Chestnut Hill is one of Philadelphia’s most genteel neighbourhoods, a beautifully shaded, hushed bastion of the oldest of the city’s old guard. Just past the manicured grass tennis courts of the Philadelphia Cricket Club, founded in 1854, is Chestnut Hill Academy, an all-boys school founded in 1851. A little further down the road is the academy’s sister establishment, the all-girls Springside School, founded in 1879.
But for all its blue-blooded tradition, a wind of change is rustling through this leafy enclave. In recent summers, Springside has played host to a very different sort of institution, founded in 2002: it’s a camp called Al Bustan, and its mission is to teach children and teenagers the fundamentals of Arab culture using the arts.
The camp’s umbrella organisation, a non-profit also called Al Bustan, contracts with some Philadelphia public schools …It is this kind of overlap with state education that has ignited controversy elsewhere in the US. New York City’s publicly-funded Khalil Gibran International Academy has become a lightning rod for controversy.
During the past three weeks, 55 children aged six to 16 have come every weekday to Springside to participate in Al Bustan (“the garden” in Arabic). A tour of the building can be an assault on the ears, but a pleasant one: a chorus of children counting aloud in Arabic gives way to the giggling of teenagers shooting a video dispelling ethnic stereotypes, their chatter then drowned out by the impressive thunder of traditional Arab drumming. Embroidery stitched by tiny hands adorns the hallways, and everyday objects ranging from blackboards to toilets are colourfully labelled in both English and Arabic. Read more…