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Arabic School in America

Sharmeen Akbani Gangat
Filed on February 26, 2010

New York’s first Arabic language school, Khalil Gibran International Academy, open to all ethnic backgrounds, is grooming students to become ambassadors of hope 
and peace

Arabic School in America (/assets/oldimages/cul1_25feb10.jpg)Khalil Gibran, Lebanon-born and America-raised literary giant, called for the adoption of Arabic and the application of the language at all school levels in his homeland (then part of Greater Syria), in 1911.

Back then, he probably didn’t know two things: one, that the need for the study of Arabic language will become crucial for his adopted homeland, the United States of America; and two, that the first — and so far, the only — public school devoted to the in-depth teaching of Arabic language and culture in New York City, would be named after him, as the Khalil Gibran International Academy.

“Khalil Gibran is probably the most well-known Arab American literary figure, who not only the Arab Americans hold in common as part of our heritage but Americans in general,” said Dave Hall, who is the current community advisory board member of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. “And since it is an educational institute, it is natural to think of a person of letters.”

Khalil Gibran was an essayist, novelist, artist and poet. Although Gibran became a man of the West after he moved to the United States with his family in 1895, he longed for his place of birth.

“He [Khalil Gibran] was one of those rare writers who actually transcends the barrier between East and West, and could justifiably call himself — though a Lebanese and a patriot a citizen of the world,” write Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins in the biography on Khalil Gibran. “His words went beyond the mere evocation of the mysterious East but endeavoured to communicate the necessity of reconciliation between Christianity and Islam, spirituality and materialism, East and West…”

This global and peaceful vision of Gibran inspired the name of the school. It was the name of the school, that piqued the interest of Gwen Luke, when she decided on the Khalil Gibran International Academy as the school of choice for her daughter, Alyssa Watts.

“I was interested to find out the name behind the school,” says Luke. “And, when we came to the orientation, the school officials explained how the name complements the mission [of the school].”

The school’s mission is to “prepare students of diverse backgrounds for success in an increasingly global and interdependent society.” Students are provided a deep understanding of the Arab world, “through multicultural curriculum and intensive Arabic language instruction”.

At this middle school (sixth to eighth is the most common middle school configuration in North America) that started in 2007, Modern Standard Arabic language — one of the official six languages of the United Nations— is taught as a core subject in a 45-minute long period. The language instruction starts with alphabets, phonetics, basic introduction to the language framework, and continues to include reading, writing, speaking and listening in Arabic.

Although the school employs two full-time native Arabic language teachers, the teachers of other core subjects also bring in the Arab world connections, when appropriate.

For instance, students learn the names of the countries in the Arab World in both English and Arabic in a social studies class, study the ancient Arab approach to astronomy in a science class, and focus on the history of Arab instruments or tapestries in music and art classes.

Alyssa Watts, as a sixth grade student, has learnt to communicate basic expressions and questions in Arabic, in less than a year’s time. Sabah El-Khair, Ummi, Daftar were some of the Arabic words she quickly rattled off during the interview for this article.

“She teaches [these words] to her brothers and sisters,” says Alyssa’s mother with a smile. “It will take us a while to learn everything, but we know what some of the English words translate in Arabic.”

While Alyssa cherishes teaching Arabic to her African American family, Linda Khalid helps her classmates with her native Arabic.

Linda’s family hails from Yemen, with her native-level language fluency as an asset. This could fill her with pride of empowerment in an Arabic-centric environment, she does not find that as exciting as her peers’ interest in learning about “her part of the world.”

In a way, Alyssa and Linda represent a unique East-West synthesis at the Khalil Gibran International Academy where they are not only infusing the two cultures but are also cherishing the virtues of each, as the school’s namesake did through his works.

They, like all other students, are learning about the best of both the worlds, through curricular and co-curricular activities.

“Last year, the students wanted to do dabke dancing to hip hop,” shares Dave Hall, who takes special interest in the arts programming at the school, being a musician himself. “There is definitely a desire in the kids to bridge their world with the Arab world.”

Holly Anne Reichert, the school’s principal, has also had a professional connect with the region: she was a volunteer in Yemen, a teaching fellow at the American University in Cairo and head of the English department at an English-Arabic school in Bahrain.

She took helm of the school when media frenzy was at its peak: newspapers carried pieces bashing school authorities and equating Arabic language and culture with Islamic religiosity.

“But now, the controversies are behind us,” says Lena Al-Husseini, the executive director of the Arab American Family Support Centre which is the lead partner in the development of this school. “This, on its own, is a huge success for us.”

Also, Karim Shora, the National executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, considers the very presence of this school, in one of the leading global cities as “an achievement in itself”.

When the school started, it was situated in an Arab neighbourhood, closer to Arab groceries, mosques and churches, that was accessible on public transportation. However, “because of space constraints,” the school had to be moved within a year’s time to a spacious facility.

While the present location — being far away from public transportation — still remains a challenge, the parents are ready to commute long distances because of the rising marketability of Arabic language in the United States.

“A lot of employers are looking for Arabic speakers,” says Gwen Luke. “And, I believe this [knowing Arabic] would take her very far [career-wise].”

Arabic is taught at more than 70 schools across the country. But since most of these schools are religious in nature, they automatically exclude non-Muslims and Arabs who belong to different religious backgrounds.

In that regard, the Khalil Gibran International Academy is unique. Due to its focus on Arabic language and culture in a non-religious setting, it becomes an interesting proposition for all.

At present, “there are 76.92 per cent blacks, 9.62 per cent Hispanics, 11.54 per cent whites and 1.92 per cent Asians” at the school. In future, the school authorities hope to attract a far diverse mix with the promise to offer grades 6 - 12 as the school grows each year, graduating its first class in 2014. “Like the little engine that could, this would be the little school that could,” says Lena Al-Husseini, expressing satisfaction over the school’s journey by referring to the American children’s story famous for its focus on the value of optimism and hard work.

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