From the New York Times
August 11, 2007
The principal of New York City’s first public school dedicated to the study of Arabic language and culture resigned under pressure yesterday, days after she was quoted defending the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan.
Debbie Almontaser, a veteran public school teacher, was to be principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn.
Debbie Almontaser, a veteran public school teacher, stepped down as the principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy, a middle school that is to open this fall in Brooklyn.
“This morning I tendered my resignation to Chancellor Klein, which he accepted,” she said in a statement, referring to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. “I became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized.”
Those headlines had become impossible for Ms. Almontaser and the Department of Education to ignore. On Wednesday, a headline in The New York Post called Ms. Almontaser the “Intifada Principal.” Yesterday, an editorial in the paper had the headline, “What’s Arabic for ‘Shut It Down’?”
Yesterday morning, speaking on his weekly radio call-in program, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he continued to support the school, but welcomed Ms. Almontaser’s departure.
“She got a question, she’s not all that media-savvy maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn,” he said. “But I think she felt that she had become the focus of — rather than having the school the focus — so today she submitted her resignation, which is nice of her to do. I appreciate all her service, and I think she’s right to do so.”
Chancellor Klein, who is vacationing in Colorado, acknowledged that Ms. Almontaser’s resignation was in the best interests of the school, said David Cantor, a spokesman for the department.
Ms. Almontaser’s resignation was the latest setback for a school that has been bombarded with criticism since February, when the city announced plans to open it. The attacks came from parents at public schools that were to share their space with the Gibran school, as well as from local conservative columnists, who said the school could promote radical Islam.
But the Education Department said yesterday that it was still committed to opening the school and was searching for a new principal. Ms. Almontaser is expected to be assigned to another position within the department.
Ms. Almontaser’s remarks, made last weekend, were in response to questions from The Post over the phrase “Intifada NYC,” which was printed on T-shirts sold by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, a Brooklyn-based organization. The shirts have no relation to her school.
“The word basically means ‘shaking off,’ ” Ms. Almontaser told the paper. “That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic.”
With the help of the Education Department’s press office, she apologized on Monday, saying she regretted her remarks. “By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence,” she said in the statement. The word has come to be associated with Palestinian attacks on Israel.
Education officials tried to tamp down the situation, saying Ms. Almontaser had no direct connection to the Brooklyn group.
Her apology was followed by a rebuke on Wednesday from Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. Ms. Weingarten, who had previously defended the school, called the word “intifada” “something that ought to be denounced, not explained away.”
And education officials said that after Ms. Weingarten’s statements, Ms. Almontaser had become an untenable distraction, and that the school would be better served with a new principal.
Yesterday morning, speaking on his weekly radio call-in program, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he continued to support the school, but welcomed Ms. Almontaser’s departure. In an interview yesterday, Ms. Weingarten said she respected Ms. Almontaser for resigning. “She was becoming a lightning rod,” she said. “Instead of debunking the misapprehensions about the school, all she did was confirm them.”
Ms. Almontaser had a major hand in designing the Khalil Gibran school, which is to open in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that has helped create many of the city’s new small schools. As described by its planners, the school will offer a standard college preparatory curriculum, with instruction in Arabic each day and a focus on international studies. Five teachers have been hired so far.
The Education Department had planned for roughly half of the enrolled students to have some background in Arabic, and the other half to be a mixture of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
So far, the enrollment stands at 44, with most students identifying themselves as black, and six Arabic speakers. The school planned to have only sixth graders this year, then expand by a grade a year until it includes grades 6 to 12.
Its first proposed location was in the building that houses Public School 282, an elementary school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. But parents there mounted vigorous opposition, saying there was insufficient room for the two schools to share space.
They prevailed, and the school was reassigned to another site, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. This time, Khalil Gibran would share space with two schools: the Math and Science Exploratory School, a middle school, and the Brooklyn High School of the Arts.
But parents there were just as antagonistic to sharing space with Khalil Gibran, protesting at a contentious public hearing in the school auditorium in May. The Education Department insisted that the school would open as planned, though.
The department’s decision was supported by many community leaders who had worked with Ms. Almontaser, who has been active for many years in community and interfaith outreach. She immigrated from Yemen when she was 3 and is fluent in Arabic.
In an interview in May, Ms. Almontaser said she was unprepared for the criticism she encountered from commentators. “What I am surprised about, really, is how stuff like this is actually permitted and allowed in public forums,” she said.
Despite the department’s efforts earlier in the week to defuse the situation, by late Thursday afternoon, officials had stopped defending Ms. Almontaser on the record. Yesterday morning, Mr. Bloomberg issued his own version of a defense on his radio show. “She’s very smart,” he said. “She’s certainly not a terrorist. She really does care.”