First Person

The Slow Death of Khalil Gibran International Academy

The Department of Education recently announced that it plans to close the Khalil Gibran International Academy’s middle school, NYC’s first Arabic dual language program. There’s an important backstory.

In August 2007, New York City’s then Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott called Debbie Almontaser, then the acting principal of KGIA, into his office to tell her that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had lost confidence in her and wanted her to resign from her post. But that wasn’t all. Walcott also told her that the mayor wanted the resignation immediately because he intended to announce it on his radio show the next day. She was told that if she did not resign, KGIA would be closed. Knowing how much the school meant to the Arab community and to so many others, Almontaser submitted her resignation.

She brought suit soon after, charging that the city and the DOE had discriminated against her by bowing to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry in demanding her resignation. In March 2010, the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission upheld Almontaser’s charge of discrimination. It ruled that, in demanding her resignation, the DOE “succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel, and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on the DOE as an employer.”

In a recent statement, Communities in Support of KGIA, a coalition of racial justice, immigrant rights, and peace groups and Muslim, Jewish, and Arab groups that formed after the DOE and mayor forced Almontaser to resign (and with which I have been intimately involved), outlined what happened and described the DOE’s four-year process of killing the school:

  • The DOE first replaced this long-time bilingual and bicultural educator with an interim acting principal who spoke no Arabic and had no local community roots. A deeply flawed search for permanent principal then took place in which the DOE would not consider Almontaser’s application for that position. The person selected as the school’s next leader had little knowledge of, or relationship with, NYC’s Arab communities and no experience leading a school. Increasingly, the school was in disarray.
  • The DOE consistently refused to provide KGIA with the support necessary for it to succeed as it had been envisioned. For example, the school operated for at least several months without a special education teacher; space issues were never adequately addressed; and the school lacked the leadership it needed. Further, Arabic language instruction was significantly reduced so that a school that had begun with an exciting vision as a dual language school designed to educate its students about the Arabic language and Arab culture became just another middle school in which students studied a foreign language a few periods per week.
  • Without any consultation with KGIA families, the DOE decided to move the school in September 2008 from its original site near neighborhoods with sizable Arab communities to a site in Fort Greene, with a small Arab population and where public transportation is sparse.  Although parents of students then enrolled in KGIA objected to the move, the DOE ignored their views.

Just days after the EEOC determination, KGIA’s principal resigned and the DOE then selected an Arab principal who was bilingual. But the handwriting was already on the wall. The DOE says it is planning to continue KGIA as a high school, starting in September 2011. What it is not saying is that the school called “KGIA” will not be a dual-language school, which was central to the original KGIA’s mission and vision. “The idea was to have a dual-language school that would begin in sixth-grade and continue through high school so that children could truly become bilingual and bicultural,” notes Debbie Almontaser. “The middle school is essential to making that happen. It was also made clear to the DOE that this is what the community wanted.”

The DOE claims that the reduced enrollment meant there wasn’t enough interest in the middle school, but after forcing out its visionary leader, moving the school away from the community it was designed to serve, and doing almost nothing in the past four years to insure the school would survive, how could the result have been any different?

What does the story of Debbie Almontaser and KGIA tell us? The story is about Islamophobia and racism. But the story is also about a public education system that is accountable to nobody it should be accountable to–not to its students and families, nor to its educators.

The story is about a mayor who decided that Debbie Almontaser shouldn’t be principal because she had become controversial. By firing her, the mayor demonstrated that intimidation by racists and Islamophobes, who were generating the controversy, was more important than the integrity of a community and the integrity of a school system. Had the DOE and mayor stood by Debbie Almontaser, she would have remained KGIA’s principal, and the school would have had the opportunity to fulfill its vision.

The story of KGIA is yet one more example of the danger of a school system controlled by a mayor with little input from, or respect for, community members, educators, parents, and students. It is yet one more example of a school system that has little regard for the cultures, languages, and histories of the families that make up our schools. It is yet one more example of a school system that makes decisions based on outside interests that don’t grow out of the needs of, or what is in the best interest of, our children, schools, and communities.

As Mona Eldahry of AWAAM: Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media said to me: “This is one more story of a DOE and a mayor who — without the participation of any community and in capitulation to a campaign of racism and hatred — destroyed a school whose purpose was to educate students of different backgrounds to be socially engaged citizens.”

Sarah Sayeed from Women Against Islamophobia & Racism, a group formed in September 2010 that includes a number of us who were part of CISKGIA, together with many other women from the Muslim and other communities, added: “An Arabic dual language school in NYC is sorely needed. It is consistent with values of inclusion and pluralism, responds to the realities of an increasingly global world, and meets local as well as larger community needs. We need a school that has the leadership, resources, and support it deserves. Such a school is also necessary at a time of increased Islamophobia and racism. We will continue to demand a public education system that is truly respectful of, and responsive to, all our communities.”

While the battle to save KGIA has not been won, the EEOC victory last year was an important confirmation of what the community already knew — that the mayor and DOE, in demanding Debbie Almontaser’s resignation, had pandered to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim groups. Further, the communities that came together achieved something of great significance: Racial justice and immigrants’ rights groups, groups focusing on public education, peace and justice groups, Muslim, Arab, and Jewish groups joined in a united effort and have continued to organize, through WAIR and a number of other groups, against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism and to demand justice and accountability from our public education system.

Donna Nevel is a community psychologist, educator, and organizer whose work is rooted in Participatory Action Research and popular education. She is the coordinator of the Participatory Action Research Center for Education Organizing. She was deeply involved in Communities in Support of KGIA and worked closely with KGIA parents, teachers, the founding principal, and educators and groups across the city and country standing in support of KGIA.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.