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For Arabic School in Brooklyn, Ambitious Plans

posted on: Jul 2, 2011

Take a small Fort Greene middle school with a turbulent history and declining enrollment and transform it into a competitive, world-class International Baccalaureate (IB) high school in Downtown Brooklyn.

That’s the ambitious plan the city’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) approved last week for the city’s only Arabic-themed middle school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA). The idea has sparked new hope in many supporters of the beleaguered middle school.

“I think this is the best path forward in achieving the original goals of the school,” said Samer Khalaf in a statement. Khalaf is board chairman of the Arab-American Family Support Center, a founding partner of KGIA, along with New Visions for Public Schools.

“We are happy to see the DOE (Department of Education) moving toward an IB bilingual high school. It is a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Ahmed Jaber, chairman of the Arab American Association of New York. Dr. Jaber is also a board member of Beit Al Maqdis Islamic Center, the Arab Muslim American Federation and the Islamic Mission of America.

International Baccalaureate programs are known as rigorous, world-class programs. Students awarded the IB diploma often gain admission to selective colleges and universities including institutions like Oxford.

There are only seven IB programs in New York City, with three in Brooklyn: Brooklyn Friends School in Downtown Brooklyn; Brooklyn Latin School in Bushwick, and St. Edmund Prep on Ocean Avenue.

“We’re confident that the new location — accessible to families seeking an Arab-language education — combined with a curriculum that offers students Arab-language skills and tools to succeed after high school, will put Khalil Gibran on a path to improvement,” DOE spokesperson Matthew Mittenthal told the Brooklyn Eagle last Tuesday.

Middle School Derailed

Although KGIA was originally approved to serve students in grades six through 12, DOE says that there has been low demand and declining enrollment in the middle-school grades.

Khalil Gibran was founded in 2007 with high hopes of increasing the understanding of Middle Eastern culture, but was soon derailed in an onslaught of criticism from right-leaning groups claiming the school would be a “madrassa” and a “breeding ground for terrorists.”

(Technically, a madrassa is an Arabic word for any educational institution. However, in this country, the word has become mistakenly identified only with fundamentalist institutions in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that taught hostility toward the West.)

The new high school would be “co-located” inside a building at 362 Schermerhorn St. near Flatbush Avenue, which presently houses two other schools. One of these, the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, is being phased out. The other, the Brooklyn School for Career Development, serves emotionally disturbed high schoolers.

“This is a very important school for the community. It’s an accomplishment for all of us. We need to do whatever is possible to keep it going,” said Pastor Khader El-Yateem of Salam Arabic Church, who added, “I’m excited about the future and the opportunity it brings. I think it is very important to educate our children about our language and our culture.”

Some Opposition to Middle School Closing

Some longtime supporters, however, say that closing Khalil Gibran’s middle school would defeat the school’s original purpose.

Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy said in a statement, “The school’s original plan was to begin with middle school, so that students would have grades 6-12 to become truly bilingual, which is the purpose of a dual language program. The proposed high school will have little in common with the original KGIA that the DOE has killed.”

The DOE demanded the resignation of founding principal Debbie Almontaser in 2007 after a New York Post article claimed she had defended terrorists by correctly defining the Arabic term “intifada” (as “shaking off,” rather than as a reference to Gaza-style uprising). The term was used on T-shirts created by an unrelated group of teenaged girls.

This claim was later debunked, and a federal commission ruled that the city had discriminated against her, but the DOE refused to rehire Almontaser as principal.

Beshir Abdellatif is Khalil Gibran’s fourth principal since the school’s founding in 2007. This will be the school’s third location.

Mary Frost
Brooklyn Eagle