Log in  |  Search

The Civic Purposes of Public Schools And The UFT’s Support For Khalil Gibran International Academy

In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, our friend Rick Kahlenberg reflects on the controversy over the Kahlil Gibran International Academy [KGIA]. The task of public schools, he argues, is to teach what it means to be an American. Citing the authority of Al Shanker, he suggests that a dual language school such as KGIA, with a special curricular focus on a second language and its associated culture, would be more inclined to adopt an uncritical approach to that particular experience. Further, with its special focus on the particular culture, it would be more apt to neglect the teaching of what we Americans have in common.

We agree with Kahlenberg — and Shanker — that the preeminent purpose of public schools is the education of the next generation of American citizenry. But we do not believe that dual language schools have proven to be any more susceptible to failure at this task than other public schools with different curricular themes and foci, from enterpeneurship and math to social justice and core knowledge. Every public school faces the challenge of teaching students how to think critically, about their own particular history and culture, about the larger American cultural mosaic and its historical evolution, and about our place in world history and culture. Every public school has to figure out how to focus its teaching on our common national purpose — what we Americans hold in common that is the foundation of our collective well-being.

It is important to recall here just what this American common purpose is. The genius of American national identity has been that it was founded not on a particular ethnic culture, but on a democratic civic creed. To be an American is to embrace the precepts of the Declaration of Independence that all men and women are created equal, with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that government exists to protect those rights and to promote the commonweal. While other nations base citizenship rights upon ethnic blood lines, American citizenship is open to an individual of any background who adopts our common civic creed. As a direct consequence of our common political faith in liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, cultural pluralism — the co-existence and mutual toleration of diverse communities of faith, language and ethnicity in a nation of immigrants — is an important part of the American civic creed. Properly conceived and organized around a culture of democratic teaching and learning, a dual language school is not only consistent with the American civic creed, but an notable expression of its cultural pluralism.

As part of the New Visions school approval process, the UFT had an opportunity to examine the design of and plans for KGIA: our representatives carefully studied an application of scores of pages, and participated in the panel interview of the school planning team. We found that the school’s mission was entirely consistent with the American civic creed, promoting values of non-violence, tolerance and cultural understanding. Based on these findings, we have supported KGIA at every stage in its development.

Our understanding of KGIA’s mission separates us both from the New York tabloid press and from some in the blogosphere who have rushed to criticize our public position on the ‘intifada’ issue. The mere fact that KGIA is a dual language Arabic school provides the tabloids with sufficient cause to label it a fundamentalist madrasa, and in a remarkable symmetry, our critics carelessly describe KGIA as a school dedicated to the promotion of “Islamic culture, history and language.” In fact, KGIA’s namesake Gibran was not even a Muslim. If KGIA was even remotely close to either fact-free description, it would never have received our support. We would not support a public school dedicated to the promotion of the beliefs of any faith community, be it Christian, Jewish, Islamic or another religious creed.

Our blog critics insist that support in such matters must be unconditional, and that the UFT was wrong to criticize the temporizing on the subject of ‘the intifada’ that unnecessarily brought the integrity of KGIA into question. From our vantage point, the very same civic principles which led us to support for KGIA demanded public censure on this question. The original statement did not provide, as has been implausibly claimed, a “historical context” for the term ‘the intifada'; to the contrary, it sought to strip the immediate historical context from the term through a discussion of its etymology. ‘The intifada’ is the name chosen by the authors of a lengthy campaign of violence that has repeatedly employed suicide bombers to describe their own work. It is a term which can not be separated by discussions of ‘root words’ from acts of terror which have targeted indiscriminately masses of civilians as they ate in restaurants and traveled to and from their homes in buses. Since ‘the intifada’ is so clearly and directly connected to suicide bombings, as educators we must separate ourselves from it, and condemn those acts of violence. As a union who understands itself to be in the non-violent social justice tradition of Martin Luther King, silence simply was not an option.

It is time for the work of creating KGIA, of fulfilling the vision of a school dedicated to global citizenship and civic values of non-violence, religious and ethnic tolerance and pluralism, to move ahead. As we have been from the school’s conception, long before this incident, the UFT remains fully committed to those ends. Our insistence upon the consistent application of democratic civic principle has given our support for KGIA a force that can not be easily discounted or dismissed.



  • 1 Steve
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 10:39 am

    I’m glad that Leo has reiterated, here and in his August 17 post, the UFT’s support for KGIA. I find the deceptively high-minded criticisms of Kahlenberg, Ravitch et al. to be suspect. Dual-language schools with a focus on the culture and history associated with the language being studied have gone forward with little or no comment for years…but as soon as the language, culture and history in question is Arabic, our commonality as Americans is invoked as an argument against the school. One must suspect that behind these pronouncements of principle is an implicit acceptance of Daniel Pipes’ contention that Arabs and Muslims must undergo special scrutiny not applied to other groups. If this isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.

