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.

guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

First Person

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.