Slope ousts Arabic school; City caves, relocates Gibran Academy to Boerum Hill

The city has given up its controversial plan to squeeze an Arabic language and culture middle school into a Park Slope elementary school, an endeavor that incited weeks of parental protests over the school’s limited space and raised questions over the notion of an Arabic school.

On Wednesday, the Department of Education announced that the Khalil Gibran International Academy would instead be housed at the Brooklyn High School for the Arts, whose building on Dean Street in Boerum Hill also includes the Math and Science Exploratory School, a middle school (see page 15).

Park Slope parents hailed the city’s relocation as a victory over what they regarded as a top-down and unwise plan, given the limited space of the PS 282 building and concerns about mixing young children with the teenagers at the Gibran Academy.

“We are so glad, so happy,” said Sherry Rodriguez, who has two children at the school, which is on Sixth Avenue and Lincoln Place. “Now we can have all the programs we need, and we don’t need to mix pre-K kids with older kids.”

The PTA at PS 282 found out about the city plan to move another school into its Park Slope building at its March 12 meeting, and PTA members have been holding protests in front of the school and at the Department of Education’s Manhattan headquarters ever since.

While PTA members said their concerns were limited to the logistical, others focused on the propriety of establishing an Arabic school in the first place.

The New York Sun ran two harsh columns criticizing the school, including one by Alicia Colon that invoked the specter of 9-11.

Colon charged that the city was “bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again.” She asked, “During World War II, did we open a German public school to explain the Third Reich?”

“How delighted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda must have been to hear the news — that New York City, the site of the worst terrorist attack in our history, is bowing down in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future radicals,” Colon added.

Letters critical of the school received by The Brooklyn Paper included one from Park Sloper Steven Rosenberg, who wrote, “There’s no better way to atomize our culture than to allow each little group to never have the need to enter the larger society, learn its values, language, etc.”

Others were harsher.

The Department of Education skirted this line of opposition in announcing the school’s site change, holding that its decision was based on space considerations at PS 282.

“We took a look at what impact sharing space would have on both schools and decided not to move forward,” said Melody Meyer, an Education spokeswoman. She said the decision was made in “consultation with the principal and school leadership team of PS 282.”

Supporters of the Khalil Gibran Academy continue to defend the program, with its city-approved curriculum, as “secular,” and the vitriol as yet more evidence that there is a dire need for more education about the Middle East.

“This is a sad day for intellectual dialogue, for conversation among people,” Ahmed Issawi, the executive director of an arts organization that is helping shape the Academy’s arts curriculum, said the day after the Department of Education scuttled the school’s Park Slope plan.

“This reminds me of those people who think Americans should only speak English, as if somehow being an English and Spanish speaker is wrong. That people would go so far as dividing their children form knowledge is something I can’t understand.”

Debbie Almontaser, the future principal of the Academy, did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Lena Alhusseini, the executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, the lead partner of the school, told The Brooklyn Paper that the Academy is not about politics.

“All the school is about is teaching New York kids how to be competitive in a globalized world,” said Alhusseini. “There’s a school that teaches Mandarin, and no one’s accused it of a hidden political agenda.”

There are, according to the Department of Education, 65 dual-language academies, featuring programs in Haitian Creole, Russian, Spanish and Mandarin, among others.

“They’re effective in teaching students another language, which we think is increasingly important in the world that they’re growing up in,” explained Meyer, the Education spokeswoman.

Non-Arabic supporters of the school were also quick to spring to its aid, including Rev. Daniel Meeter of Park Slope’s Old First Reformed Church and Rabbi Micah Kelber of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, both of whom serve on the school’s advisory council.

“Teaching a new generation of kids different ways of talking to each other is the only way we can solve these kinds of diplomatic conflicts in the Middle East,” Kelber told The Brooklyn Paper.

Meanwhile, at least one PS 282 parent extended an olive branch to the Academy.

“The vision for an Arabic school is good,” said Alexandra Davis, after dropping off her second-grade son at PS 282 on Monday morning. “Especially in this world, where everything is changing in the Middle East. But unfortunately, we have to use this school. And logistically, there is not much room.”

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