instruction will be in Arabic?

A: The language aspect of it will take place during our extended day, from 3 to 5 pm … Students are expected to pass the Arabic Regents in order to graduate, so we’re very serious about them developing this language.

Q: Why is it important for public-school students to have the option of learning Arabic?

A: At this time and age, it’s so important for students in the United States to have one or two languages under their belt. Right now, Arabic is one of the most sought-after languages in the entire world. There are millions of dollars in federal funding that are available to education systems to teach Arabic. I saw this as a very important opportunity … to provide [students] a competitive edge for the 21st century, [so] they can develop into globally oriented citizens, [so they can] learn about the world from many different lenses.

Q: What do you say to conservative critics like Daniel Pipes, who called Arabic language instruction “inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage?”

A: He studied the Arabic language as a Middle Eastern historian and he seems to have done really well at still maintaining his roots and his identity. And I’m confident that we will be able to teach students Arabic as a second language and make sure they maintain their identity as he has.

Q: Do you expect to fill all 60 seats in your first class of sixth graders at Khalil Gibran, giving how late in the year it is?

A: Absolutely, without a doubt. We had a Brooklyn middle school fair, and we had over 60 families [expressing interest].

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