NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York’s first publicly-funded Arabic-language school opened on Tuesday, defying critics who warned it could foster anti-American Islamist extremism.
Dozens of supporters with “Welcome” banners greeted the 11- and 12-year-olds on the first day of school but there were calls for its closure from a group named “Stop the Madrasa.”
The word madrasa means simply “school” in Arabic but it is associated by some with Islamic religious schools suspected of training militants.
The Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school built around the theme of Arabic language and Middle Eastern studies, has raised passions for months in New York, the city hardest hit by the September 11 attacks.
“There’s been too much criticism without knowledge,” said Ellen Lippmann, a rabbi who organized the welcome rally. “This has never been tried before. Let’s see if it works.”
The school, named after a Christian Lebanese poet who lived in New York, is one of around 200 small schools specializing in areas from math and science to Russian. There are dual-language schools offering Chinese, French, Haitian-Creole and Spanish.
Parents of students at the school’s original location, a building that already houses an elementary school in Brooklyn, successfully lobbied to have it moved, ostensibly on the grounds of overcrowding.
Then just weeks ago, its founder and principal, Debbie Almontaser, resigned after being linked to a group of Muslim artists who printed T-shirts using the word “intifada.”
Almontaser has said that the term, which often refers to the Palestinian uprising against Israel, can be understood as a feminist slogan meaning “shaking off.” Facing a firestorm of criticism, Almontaser was replaced by Danielle Salzberg, a longtime educator who is Jewish and does not speak Arabic.
“It’s inclusive, it’s vibrant and it’s committed to excellence, just like all of our schools,” Garth Harries, a Department of Education official, told a news conference.
For now enrollment is limited to the 6th grade and some 55 students, nine of them Arabic speakers, attended on Tuesday.
Students were met by dozens of reporters and police as well as supporters. A table arranged with hummus and pita bread had been set up beneath a colorful banner.
Najat Handou, 34, said her son speaks Arabic at home but cannot read or write in the language.
“I feel so proud because we have a public school that teaches Arabic and English, which is great for our kids,” said Handou, who came to New York from Morocco nine years ago.
Jua James, an African-American mother, said she hoped her daughter would thrive at the school. “I hope that she learns (Arabic) and teaches me,” James said.
Critics gathered later on the steps of City Hall. Groups including the Catholic League and Stop the Madrasa accused authorities of stonewalling about the school’s curriculum.
“At the moment, we have to go on the basis on what we know about the people who have brought us this institution,” said Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, adding that those involved included imams, or Muslim religious leaders.
“The burden of proving that it is not a madrasa” lies with them, he said.
Irene Alter, a Spanish teacher and a founder of Stop the Madrasa, said she feared books donated from Saudi Arabia, and which feature an anti-American or anti-Zionist theme, could become part of the curriculum.
Melody Meyer, an education department spokeswoman, said the curriculum had been made available on the department’s Web site. She said the focus of Arabic lessons would be translation and students would work largely from U.S. children’s books.
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