    I’m disappointed, though, that Leo continues to the UFT’s indefensible condemnation of Debbie Almontaser, a condemnation that undoubtedly had a major part in her choosing to resign (or being forced to do so by Klein and/or Bloomberg). The August 17 edition of the newspaper The Jewish Week recounts in excruciating detail how The New York Post ambushed Debbie, departing from their pre-submitted questions on KGIA to idly ask what “intifada” means…before making her aware of the AWAAM T-shirts. That she then focused on the good intentions of the young women of AWAAM speaks to her commitment to youth—a prerequisite, one would hope, for a middle-school principal. That she issued a statement through the DOE the very next day unequivocally stating her opposition to violence (“The word ‘intifada’ is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me.”) would seem to answer Leo’s and Randi’s concerns. Yet Randi wrote to the Post (the Post, of all papers!) days afterward to condemn Debbie, and then told the Post, “maybe, ultimately, she should not be a principal.”

    Leo says the UFT was acting out of dedication to peace and non-violence when Randi spoke out against Debbie. But Debbie’s dedication to peace and non-violence is unassailable—ask anyone in the Jewish Community Relations Council, or the Arab-American Anti-Defamation Committee, or even Abe Foxman and the ADL. The T-shirt was a flimsy excuse used by people who had been after Debbie for months, and if it hadn’t worked, they would have trotted out something else. An alternative explanation is that the UFT leadership saw which way the wind was blowing, and decided to play to the worst impulses of some of the UFT rank and file by reversing our support for Debbie and joining in the undeniably racist chorus clamoring for Debbie’s demise. By doing so we’ve done damage not just to KGIA, but to community relations in our city and beyond.

    Steve Quester
    UFT chapter leader*
    P372/418K The Children’s School*

    *for identification purposes only

  • 2 redhog
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    I disagree that calling for the principal’s resignation was “undeniably racist,” and I also doubt that it was a matter of an unprincipled bending to the blowing wind. As the child of holocaust survivors ( of which there remain many survivors and their children, some of whom have been the victims of actions done under in the name of “intifada” ) I know that it is necessary to stand up. If that qualifies as a “worst impulse,” I’m sorry but I’m not backing off. I think the whole matter is very painful to all concerned, and I feel no personal contempt for anyone whose motives and choice of language may have been misunderstood.

  • 3 Leo Casey
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    Steve Quester mixes together criticism of what a person has said with “condemnation of the person.” I disagree with Steve on some of the things he says here, but I certainly would not condemn him as a person — and not just because I know him personally as a well intentioned person who is deeply committed to and works hard for the causes he believes in. It’s quite possible to think highly of a person, to have considerable respect for him or her, and still think he or she made a serious error or has a blind spot. That goes with the fallibility of the species to which we all belong. The conflation of the disagreement and personal condemnation makes civil political disagreement impossible, because it means that every political disagreement is read as an attack on a person’s integrity.

    I think that Debbie Almontaser’s own words quoted by Steve — “The word ‘intifada’ is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me.” — are a recognition of the very point made in the original post, and of the basic validity of Randi’s and the UFT’s criticisms of the original comments. It seems to me that they would signal an appropriate closure to that particular issue. They certainly suggest that some of the inflammatory rhetoric being used in the blogosphere and elsewhere is out of line and counterproductive — surely we can do better than be an inverted mirror image of the Post and Sun. But when it is suggested that it is wrong for Randi and the UFT to make that very same point that Debbie Almontaser makes, we are back to litigating the original issue. Does that serve the cause of moving KGIA forward?

  • 4 Teacher News of the Day | Edwize
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    […] Leo Casey lays out why the UFT supports the Khalil Gibran International Academy in response to Richard Kahlenberg’s op-ed from the New York […]

  • 5 MichaelB
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 5:44 pm


    Randi didn’t just “make a point” to Almontaser – she could have done that with a phone call. Instead she curried favor with an Arab-hating, union-bashing newspaper and its allies by joining their public campaign to get Almontaser fired. I’m willing to consider that it may have been politically “necessary” for the UFT to kick her overboard, but please, spare us the social justice rhetoric.

  • 6 redhog
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    The Union did not kick her overboard. It didn’t put the words in her mouth and didn’t charge those words with their meaning. To say that the union took its stand out of “political necessity” implies a lack of substantive moral principle. I am proud of the union’s words, including those that credited the principal with virtues.

  • 7 My mistake. « PREA Prez
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    […] 21Aug07 Leo Casey refers to me, not by name, but by my error in his Edwize posting today. I originally incorrectly referred to the Khalil Gibran Academy as a school for the […]

  • 8 The Daily Politics
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    […] UFT explains why it supports the Khalil Gibran International […]

  • 9 R. Skibins
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    If parents wish for their children to learn about their heritage and the language of their people, let them send their children to private school. When I was growing up, I attended public school. However, I attended Hebrew school on Sunday to learn about the culture of my people. Why should tax dollars go to pay for Kahlil Gibran International Academy, or ANYTHING of the sort for ANY ethnic or religious group?

