Media descends on Gibran as Arabic school opens

Media descends on Gibran as Arabic school opens
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

A horde of reporters from around the globe descended on Khalil Gibran International Academy on Tuesday to see if the first day of the city’s controversial Arabic-themed school would be as explosive as the coverage it has evoked since the dual-language program was unveiled in February.

But the day went smoothly, as children were escorted into the school’s building on Dean Street in Boerum Hill and the school’s principal and staff were shielded from the media.

About 50 supporters of the academy donned nametags reading “Welcome” and set up a green “welcome table” for students. But reporters had little to cover: protesters who derided the city’s first Arabic-themed school as a “madrassa,” the Arabic term for a religious school, were absent from Dean Street — they staged a demonstration outside City Hall instead.

With the opponents elsewhere, the reporters bore the brunt of school supporters’ criticism.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Park Slope’s liberal Kolot Chayeinu synagogue, who is a strong advocate for the school, read a statement denouncing anti-Academy newspapers such as the New York Post and the New York Sun.

“Because we believe certain media are incapable of reporting on this school fairly, we stand in silence, offering this statement only,” she said.

Lippmann then ended her “silence” by granting interviews.

Meanwhile, a father who had just dropped off his son at the Math and Science Exploratory middle school, which is housed in the same building, shouted — in earshot of the kids — a profanity to express his view of the media.

“Let the kids go to school!” he added

By 9 am, Garth Harries, who runs the Department of Education’s Office of New Schools, stood before a the mass of reporters and declared, “The students are in class right now, and they’re learning.”

That didn’t impress the school’s opponents.

New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser wrote in Wednesday’s edition that “New York needs this place as much as it needs another 9-11.”

And at Tuesday’s rally outside City Hall, Jeff Wiesenfeld, a spokesman for the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, said that in a perfect world, none of the city’s 69 dual-language programs would exist. But the Arabic-language one, in particular, was a problem.

“I would prefer these things be the way they were when I went to public school 35 years ago,” he said. “I was taught about the Pacific Island people, the Chinese people, the Teutons, the Arabs, and the African people in the context of my integrated classroom.

“But with the Islamic school, you will have to have special observation, special auditing that you don’t need in a Greek school or a Chinese school. You don’t have a threat from those cultures.”

The Gibran academy had a difficult birth. In March, parents at Park Slope’s PS 282 protested plans to shoehorn the Academy — a middle school — into their already crowded elementary school building. The Parent-Teacher Association ultimately prevailed, and the city moved the academy into a Boerum Hill building that already houses a middle school and high school.

The city mollified the PTAs at those schools by promising to upgrade their infrastructure.

While parents protested the city’s poor communication skills, critics like New York Sun columnists Daniel Pipes and Alicia Colon argued that the school would spark pan-Arab nationalism and, ultimately, homegrown terrorism. Pipes helped found the Stop the Madrassa Coalition.

The campaign eventually led to the forced resignation of founding principal and native Arabic speaker Debbie Almontaser, after she defined the word “jihad” as “struggle.” Opponents seized on Almontaser’s definition as evidence that she was soft on Islamic fundamentalism.

Almontaser was replaced by current principal Danielle Salzberg, a career educator who was also criticized because she neither speaks Arabic, nor has a background in Arabic culture.

Despite the controversy, Najat Handou happily sent her 13-year-old son to the academy.

Handou, who emigrated from Morocco nine years ago, wore a sky-blue hijab and, as a dozen reporters backed her up against a school wall, held an impromptu press conference of her own. “I want my kids to learn Arabic,” she said.

Khaled Hasane, who picked up his daughter from school that afternoon, said the controversy made him angry.

“I did not like the media twisting the issue into politics,” said Hasane, an East Flatbush resident and Palestinian immigrant. “My daughter’s not too happy. She doesn’t understand why all this is going on. I don’t even understand it myself.”

Children poured out of school at 4:15 pm — about an hour-and-half after other schools because of extra language instruction.

Adnane Rhoulam, 12, said he spent his first day learning science, geometry, and drama. And he learned how to count to three in Arabic and how to say “hello.”

Of course, this being school, there was also the typical adolescent ennui.

“I’m against the school, too,” said Gibran student Rudy Alsaidi, from Canarsie. “It’s boring. It doesn’t get out till 4:15, and I already know Arabic. So, it’s a waste of my time.”