“The Story of Khalil Gibran International Academy Racism and a Campaign of Resistance” : Monthly Review

July 1, 2011

July-August Issue, 2011
by Debbie Almontaser and Donna Nevel

Debbie Almontaser who founded and was principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy, was a teacher and administrator in New York City’s public school system for twenty years. Currently she is a doctoral candidate at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, has been involved with a wide range of organizing efforts for justice. She is coordinator of the Participatory Action Research Center for Education Organizing (PARCEO) in partnership with the Educational Leadership Program at Steinhardt-NYU, where she teaches PAR.

This article appears in two parts. The first tells the story of what happened to New York’s Khalil Gibran International Academy and its founder, and the second describes the organizing campaign that followed.

The Story of Khalil Gibran International Academy

by Debbie Almontaser

In 2005, I was immersed in working with the Mayor’s Office on the inauguration of Arab Heritage week. In the midst of this, New Visions for Public Schools, a school reform organization, decided to begin the development of an Arabic/Hebrew-language high school with a co-existence theme. After months of searching for an Arab-American educator to work on such a school, Adam Rubin contacted me after the recommendations from the Department of Education (DOE), the Mayor’s office of Immigrant Affairs, and lastly, even from an Arab-American woman at a Brooklyn falafel stand.

Read more…




April 10, 2011

For Immediate Release

April 10, 2011, NYC— After having done a great deal to ensure that the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) would not succeed, the New York City Department of Education is closing the middle school—citing its low enrollment and failing marks on its School Report Card.  KGIA was founded in 2007 to be a model Arabic-English dual language school designed to “help students of all backgrounds learn about the world and foster in them an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning, and desire for excellence in all of its students.”

The DOE has, over the years, taken numerous steps that undermined any chance for the middle school to carry out its mission:

Even before the school opened in 2007, the DOE and Mayor (with Dennis Walcott as the Mayor’s messenger) forced the resignation of founding principal Debbie Almontaser after the New York Post, which asked her to define the word intifada, misreported and sensationalized her response. Right-wing groups that had been opposing the school chimed in with their own brand of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim bigotry. Ms. Almontaser was fully vindicated by a March 2010 ruling of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which stated that, in demanding her resignation, the “DOE succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel, and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on the DOE as an employer.”  Her removal from the school reflected the willingness by the Mayor and Chancellor Klein to bow to right-wing hate groups.

After a deeply flawed search in which the DOE refused to consider Ms. Almontaser’s application, it replaced this long-time educator, who is bilingual and bicultural, with a New Visions’ employee, who spoke no Arabic and had no local community roots or demonstrated commitment to KGIA’s initial vision. The school’s next leader, who also came from New Visions and who resigned with the school in disarray, also had little knowledge of, or relationship with, NYC’s Arab communities, and had no experience leading a school.

The DOE and New Visions consistently refused to provide KGIA with the staff and other resources necessary for it to succeed. Months went by, for example, without the school having a special education teacher.  Increasingly, the school was staffed by those who lacked commitment to KGIA’s initial vision; as a result, a school that had begun with great promise as a grade 6-12 dual language school designed to educate its students about the Arabic language and Arab culture, became just another middle school in which students study a foreign language a few periods per week.

Without consulting with parents of KGIA students, the DOE decided to move the school in September 2008 from its original site near neighborhoods with sizable Arab communities to a site in Fort Greene, where only 1 percent of the population is of Arab descent (U.S. Census) and public transportation is sparse.  Although parents of students then enrolled in KGIA objected to the move, they were too late.  As is all too typical, the DOE informed parents only after it had made its decision.

“This is one more story of a DOE and a Mayor who–without the participation of any community and in capitulation to a campaign of racism and hatred–destroyed a school whose purpose was to educate students of different backgrounds to be socially engaged citizens,” stated Mona Eldahry of AWAAM: Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media.

In a letter to the Mayor at the height of the controversy, a group of nationally respected educators wrote the following:

“For those of us working in the field of education, the treatment of Debbie Almontaser represents a threat not only to our rights as educators and citizens in a democratic society; it is also an attack on the small-schools movement and on the push for diversity and equity within our system of public education. Will bigotry be allowed to decide which public schools can exist and who can lead them?”

Ujju Aggarwal from the Center for Immigrant Families added, “We need KGIA and schools like it more than ever. At a time when profit is being put before the needs of our children; when a top-down approach of mayoral control has replaced partnerships among schools, communities, students, and educators; when there is increased Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia; we need schools like KGIA that respect, reflect, and serve all our children and communities.”