  • 10 The Daily Gotham | grassroots news and activism for new yorkers
    · Aug 21, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    […] York | New York City | UFT | union | United Federation of Teachers RatingLeo Casey lays out why the UFT supports the Khalil Gibran International Academy in response to Richard Kahlenberg’s op-ed from the New York Times. » add new comment | 27 […]

  • 11 Leo Casey
    · Aug 22, 2007 at 9:05 am


    I accept your account of your motives, do not insist it is in bad faith and do not impute bad motives to you. I understand that the issues we debate here are strongly and passionately felt. But the very problem in making any sort of progress on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — which is actually magnified in discussions of it in the US — is the conviction of all too many on both sides that there is no right on the other side and no wrong on one’s own side. If we can’t accept that someone with a different view comes to it honestly, and understands it to be based on principles they hold, we are caught in that bind, and in ever escalating rhetorical assaults on each other.

  • 12 Steve
    · Aug 22, 2007 at 10:29 am

    One does not have to be a critic of Israeli policies–or of U.S. Mideast policy–to see that what the New York Post, Fox News, Little Green Footballs, Stop the Madrassa, et al. did to Debbie was motivated by hatred of Arab people and the Muslim religion. This isn’t a controversy about Palestine and Israel, it’s a controversy about what Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation* called a “high-tech lynching.” The UFT didn’t string up the noose–the right-wing hate media did that. But in the end, we’re the ones who kicked away the stool.

    Steve Quester

    *for identification only

  • 13 MichaelB
    · Aug 22, 2007 at 11:22 am


    It’s not my intention to attack anyone’s character and I respect the work that you do. But on Edwize you don’t simply offer your personal opinions, you write as a paid representative of a political organization. Thus, I don’t think it’s unfair for me to consider the political motives behind the positions you take.

    I don’t have a one-sided view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But I do have a one-sided view of organized attempts to stifle criticism of Israel, such as the one that resulted in Joel Klein’s banning Rashid Khalidi from DOE professional development classes (while the UFT stood silent)- I think they’re completely wrong.

  • 14 Leo Casey
    · Aug 22, 2007 at 5:04 pm


    I do write as a representative of the UFT, and Randi speaks as its president.

    But for both of us, we chose to do that work because our personal values and beliefs are in accordance with the union’s principles. We work here, rather than at the Post or Tweed.

    In the instant case before us, I would say that both of us sincerely and strongly believe that the UFT’s position was a reflection of principles of its non-violent, social justice tradition, and that we both share a deep commitment to that tradition.

  • 15 JokersWildNYC
    · Aug 23, 2007 at 12:46 am

    Non-Violent? Social Justice? Then I expect Randi to write to the Post condemning the use of the Hebrew term “Aliyah,” the (originally) religious term used by Zionists when they emigrate to Israel.

  • 16 Sean Ahern
    · Aug 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

    To: Ms Randi Weingarten, President UFT, Local 3, AFT
    From: Sean Ahern, Teacher
    Re: Kahlil Gibran School controversy
    Date: August 15, 2007

    Dear Sister Weingarten,

    I am a UFT member and I am writing to register my criticism of your role in the forced resignation of Debbie Ammontaser, former Principal of the Kahlil Gibran School . (“Randi Rips Intifada Principal” Yoav Gonen , NY Post 8/9/07).

    Why have you followed the lead of Daniel Pipes, the NY Post and the Sun on this matter? Is Labor to lay down with the Likud in New York as well as Tel Aviv? This is a self defeating proposition for us in New York and a recipe for perpetual war and occupation in the Middle East . The issue at the center of this controversy is the defense of civil liberties for all. Free speech is the ‘canary in the mine’ in this time of creeping totalitarianism at home and abroad. What are you thinking?

    Who but a soul mate to Torquemada and Stalin demands a recantation and then deems their victim’s own self abnegation inadequate? Defend free speech in the face of these budding Inquisitors! Lamentably, your remarks as reported by the NY Post have lent support to a witch hunt which you could have stopped.

    The remarks attributed to you effectively damn “Intifada” as a new “politically incorrect” word. Step by step, inch by inch… When do we damn the politically incorrect books and their authors? When do we burn them? You have turned a word into a leper’s shroud and draped it over human suffering. What’s to become of empathy and solidarity if inquiry is pre empted by fear?
    Literally translated from the Arabic, we are told that “intifada” refers to a tremor or a shaking off. I suggest that our own term “Movement” ( as it is commonly appended to Labor, Women’s, Civil Rights, Black Liberation, Black Consciousness, Zionist, Populist, Gay and Lesbian, Fascist, Communist, Socialist, Anarchist, Nationalist, etc) captures the contextual and is pretty close to the literal meaning. My concern is that educators should not rest content when a “Movement”, “uprising”, “rebellion” or “Intifada” of Palestinian youth is proscribed and thereby removed as a topic for rational discourse and inquiry.

