Battle still rages over Arabic school

The Brooklyn Paper
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The city will not back down from a plan to cram an Arabic language and culture middle school into a building that houses an up-and-coming Park Slope elementary school, despite the pleas of parents who rallied against the plan in the freezing rain on Friday.

“PS 282 is the most viable option right now,” said Melody Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

The brouhaha over the school began at a March 12 PTA meeting where Education officials dropped the bombshell news that the Khalil Gibran International Academy would be housed for three years in PS 282, which is on Sixth Avenue and Lincoln Place.

Parents immediately condemned the plan, complaining that the decision to house the Arabic-language and culture middle school in their elementary school was made without any consultation with parents, who claim they need every bit of the school’s limited space for their own programs.

Up to that point, the Gibran Academy generated little controversey — though all of the news stories had a glaring hole: the location of the controversial academy and which existing school would have to make room for it.

Since that March 12 meeting, PS 282 parents have distributed petitions, phoned elected officials, and written angry letters.

“My brother and I went to this school, my older daughter went to this school, and I would like my son to have the same experience,” Charlene Valentin, a parent, explained at the cold Friday morning rally.

As Valentin and dozens of other moms and dads protested outside, Education officials walked through the school with PS 282 Principal Magalie Alexis and Gibran Principal Debbie Almontaser to divvy up the school’s space. Neither principal would comment on the controversy, and the results of the walk-through have not been released.

Parents were far more vocal, chanting, “Class size matters!” and “Save our services!”

“I have two daughters, in third and first grades,” said Devon Taylor, who lives in Crown Heights. “The fact that they’re putting 13-year-olds with kids so young isn’t right or safe.”

Many parents cited particular concerns about adolescents sharing bathrooms with elementary school kids.

“I have a kindergarten student,” said Stephanie Parenti, of Park Slope. “I chose this school because it’s comfortable. I actually thought it was better than PS 321 because it’s not overcrowded. I just don’t want 5-year-olds with older kids.”

Others parents were angered by the lack of parental involvement in the decision-making process.

“This is the arrogance of the new Department of Education,” said Audrey Risius, whose daughter is in the fourth grade.

At least one father is considering pulling his child out of the school should the plan go through.

“I probably won’t keep her in 282, because of crowding and safety,” said Daniel McShane, whose daughter is in the second grade. “I just like that she is in an elementary school, not an elementary school/middle school.”

For their part, Education officials disputed the notion that mixing children from different age groups is dangerous, and insisted they were sensitive to parents concerns.

Off-campus, a battle was developing over the nature of the Gibran Academy, with some Brooklynites starting a letter-writing campaign decrying the “the hard-left pathology of New York City government” and warning that the school “will slow down not only the integration of Arabs and Muslims into mainstream American society but also the academic progress of middle school students of Arabic descent with regard to the English language.”

John Abi-Habib, a Lebanese-American activist from Bay Ridge who is involved with the new Academy, said the people making such complaints “need to be educated.”

“I went on a blog, and it was talking about the school’s mission to bring Islam to the United States, and they quoted me!” said Abi-Habib. “They don’t even know that I’m a Maronite Catholic, and Gibran [the school’s namesake] was a Maronite Catholic.”

But Abi-Habib was sympathetic to parents with concerns about overcrowding. In fact, he said he’d rather have the Academy in southwest Brooklyn, closer to neighborhoods with a large population of Arabic speakers.

But Meyer, the Education spokeswoman, could only offer Abi-Habib and PS 282 parents a smidgen of hope.

“[We] were happy to hear what the community had to say, and are taking both schools’ needs into consideration as we continue to think about this,” she said.

Updated 4:28 pm, July 9, 2018
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