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 didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.