Adem Carroll of Communities in Support of KGIA stated: “Despite their closing the middle school down, those of us who were part of this movement pledge to continue this struggle on many different fronts.  Those of us who were part of Communities in Support of KGIA have continued to work together to challenge Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism and for equity and justice in our public schools.”

“School Grounds as Battlefield: Political Lessons at an Arabic-themed School” : In These Times

March 19, 2010

By Michelle Chen

In 2007, New York City public schools were poised to break new cultural ground. The city established the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a comprehensive public school specializing in the Arabic language. The grade 6-12 school, the first of its kind, was designed as a symbol of cross-cultural understanding in a city still healing from the scars of September 11.

the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vindicated Almontaser, ruling that the New York City Department of Education’s treatment of Almontaser was discriminatory

It was also the opportunity of a lifetime for Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni-American New Yorker, longtime educator and activist, who was chosen to head the new school. But that dream was soon extinguished by those who believe the city has no business engaging Arab culture through the classroom.

Before the school even opened its doors, a right-wing cabal launched a smear campaign against Almontaser and the city’s Arab and Muslim communities. In the end, the school survived, but Almontaser was ousted in a storm of anti-Muslim screeds from the conservative media and blogosphere.  Read more…

“Federal Panel Finds NY Dept. of Education Discriminated Against Arabic School Principal” : Democracy Now

March 16, 2010

Watch Video Here


The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled the New York City Department of Education discriminated against the founding principal of an Arabic-language school in Brooklyn by forcing her to resign in 2007. In a non-binding ruling, the commission said the city had discriminated against the principal, Debbie Almontaser, “on account of her race, religion and national origin.” We speak with Almontaser and her attorney, Alan Levine.

“NYC’s Jihad Against Debbie Almontaser” : truthdig

March 16, 2010

Mar 16, 2010
By Amy Goodman

Debbie Almontaser has won a victory in her battle against discrimination. She was the founding principal of the first Arabic-language public school in the United States, until a campaign of hate forced her out. She is well known for her success in bridging cultural divides, bringing together Muslims, Christians and Jews, yet as the new school neared its opening date in the summer of 2007, she became the target of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attacks. Last week, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) discriminated against her “on account of her race, religion and national origin.”

Hers is a vision the New York City Department of Education should embrace, with her prompt reinstatement.

The school is called the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Gibran was a Lebanese-born writer and philosopher. His best-known book, “The Prophet,” published in 1923, has sold more than 100 million copies in 40 languages. A line from “The Prophet,” prominent on the academy’s website, reads, “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  Read more…

“Department of Ed Discriminated Against Debbie Almontaser” : The Huffington Post

March 15, 2010

March 15
by Jim Luce

The paper I love to hate, The New York Post, shouted: “City Principal Is Revolting: Tied To ‘Intifada NYC’ Shirts.”

Do you remember? The summer of 2007.

It is one of many small steps toward justice in employment and education for immigrant communities, communities of color and other marginalized communities.

A group of fanatics insisted that T-shirts with the word “Intifada,” sold at an Arab Heritage event in Brooklyn, were linked to the principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA).  Read more…

Press Release: CAIR-NY Welcomes EEOC Finding of Bias in Ouster of Principal

March 13, 2010

NEW YORK, NY, 3/13/10

EEOC: Debbie Almontaser discriminated against ‘on account of her race, religion and national origin’

The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY) today welcomed a determination by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that city officials discriminated against Debbie Almontaser “on account of her race, religion and national origin” by removing her as interim principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in 2007 and disqualifying her for the permanent position as principal of that Arabic language school.

In a letter issued Tuesday, the EEOC stated that the Department of Education (DOE) “succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on D.O.E. as an employer.”

SEE: Federal Panel Finds Bias in Ouster of Principal (NY times)

“This preliminary victory is a strong rebuke to the vocal, agenda-driven minority that seeks to marginalize the American Muslim and Arab-American communities,” said CAIR-NY Civil Rights Director Aliya Latif. “We call on the Department of Education to reinstate Ms. Almontaser or place her in a comparable position.”

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties group. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

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CONTACT: CAIR-NY Civil Rights Director Aliya Latif, 212-870-2002, 732-429-4268, E-Mail: alatif@cair.com; CAIR-NY Community Affairs Director Faiza N. Ali, 212-870-2002, 718-724-3041, E-Mail: fali@cair.com; CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, 202-744-7726, E-Mail: ihooper@cair.com; CAIR Communications Coordinator Amina Rubin, 202-488-8787, 202-341-4171, E-Mail: arubin@cair.com