Duel Over Dual Language School
By Benjamin Nadler
A new school has opened in Brooklyn this school year, with the unique and apparently controversial mission of being a dual language English/Arabic public school. School 592- also known as the Kalil Gibran International Academy, or the KGIA - is located on Dean St., in the same building that houses the Brooklyn High School for the Arts and the Math and Science Exploratory School, and has an extended school day, so as to be able to include the Arabic language program in its already full curriculum.
The KGIA has been the target of persistent and vocal criticism, primarily based in the assertion that the school will be using public money to promote the Islamic religion. Critics point to an alleged lack of oversight and transparency regarding the school’s curriculum as evidence of this. These criticisms are unfounded.
Concerns about the school have been widespread and numerous, and began almost as soon as plans for the school were announced last year. Complainants have varied from local Park Slope parents who felt they had no input on the use of their neighborhood school space, to the Friends of Khalil Gibran Society, who protest that, “claims of teaching Arabic under the name of Gibran ring hollow as he is not ethnically Arab.” This latter claim references the fact that Gibran- a Lebanese-American poet beloved for works which espoused lessons of humanism and compassion- was a Maronite Christian. The traditional language of the Maronite Church is Syriac, not Arabic, though the Maronite community has been primarily Arabic speaking for over a thousand years, and Gibran himself wrote in Arabic, before switching to English.
The primary controversy, however, does not have to do with the ethno-linguistic pedigree of the school’s namesake, but rather with the fear that the school itself will be used to teach and promote the Islamic religion, or ethnically and politically biased political ideology. This issue was first raised in places such as the New York Sun, and on the blog of writer Daniel Pipes, who stated that, “imbuing pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, proselytizing for Islam, and promoting Islamist sympathies will predictably make up the school's true curriculum.”
Such negative press ultimately led to the resignation of principal-designate and longtime Muslim/ Arab community advocate Debbie Almontaser. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein soon replaced her with Danielle Salzberg, who has had a long career in the New York public school system.
The controversy also led to the formation of a local activist group, un-ambiguously called ‘Stop The Madrassa.’ Madrassa is an Arabic word that simply means ‘school.’ The group- which is New York based, but working to expand into a national movement under the name ‘Citizens For American Values in Public Education’- held a press conference on the first day of classes to show their opposition to the school’s opening. In a recent interview, Stop The Madrassa representative Sarah Springer explained that the group’s members “were all very concerned that a new school was opening up without any transparency, without any information to the public. No one knew what the curriculum or textbooks were.”
Daniel Jefferis, a coordinator at the school, counters this assertion: The basic curriculum is available (and has been for quite some time) on the DOE website for KGIA. You can access it here: (http://schools.nyc.gov/SchoolPortals
/15/K592/AboutUs/Overview/default.htm) Curriculum across all subject areas is standard and was chosen from a variety of options available to all NYC public middle schools. […] All core subject packages are described, and links are provided to the respective websites if you would like more information. You will see that the Arabic curriculum is explained as well.
A quick check of the website shows that this is true. Jefferis also states that, “The general background of our teachers is available. We have four teachers, all properly certified by New York State. Two are native Arabic speakers. We also have one instructional coach and one social worker; both hold appropriate certificates and licenses.”
The specific fear, however, was not just that the Department of Education was acting irresponsibly, and without sufficient transparency and community input, but rather that the school’s curriculum might relate to an alleged larger national trend. “Parents have noticed that there is Islamic indoctrination in their schools,” Springer said, “and are very concerned about how to deal with it.”
The KGIA dual language program is not unprecedented, and does not appear to be religiously motivated. In 2003, the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, a dual language school whose incoming student body is comprised of fifty percent native Mandarin speakers and fifty percent native English speakers, opened in Manhattan, without causing any significant public outcry. There are now 70 such dual language programs throughout the city.
Jefferis, who acts as the liaison between the KGIA and its lead community partner (the city with works with a community partner organization on the development of every dual language program), The Arab American Family Support Center, places the school within this context. “It was started to become a dual language school, which is just like the many other dual language schools in the city. There’s a Chinese dual language school, a Haitian Creole, a Spanish, Russian, French. It’s basically to just graduate an entire student body fluent in two languages.”
This perspective is shared by Joyce Dubensky, Executive Vice President of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a nonprofit (named for the late Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum) that is currently working with the KGIA in “training KGIA educators to work with diverse students and to teach them skills for thriving in a pluralistic society.” When the student body grows to include older students (the school currently has only a sixth grade class), the Tanenbaum Center will work with them to develop mediation and negotiation skills. In a statement issued last week, Dubensky provided some history on the schools that preceded the KGIA:
The small school movement in the New York City public schools is an innovative effort to reach students academically through small, themed schools. […] Today, there are many of such schools, all of which are thoroughly vetted by the Department of Education and must receive its stamp of approval before they can be established. The themes are very diverse including technology, human rights, dual language schools in Russian and Chinese, journalism and, this September KGIA, dual language in Arabic and English.
For Springer, however, this precedent in no way justifies the KGIA. “I personally do not believe in dual language schools. I think we are making a terrible mistake by segregating our students. […] I believe that they should never have come into being, and that creating another school based on a poor precedent is a very bad idea.”
Dual language schools do indeed raise questions of how public money should be spent, how immigrant youth should be integrated into schools, and what role community input should play in these decisions. The questions become even more complex with an Arabic based dual language school, as the Arabic language is inherently tied to the Islamic religion in ways which languages such as Chinese or Spanish are not tied to any religion. However, the list of “legitimate questions that NYC parents and taxpayers have about the KGIA” that appears on the ‘Stop The Madrassa’ website eschews the above issues in favor of other questions, such as “What will be the reaction to someone eating a pork or ham sandwich if they are in proximity of one of KGIA’s students?”
When asked if she was surprised by this strong opposition to the school, Jefferis answered, “I’m not surprised by the controversy, no. I think it speaks for the necessity for this type of school in the city.”