A new public secondary school that is to include Middle Eastern studies in its curriculum will focus on culture, not the region's political conflicts, Department of Education officials said yesterday.
"The school will not be a vehicle for political ideology," a Department of Education spokesman, David Cantor, said of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, due to open this September in Brooklyn.
As for the sorts of topics the school will cover, the CEO of the Office of New Schools, Garth Harries, gave as an example a math lesson plan that would mention that an Arabic mathematician invented the concept of zero.
"It's going to follow Department of Education regulations," the director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, Lena Alhusseini, who helped design the school, said. "It's going to be exactly like all the schools in the city, the same curriculum."
The school's focus on the Middle East has some critics, including a New York City education historian, Diane Ravitch, worried about the political bent of the school.
"It is not the job of the public schools to teach each ethnic group about its history," she said. "Certainly the large high schools should teach Arabic along with other languages, and they should teach the history of the Middle East as they teach global history. But it is an abdication of the basic principle behind public education to set up separate schools to teach uncritically one history and one culture."
The vice chairman of Brooklyn's Republican Party, John Ali-Habib, a member of the school's planning committee, defended the school.
"There's an Asian school opening in Flushing. It's the same thing," he said. "We don't need to get politics involved in everything."
Khalil Gibran (1883–1931) was a Lebanese poet born to Maronite Christians who is famous for "The Prophet," a book about love and the meaning of life that was banned in Egypt until 1999.
The school will teach about political conflicts but in a relatively abstract way — through programming on conflict resolution and diversity run by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. Tanenbaum's executive vice president, Joyce Dubensky, gave an example of a curriculum based around the story of a pastor and an imam in Nigeria who set out to kill one another over religious differences, but change their minds after studying their respective faiths.
"I don't think that the school is a political school, and so we're not dealing with that," Ms. Dubensky said.
The committee that designed the school included the principal, Debbie Almontaser, a former teacher, and several nonprofit groups, including Lutheran Medical Center, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Salaam Club of New York, and the Arab American Family Support Center, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that will act as the main support organization. The organization's top funders include the U.S. government, the American Jewish World Service, and the Christian Children's Fund.
The group's coordinator for Khalil Gibran, Candiece Goodall, described the establishment of the school as "a way to bridge both East and West."
The new school lacks a home, although department officials said they would identify a location in Brooklyn within two weeks. Even without a building, many Arab New Yorkers are saying the plan to open Khalil Gibran is making them feel more at home in the city.
"It's not uncommon for Arab students to feel isolated — I think it's seen as a foothold," a Brooklyn College professor, Moustafa Bayoumi, author of a forthcoming book about Arab youth in post-September 11 Brooklyn called "How Does It Feel To Be A Problem," said. While Khalil Gibran's organizers say the school's main focus is academic, they also said the school could help to integrate Arab families into New York society by providing the school community with health services, counseling, youth leadership development, and English as a second language classes for parents.
At the same time, the school's designers say they are planning to recruit a diverse student body, with a goal that half be Arabic native speakers.
Ms. Almontaser, who emigrated from Yemen at age 3, declined to speak about the school before its location is announced. But in a first-person article published in the Gotham Gazette, in which she discussed the difficulties of wearing her hijab in the city after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and her fears for her son, who joined the American military and served at ground zero, she wrote: "We need to come together as a community to be educated and educate others as you would children: There are people who do bad things, but there are many people who do good things. We must get to know each other by speaking to one another. We need to make sure that everyone's voice is heard rather than silenced, to overcome our fears."
Correction from March 8, 2007:
John Abi-Habib is the correct spelling of the name of the vice chairman of Brooklyn's Republican Party. His name was misspelled in an article on page 4 of yesterday's New York Sun.
Correction from September 27, 2007:
Between November 2001 and May 2002, a $25,000 grant was provided to the Arab American Family Support Center by the American Jewish World Service. The time period and extent of the funding were misrepresented in an article on page 4 of the March 7 Sun.