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Former Principal of NYC Arabic School Wants Job Back


Although she resigned before it even opened, Debbie Almontaser says she is still the person best suited to oversee the city’s first Arabic-themed public school.

She wants to reclaim her job as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which she left this summer amid a furor over an interview she had given. But city education officials said she would not get the job back.

“In August, Ms. Almontaser said she resigned as principal … to protect the stability of the school and give it ‘the full opportunity to flourish,'” Department of Education spokesman David Cantor said Tuesday in a statement. “Chancellor (Joel Klein) agreed with her decision, accepted her resignation, and now considers the matter closed.”

Almontaser does not. She said Tuesday she planned to reapply for the job.

“As … the person who envisioned the school, I believe I am the person most qualified to be its educational leader,” she said in her first public comments since resigning.

The academy, named for the Lebanese Christian poet and peace advocate, has a focus on Arabic and Arab culture. Protests arose almost immediately after education officials announced plans in February to open it.

Almontaser left in August after she was criticized for not explicitly condemning the use of the word “intifada” on T-shirts made by a youth organization. Intifada is an Arabic term commonly used to refer to the Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Almontaser, a longtime New York City educator and a Muslim of Yemeni descent, said at a news conference outside City Hall Tuesday that her “American dream” to help establish the school “turned into an American nightmare.”

She said a New York Post reporter “aggressively” tried to get comment from her in August about T-shirts with “Intifada NYC” written on them. The shirts were made by Arab Women in the Arts and Media.

The reporter asked her about the origin of the word “intifada,” and she told him that the root word means “shake off,” Almontaser said. She said she explained to the reporter that “intifada” has different meanings for different people, but that given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the word implied violence.

In an Aug. 6 story, the Post said Almontaser “downplayed the significance of the T-shirts,” which were “apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple.”

Almontaser said the Post story accurately reflected her nonviolent views, but it “distorted” her comments.

Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan said through a spokesman: “We stand by our story.”

Almontaser said the Department of Education forced her to apologize for the comments, and then to resign.

Education department spokeswoman Melody Meyer said Almontaser was never forced to speak to reporters, make statements or act against her will.

“Neither the mayor’s office nor the DOE threatened to close the school unless Ms. Almontaser agreed to resign,” she said in a statement. “Preserving the school has been our priority throughout.”

A number of conservative Web sites, blogs and other publications have come out against the school. Some have questioned Almontaser’s character and tried to paint her as a radical Muslim with a dangerous agenda.

She said she feels she has been the victim of injustice and claimed there has been a “vile and hateful attack” on New York City’s Arab and Muslim communities since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Those seeking to harm our communities would like nothing more than for me to remain silent in response to their hate,” Almontaser said. “I will continue to stand against division, intimidation and hatred.”

The school is starting with sixth-graders and will expand with one additional class every year to end up with 500 to 600 students in grades 6 through 12. It joins a number of small public schools in the city that are themed, covering areas from the arts to social justice to Chinese language.

Danielle Salzberg, a Jewish woman who does not speak Arabic, was named the interim principal of the Khalil Gibran school after Almontaser stepped down. Tuesday was the final day to submit resumes for the post. School officials were not sure when a new principal would be appointed.

— Associated Press

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