NYC Arab School Opens Amid Firestorm

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - On the day a controversial Arab culture school opened in Brooklyn, a coalition gathered on the steps of New York City Hall to voice their opposition, expressing concerns about Islamic indoctrination and demanding more transparency from city officials.

The Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) opened to about 60 sixth graders in Brooklyn on Tuesday. It plans to expand its classrooms for grades 6-12 over the next several years, but opponents don't want to even see the school open for another year.

Stop the Madrassa, a group of parents and teachers opposed to the school, called for its immediate closing. They also announced the creation of a new national organization to pressure New York City to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request to provide information to the public regarding the textbooks, curriculum, lesson plans and other material for the school.

Pamela Hall, a member of Stop the Madrassa, considered the rally a major success based upon the media attention it received.

"We are going national with a new group, Citizens Form American Values in Public Education," Hall told Cybercast News Service. "We have a booklet that we introduced today to be used as a tool for parents and schools across the country to see what is in their children's textbooks."

A madrassa is a Muslim school. New York City Schools Chancellor Joe Klein stressed that the KGIA is a secular public school, and he would shut it down if it became a religious school.

Controversy and questions about the religious ties of the school already prompted the resignation of founder and Principal Debbie Almontaser last month.

It was discovered then that she shared office space with an Islamist group that sells T-shirts encouraging New York Muslims to join an "intifada" and defended the group's sentiments, saying the term means only "shaking off."

The term intifada is most typically associated with the attacks on Israeli Jews by Islamic radicals between 1987 and 1993, in some of the territories gained by the Israelis after the Six Day War in 1967.

Klein named Danielle Salzberg as the interim principal. Salzberg had helped in the development of the school. "Khalil Gibran will add a new, important option for our students who are interested in a rigorous academic program with an international and Arab language theme," Klein said in a statement, after naming Salzberg.

The teachers and parents group was joined by three national organizations: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Thomas More Law Center and the Center for Security Policy.

"The Catholic League is not making accusations, but it's raising serious questions," said Catholic League President Bill Donohue in a statement. "We will continue to do so until our concerns have been alleviated."

Among the problems Donohue found was the "stonewalling by the New York City Department of Education whenever we have sought information about the curriculum, textbooks and school advisors."

According to the city's Department of Education, the KGIA will have the same standards that every New York City public school is required to meet.

The Arab language curriculum was developed by teachers trained at a federally funded Arabic-language instruction program, and the Arabic-translated books will be from English children's books published by Scholastics, a department press release said.

However, in lieu of specific information available to the public, opponents want more answers. Brian Rooney, communications director for the Thomas More Law Center, questioned why the Freedom of Information Law requests filed in July have yet to be answered.

"This lack of response strongly suggests that the school cannot meet state education standards," he said. "Moreover, it continues to raise suspicions that KGIA is an anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Jewish propaganda center operating as a public school."

It's this stonewalling by the city that has prompted the continued controversy, Hall said, adding, "the story will not go away as long as they continue to stall."

The executive summary of the school describes a day in the life of a student as passing through the hallway adorned with portraits of Arab philosophers, inventors and poets. In the cafeteria, a retired, Arab-speaking community member will come daily to converse with students to strengthen their Arab fluency, according to the summary.

The school also caused controversy because of its heavily religious advisory board, which includes three Islamic imams, as well as Christian and Jewish clergy. One of the imams named to the board was Talib Abdul-Rashid, who preaches at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem.

The mosque's Web site proclaims, "Allah is our goal. The prophet Muhammad is our leader. The Quran is our constitution. Jihad is our way. And death in the way of Allah is our promised end."

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