Fatwa! City will kill Gibran middle school due to poor numbers, performance

Standing firm
Matthew Weinstein

A controversial Arabic-language middle school — founded after a highly divisive public battle that involved curriculum, staffing and even whether the school would churn out terrorists — will be closed by the city for its gravest sin: failing to attract students.

Under the current proposal, the Department of Education would essentially put the Khalil Gibran International Academy out of its misery after the school “struggled to recruit and retain middle school students.”

Worse, the school’s most recent report card gave it F marks for both “student performance” and “student progress.”

The city will now try to turn the Arabic-language and culture school into a high school, and move it from its current location on Navy Street in Fort Greene to the Metropolitan Corporate Academy building on Schermerhorn Street in Downtown.

At a hearing on Monday night to discuss the death of the middle school, no teachers and only two parents showed up to defend the current program — a far cry from 2007, when supporters eagerly rallied for the Gibran Academy after opponents trashed the school with claims that its Islamic-centered instruction would inevitably glorify violence.

It’s a stunning fall from prominence for the school, which was founded by Debbie Almontaser in a seemingly bulletproof partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, which had created more than 100 small schools in the city. But the Arabic-language and culture curriculum was almost immediately under fire from anti-Arab conservatives as well as some liberals who were concerned about segregating public education.

Almontaser didn’t do herself any favors, becoming a lightning rod after she refused to repudiate a line of T-shirts reading, “Intifada NYC,” a reference to violent struggle.

Founding principal Debbie Almontaser didn't do herself or her school any favors.
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

When she was forced out by the Department of Education, the New York Post could barely hide its glee: “Intif-adios to school chief,” the headline said.

A federal panel later ruled that the city had discriminated against Almontaser for violating her free speech rights, but she never returned to the school, which is now on its third principal and third location.

The school, without Almontaser at the head, enrolled its first class in shared space in Boerum Hill before moving to Fort Greene two years ago. But neither location complemented the Arabic program; only 1 percent of the population in the neighborhood around the current location is of Arab descent, according to the Census Bureau. As a result, enrollment has plummeted.

“The number of students attending the school each year has substantially declined,” the city said, citing 60 sixth-graders in 2007 compared to the mere 35 this year. “In 2010, Khalil Gibran … received the lowest number of sixth grade applications in District 13. Only 18 percent of students who applied to Khalil Gibran ranked it within their top three choices. Declining enrollment … suggests that District 13 families are seeking other options better matched to their interests and needs.”

But the Academy could thrive as a high school program, city officials said.

“The school’s goal is to prepare students for college and successful careers and to foster an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning, and desire for excellence in all of its students,” the Education Department said.

The city will discuss the issue again at the new Khalil Gibran building [362 Schermerhorn St. at Third Avenue in Downtown, (212) 374-5141] on April 14 at 6 pm.