In September, New York City will open the nation's first public school dedicated to teaching Arabic and Arab culture.
Named after the Christian Arab poet Khalil Gibran, it's one of 65 specialty dual-language schools in New York. But it's the only one that has sparked a public controversy.
Some conservative critics have warned it could breed home-grown extremists: "A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn," read one provocative headline in The New York Sun. Others have attacked it for balkanizing public education, which has historically played a primary role in helping the nation's many immigrants assimilate.
Supporters deny both claims and say the academy is designed to educate world citizens and bridge Eastern and Western cultures, something sorely needed in today's increasingly global world.
Underlying the controversy, experts say, is a larger question of how the nation and its schools cope with the influx of Arab and Muslim immigrants during a time when the threat of Islamic terrorism sows distrust. It's also a period in which ignorance about Arab culture and Islamic teaching runs high.
At the same time, however, US intelligence and law-enforcement agencies desperately need qualified Arab speakers to navigate the changed world.
"As a country, we still have a certain degree of fear in the aftermath of 9/11, and to a very great degree it exists because there are so many misconceptions still about what it means to be an Arab and what it means to be a Muslim," says Nial Ibrahim, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "Arabs and Arab-Americans ultimately look for the same things for their children [as any American]: a chance to get a meaningful education, an ability to improve on what their parents accomplished, and the opportunity to live in peace with their neighbors."
When the New York Department of Education announced in mid-February that one of the new schools slated to open in September would be the Khalil Gibran International Academy, there was little fanfare. But within weeks, some parents at the school that was to share a location with the new academy objected, saying it would create overcrowding. Then conservative columnists at The New York Sun began warning that the new school could breed extremism.
Daniel Pipes, a controversial Middle East scholar, wrote that "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." He pointed to a column in the Middle East Quarterly about Middlebury College's prestigious language schools. It contended that the Arab language curriculum there "indoctrinated [students] with a tendentious Arab nationalist reading of Middle Eastern history."
The dean of Middlebury's language schools, Michael Geisler, strongly denies the assertion and says that much in the article Mr. Pipes quoted was "demonstrably wrong." Still, the charge raised concerns among some in New York's influential Jewish community.
"Other ethnic schools have never been infused with this ethnic triumphalism which you have in many of the Islamic academies that are known around the world as madrassahs," says Jeff Wiesenfeld, trustee of the City University of New York. "We recognize that most Muslim people are as law-abiding as anyone else and abhor terrorism, but most terrorists today, as they are defined today, are Muslims."
More than 60 other dual-language schools are in New York, notes Joel Klein, New York schools chancellor. Most are for Spanish, but others focus on cultures as diverse as Creole and Chinese and Russian. At the same time as they teach language and culture, they also prepare students to pass the rigorous New York State Regents Examinations.
"If the school becomes a political school with a political agenda and decides that it's not about educating kids and is serving other purposes, then I won't tolerate it," Mr. Klein says. "Part [of our responsibility] in every child's education in this city is to make sure they're educated as a citizen."
He has promised that the school's curriculum would be monitored. That assuaged Mr. Wiesenfeld's concerns. The Department of Education also moved the school to another location with more space. Some parents who had raised concerns about overcrowding distanced themselves from the conservative critics.
But the controversy still hasn't gone away.
Some academics are raising concerns about the nature of all dual-language schools, despite the fact that some have proved to be high performing compared with other city schools.
"I object to all dual-language schools," says Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University. "It was decided a long time ago in this country that the nature of public education would be secular and it would be inclusive ... and its focus would be civic assimilation."
The Education Department continues to stand by the school, which is slated to start with 60 sixth-grade students from diverse backgrounds. Applications are still being processed.
Mr. Ibrahim of the Arab American Institute hopes the school will not only help train Arabic speakers, but also help dispel the myths that he contends feed fear in the nation. He likes to point out that madrassah is the Arabic word for school and that the majority of Arabs in the US, like Khalil Gibran, are Christians.
"We need to begin dispelling the stereotypes ...and start lowering the walls that separate us. Demonizing the school does nothing to further that goal," Ibrahim says. "New York City officials are standing squarely behind the school, and they deserve to be commended for that."