Streams

Parent Complains of Bias in Sixth-Grade Lesson

Monday, November 21, 2011 - 03:50 PM

It was supposed to be a special learning opportunity for the sixth graders at Public School 101 School in the Gardens in Forest Hills, Queens. A popular second-grade teacher was invited to their social studies class to give a lecture about Israel, as part of a unit on the Middle East.

But at home that evening, Elli Surico, 10, started talking about how great Israel is and asking why the Arabs wanted to kill the Jews, alarming her mother, Dana Milstein. It turns out that Elli and her family are both Arab and Jewish, of Moroccan descent, and Ms. Milstein found her daughter's words deeply disturbing.

Sixth graders in New York City regularly study the Middle East, but it is up to individual schools to devise the details of the lessons. At the School in the Gardens, the teachers work together to shape what is taught, and the talk on Israel last Monday was just one of the lessons dedicated to countries in the region, said the principal, Valerie Capitulo-Saide.

But that explanation was not enough for Ms. Milstein, who read a fact sheet that Elli had brought home from the day, and found it inappropriately one-sided and inaccurate.

The fact sheet praises the Jewish religion, but not Islam, and says the land that was to become Israel was barren before Jewish settlers arrived there, not mentioning the settlements of Arabs. It says that the countries surrounding Israel "seek to destroy Israel and the Jewish people."

"They do not want peace," it says, not mentioning that there are peace treaties between Israel and two of the nations that border it.

The teacher who wrote it, Gary Gelber, is Jewish and also teaches the children about the Holocaust; he did not return a call and e-mail asking for comment.

"It isn't a matter of perspective," Ms. Milstein said. "These kids look to their teachers to give them truth, not opinions that are going to lead to hatred of other people."

Now Ms. Milstein is testing the limits of what a parent can do when she finds something taught to her child offensive. She reported the matter to the principal, the Department of Education’s Office of Equal Opportunity, the news media and the Arab-American Association of New York, a nonprofit organization that speaks out against anti-Arab discrimination.

Ms. Capitulo said in an interview that her school was taking the matter "very seriously," and that she also referred the complaint to the Department of Education for investigation.

“We knew going into it that it is a touchy subject," Ms. Capitulo said. "The parent is upset, and rightfully so. I understand her concern."

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