    One’s views on the term “intifada” or more specifically, the civil resistance to Israeli occupation to which it refers, are matters to be openly studied, considered and discussed both outside and inside the classroom in an age appropriate and balanced fashion. No understanding or resolution of the conflict in the Middle East and our own role there is possible without such a discourse.

    In closing I request that you provide a suitable forum in the pages of the NY Teacher to allow for a open exchange on this matter by members so inclined. Ms Ammontaser seems to be viewed by all but her inquisitors at the Post and Sun as a bridge builder, peace maker and dedicated pedagogue. Unwarranted notoriety and political cowardice on the part of those who should be her advocates has interrupted her career and disrupted the Kahlil Gibran school community. I urge you to seek out Ms Ammontaser and use the weight of your office to heal this breech. and repair the harm done to this school.


    Sean Ahern

  • 17 phyllis c. murray
    · Aug 23, 2007 at 11:59 am

    What’s in a name?

    Main Entry: in·ti·fa·da
    Function: noun

    Etymology: Arabic intifAda, literally, the act of shaking off
    : UPRISING , REBELLION ; specifically : an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip A rebellion is, in the most general sense, a refusal to accept authority. It may therefore be seen as encompassing a range of behaviours from civil disobedience to a violent organized attempt to destroy established authority. It is often used in reference to armed resistance against an established government, but can also refer to mass nonviolent resistance movements. Those who participate in rebellions are known as “rebels”.Wikipedia.com

    Surely, the civil rights”movement” in the United States might be viewed by some as an intifada “the shaking off “of an established authority i.e. the unjust Jim Crow laws.

    The civil rights rebellion in the USA took many forms: from the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks; the non-violent resistance of Dr. King; to the armed resistance of the Black Panthers.The civil rights rebellions were a cause of great concern during President Johnson’s administration. Many feel that it was the “threat” of violence which led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act. America did not want or need another civil war.

    I have lived through the civil rights movement ~the boycott of Woolworths in Mount Vernon, NY in the 50s and in Philadelphia ’61. I have witnessed the aftermath of the 1964 Riot in Harlem; the Ocean Hill Brownsville debacle in 1967 as well as the Leonard Jeffires/Michael Levin controversy; the Afrocentrism/Eurocentric controversies; the Curriculum of Inclusion. All of the aforementioned events polarized many members of the union.

    Today, The Sixties (1960-1969) is remembered as the turbulent decade in which five civil rights leaders were assassinated: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin L. King. The Sixties is also remembered as the decade in which three courageous young civil rights workers, “Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered in Mississippi by the Klu Klux Klan:

    Certainly, we have persons representative of all races, cultures and communities within our union. We cannnot afford to polarize the members,again. Because, as stated by Abraham Lincoln:” a house divided cannot stand.”

    Therefore perhaps Sean Ahern’s letter will lead to an open dialogue on matters which impact us all. And perhaps ” a suitable forum in the pages of the NY Teacher to allow for a open exchange of these matters by members so inclined.” Perhaps this may just lead to opening this “topic for rational discourse and inquiry.”

    In Unity,

    Phyllis C. Murray

  • 18 The issue won’t go away. « PREA Prez
    · Aug 23, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    […] member Sean Ahern writes to Edwize and expresses concern about Almontaser’s firing and its implications for civil liberties in […]

  • 19 So what do you think about that?: Religious-Based Public Schools?
    · Aug 27, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    […] assumption that a dual-language school necessarily teaches religion. In a posting titled “The Civic Purposes of Public Schools And The UFT’s Support For Khalil Gibran International Aca…” they wrote:The mere fact that KGIA is a dual language Arabic school provides the tabloids with […]

  • 20 Funding Multicultural Education through NCLB
    · Aug 31, 2007 at 1:28 am

    […] Public support of Civics education, rather, is about the American Creed, described in a recent statement by the United Federation of Teachers, called the "Civic Purposes of Public […]

  • 21 Unionizing charter schools, bashing teacher unions and really all unions: how the right wing makes us hate organized working people | Dailycensored.com
    · Jun 18, 2010 at 5:32 am

    […] _____.  “The Civic Purposes of Public Schoos and the UFT’s Support for Khalil Gibran International Academy.”   EdWize  (August 21, 2007)  Website:  http://www.edwize.org/the-civic-purposes-of-public-schools-and-the-ufts-support-for-khalil-gibran-in… […]