Sept. 4, 2007 — -- The biggest school system in the United States began the new school year today by opening its doors to controversy, as New York City introduced the first public Arabic school in the nation.
It was, to put it mildly, an unusual first day of school for the 60 students at the Khalil Gibran International Academy, where students arrived to see press and police outside the new school, as those who oppose the school fear it will spread radical Islam.
"When I came down the corner and saw the mobile police unit and the news cameras swirling around, then I was very nervous," said Susan O'Grady, a parent of a student at the school.
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Supporters say Brooklyn's new sixth through 12th grade school should not be controversial. Students will follow the same curriculum that every other school in the city uses, except that classes in Arabic language and culture will be mandatory.
New York City Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott said fears that the school could become a hotbed for radical Islam are incorrect. "'Not gonna happen, not gonna happen, not gonna happen, and that is just totally ridiculous," he told ABC News' Dan Harris.
New York City has dozens of other dual-language schools that teach Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese and Haitian Creole. None of them has generated even a fraction of the controversy that this Arabic school has.
Critics worry that students will be indoctrinated and point to the fact that the school's first principal resigned after defending T-shirts that carry the word "intifada."
"I think there's a special problem with an Arab school because of the reality of the world that we live in today," said Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind. "The sad reality is that a lot of the terrorism, not a lot, almost all of it, has come from a particular community -- a minority -- but a particular community. That's a reality we better face."
But it's precisely because of today's national security concerns that many believe more Americans should learn Arabic. Supporters also point out that the new principal is Jewish and very few of the students are either Arab or Muslim.
Susan O'Grady's family is Christian. Her daughter wanted to learn Arabic because her father is Egyptian.
"Arab does not totally equal Islam," O'Grady said, "and that's just ridiculous. If people did their homework and really looked at everything, and just dug a little deeper they would realize that."
Supporters of the school say it will build bridges between communities, but in a post-9/11 New York, clearly not everyone is so sure.