Orthodox educator to head controversial NYC Arabic school

Danielle Salzberg appointed interim principal of controversial Khalil Gibran Int'l Academy whose founder failed to condemn "Intifada NYC" T-shirts.

Salzberg 88 (photo credit: )
Salzberg 88
(photo credit: )
An Arabic language public school set to open in Brooklyn on September 4 is on its second principal before even opening its doors. Experienced educator Danielle Salzberg, who grew up Orthodox, was appointed as the school's interim principal late Monday, following last week's abrupt resignation of the school's founder, Debbi Almontaser. Khalil Gibran International Academy, named after a Lebanese-American poet and intended to emphasize Arabic language and culture, has been mired in controversy since it was first announced in February. Critics are concerned the school will become a hotbed for Islamic extremism, despite assurances from the Department of Education that the school will not teach religion. The school will join 70 other dual-language programs, including Spanish, Chinese, Haitian-Creole and Russian, that already exist in the city. The Arabic-language curriculum is being developed by teachers trained at a federally funded Arabic-language instruction program and will use Arabic translations of English-language children's books published by Scholastic. Criticism of the school, which has three rabbis on its advisory board, reached a high last week over Almontaser's failure to condemn T-shirts printed by the group Arab Women Active in Art and Media, that read "Intifada NYC." Almonaster sits on the board of the Saba Association of American Yeminis, which shares office space with the organization that made the T-shirts. The shirts were first revealed on the Web site of Stop the Madrassa Coalition, an unidentified group that has been campaigning to shut down the school. Almontaser told the New York Post last week that the shirts were not endorsements of violence, but "an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society." She later apologized, saying she regretted "minimizing the word's historical associations." Almontaser resigned shortly thereafter, saying she was doing so out of concern for the future of the school. The "intolerant and hateful tone" used by critics of the school "has come to frighten some of the parents and incoming parents," she wrote in a letter of resignation, as reported in the New York Sun. "I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens its doors on September 4. Therefore, I have decided to step aside ...." Late Monday, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced Danielle Salzberg as interim acting principal of Khalil Gibran. Salzberg worked for the Department of Education for 11 years, first as an English teacher and later as the assistant principal at another of the city's recently established small schools. She is currently working for New Visions, a non-profit organization that in part helps to develop new schools, including Khalil Gibran. "With her leadership and the commitment renewed today by teachers and staff, Khalil Gibran will add a new, important option for our students who are interested in a rigorous academic program with an international and Arabic language theme," said Klein in a statement. Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to shut down the school, is not assuaged by the choice of principals. Salzberg's Orthodox background has not persuaded Hikind, who represents an Orthodox district of Brooklyn, to step back from his criticism. "Some of our worst enemies are Jews," said Hikind. "The principal being Jewish hardly gives me comfort." Learning Arabic is necessary, but can be done within the context of other public schools, said Hikind, who will continue to try to convince the administration to "chuck the whole thing." So far, 44 sixth-graders are enrolled at Khalil Gibran, which plans to eventually serve grades 6 through 12. Six of the enrolled students are Arabic speakers, and the majority of the students are African Americans.