BY DEBBIE ALMONTASER
Sunday, May 20th 2007, 4:00 AM
Be Our Guest
Even though the Khalil Gibran International Academy -for which I will serve as the founding principal – won’t open its doors for another three months, the school has already attracted national and even international attention.
Some critics claim that we will be segregating students based on their cultural identity – which they argue is contrary to the mission of public schools. Others have gone so far as to call our school “Khalil Gibran Islamist Academy” and “a taxpayer-funded madrasah.”
I can’t say I’m surprised at the reaction. But the claims are unfounded and unfair. Gibran Academy aims to offer all its students, from sixth through 12th grade, a rigorous, well-rounded and completely secular education that broadens their horizons. It is the type of school that can strengthen and unify the city – not, as some allege, tear it apart.
In 2005, when I first discussed creating an Arabic dual-language public school in New York City, controversy was far from my mind. I was thrilled then – and still am thrilled – by a vision of offering a Regents-based curriculum enhanced by intensive instruction in Arabic and the study of Middle Eastern history and culture, to give students unique and powerful preparation for success in the 21st century.
Such a school would graduate students with the skills they need to become independent thinkers, able to work and collaborate with cultures beyond their own in our increasingly global world. They would be equipped for careers in international affairs, diplomacy and business, among others.
My background was suited to creating such a school. I am an Arab-American, born in Yemen and raised in the U.S. I have worked for the New York City public schools for more than 15 years as a special education teacher, literacy trainer, youth development specialist and coordinator of cultural diversity and community-based programs.
I have also been extensively involved in interfaith and community work, promoting tolerance and bridge-building alongside people from different backgrounds all across the city.
This work proved crucial to the creation of the academy. My plan was to open the school in Brooklyn in an effort to serve both the Arab-American community and the broader community. This is a critical point; the school is not designed for Arab-American children. Rather, it is for students of all backgrounds to learn about the world, with a special focus on Arabic language and culture.
In the spring of 2006, the Arab American Family Support Center joined me as the school’s lead partner, bringing expertise in language instruction. And I recruited the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to help develop a curriculum in conflict resolution, a skill we consider essential for the internationally minded citizens the school would produce.
My belief that KGIA will be a jewel among the city’s public schools is undimmed by the recent criticism. I welcome anyone to visit the school in the fall. You won’t find religious or political indoctrination or anti-Americanism. What you will see is a diverse group of several dozen sixth-graders beginning an educational journey during which they will become fluent in Arabic. They will become versed in Arab history and culture, among others. They will master and surpass city and state standards in English, math, science and social studies.
Students will graduate emulating Khalil Gibran’s quote, “The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe.”
Almontaser is principal-designate of the Khalil Gibran International Academy.