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

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.