Under police guard, about 60 pupils at New York's first Arabic bilingual school turned up for classes on Tuesday amid accusations the institution is a potential breeding ground for Islamic extremists.
"This is absolutely not a religious school. The kids are here to be citizens of a school committed to excellence," Garth Harris, head of development for New York City's Education Department, told a crowd of reporters gathered outside the school building.
"There are 200 small schools in New York teaching Chinese, French or Russian," Harris said.
The students who arrived for opening day came from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, with some of the girls wearing headscarves. Outside, more than a dozen police were on hand to make sure reporters did not cross a yellow tape posted a few meters (yards) from the school building.
Principal Danielle Salzberg, named in mid-August, declined to speak to journalists. "She is with the children," Harris said.
The previous principal, Arabic speaker Debbie Almontaser, stepped down last month after she was criticized for refusing to condemn T-shirts inscribed with "Intifada NYC."
One pupil, 11-year-old Salima Abdulhassim, sporting a white headscarf, said she already spoke "some Arabic."
"My mother also speaks a little bit," she said, reluctant to say any more.
Harris said she was "disappointed with the controversy" surrounding the school, as she stood before a sign that read: "New Yorkers support the Khalil Gibran International Academy."
Supporters of the school, including a Jewish rabbi, were on hand with buttons that said, "Welcome." (MORE)