“Silenced in the Classroom” : Colorlines

December, 2008

By Seth Wessler

Sixth-grade students at the newly opened Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn were probably surprised last year when they opened their Arabic books to find photographs cut from the pages. “We cut pictures of mosques out of the Arabic books,” said Hassan Omar, an Egyptian man who until last spring taught Arabic and humanities at the academy, the country’s first Arabic-English, dual-language public school. “We are afraid that anything could be taken out of context.”

“They should have fought back,” he [Rashid Khalidi] said, referring to the city [of New York]. “The only way to deal with these factions that tread in falsehood and intimidation is to push back as hard as possible.”

It was not exactly what teachers and the planning team had expected. The Khalil Gibran school was to have been a refuge in the midst of post-Sept. 11 New York City, a place where a mixed group of Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers would learn together. The school, which opened in 2007 with a sixth-grade class, was designed to grow into a middle and high school in the spirit of the more than 65 dual-language schools in New York City, which teach in Spanish, Creole, Russian and other languages. By graduation, it was expected that Khalil Gibran students would have a command of Arabic and an understanding of the cultural context in which the language exists.

But this past September, many of the original sixth-grade students had not returned as seventh graders. The school has cut back on Arabic language instruction, is no longer set to become a high school and has moved twice in its first year of operation. The founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, was forced to resign following a media storm over the meaning of the word “intifada,” and the school is being led by its third principal. None of the original teachers remain at the school, and those who have left claim they were fired or forced to leave because of the stress.

It came to this, critics say, because the school was targeted by a network of conservative organizations and their media outlets that have long been in the business of attacking educators with any perceived links to Palestine. In the words of Jeffrey Weisenfeld, one of the cohort’s most prominent speakers and a powerful trustee at the City University of New York, the school would have been a breeding ground for an Islamist “religious crusade” and anti-Israel extremism posing “a danger to the social fabric of the country.”

While the idea of sixth graders leading a religious crusade might sound ridiculous, the conservative groups succeeded in their attacks. Today, the school appears mired in an atmosphere of fear, tension and instability.  Read more…


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