PTAs to back Arabic school in Boerum Hill — but parents say they feel dumped on

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The two Parent-Teacher Associations at a Boerum Hill school will back a city plan to house an Arabic language and culture academy in its building, despite complaining that they had no say in the decision and facing a mini-revolt from many parents when the plan was presented after the fact at an “emergency meeting” on Monday.

The meeting came six days after a May 8 conference at which the Department of Education informed principals and the PTAs of the two schools housed in the Dean Street building — the Brooklyn High School for the Arts and the Math and Science Exploratory middle school — that the Khalil Gibran International Academy would be moving into this fall.

“There’s some real skepticism on the part of parents, but if [they] can be convinced, the community could help make the program a success,” said Thomas McMahon, the vice president of the middle school PTA, after the unprecedented Monday night meeting.

McMahon emphasized that the “skepticism” was not connected to the school’s Arabic language or culture curriculum — which was partly involved in the dispute that killed the city’s initial plan to house the school in the PS 282 elementary school building in Park Slope.

“The debate is not about the creation of an Arabic studies school,” McMahon said. “The issue is whether the school building can support an additional school, even for the two years it has been proposed.”

Despite the uneasy detente between Department of Education officials and the PTAs, tensions still run high about how the transfer of the Gibran Academy from Park Slope to Boerum Hill came about.

The city’s decision came just days after the department shelved its initial PS 282 plan.

That school’s PTA insisted that it should have been consulted, that there was no room for an additional school, and that it was unwise to mix young children with teenagers. Some critics also objected to the establishment of a public school devoted to Arabic culture.

The Boerum Hill decision sparked a similar sense of outrage for nearly identical reasons.

Lisa Gioe-Cordi, the middle school principal, wrote to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein that “the school administration was not given a say in the [department’s] decision to place a third school in the building.”

Sandra Toppin, the president of the high school PTA, remarked at the Monday meeting that “it was obvious … that the decision was already made,” though she promised not to fight it after city officials vowed to put in writing that the Academy would stay no longer than two years and that long-promised renovations to the school would be made.

Despite school leaders’ conciliatory words — and the presence of a damage control team in the guise of a deputy mayor, a high-ranking Education official, and the principal of the Arabic academy — parents greeted city officials on Monday with barely concealed rage.

Sonjay Murray, whose son is a student at the middle school, told Garth Harries, the head of the Department of Education’s Office of New Schools, that the Boerum Hill building had “no room.”

“You’re interrupting the children who are already here and their education,” said Murray.

Harries insisted that the building had room for 600 more students and that the new Academy would only occupy four classrooms and one administrative space.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott tried to come to his assistance, telling the irate crowd that, “Our goal is to minimize any type of disruption. Garth will have clearer, more concise answers after we do the [May 16] walk-through.”

Parents were skeptical.

“Part of the issue is the lack of trust between parents and the [Department of Education],” said Marcia Van Wagner, whose child is in the sixth grade.

“There’s a ‘Shoot first and ask questions later’ strategy. What are the consequences if the things you put in writing don’t happen?”

Gibran Academy founder and principal Debbie Almontase attended the meeting and said she was not to blame for the controversy.

“I had no say [over location],” she said.

“The only thing I had a say in was that I’d like to be in Brooklyn. PS 282’s reaction was valid. In that situation, I probably would have felt the same way.”

The Gibran Academy would be the city’s first dual-language school to focus on Arabic, according to the Department of Education, which said that the city already has 60 similar programs for languages ranging from Haitian Creole to Mandarin.

The city has said that Brooklyn is desirable venue for the shcool because it is home to a sizeable Arab community.

At Monday night’s meeting, no school parents expressed objections to the theme of the Gibran Academy, although two outsiders did complain noisily.

Sunset Park resident Desiree Bernstein railed about Islamic religious law and managed to raise Walcott’s hackles.

“I find it unfortunate that this school is being singled out,” said Walcott.

“It is like dual-language schools that teach Korean. This school will be like any other New York City public high school, junior high school, or elementary school. The issue is about space.”

Parents were equally quick to dismiss the anti-Arabic rhetoric.

“She doesn’t represent us,” said Kristen Harvey, whose child is in sixth grade.

“The only issue is space.”

Updated 4:28 pm, July 9, 2018
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