Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Arabic the Language of the Future in Dearborn?

Grant helps Arabic program

Feds give $1.5 million; parents applaud effort to teach language at two elementary schools.

Tanveer Ali / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- Dearborn Public Schools was awarded a $1.5 million federal grant to develop an Arabic program at two elementary schools beginning this year, as a part of a yearslong push by parents to expand the district's instruction of the language.

The grant to Miller and William Ford elementaries is one of eight awarded nationwide as a part of a U.S. State Department push to teach children certain languages.

It will set up a five-year program at the schools, adding to existing programs at Becker Elementary and Salina Intermediate.

The growing foreign language program, which will be optional this year, drew praise from parents at a meeting with educators at Miller Elementary Friday as a way to tend to the needs of Dearborn families.

"The fact that Dearborn Public Schools is now offering it to our kids is a great incentive for us," said Miller PTA President Zainab Kobeissi, a parent of a first-grader at the school.

Administrators from both schools said response has been positive to adding a foreign language program, with more than 98 percent of students opting into the program, not all Arabs. Other languages, particularly Spanish and Chinese, piqued parents' interest, but only Chinese would be covered under a similar grant.

Those who didn't opt in would be given other alternatives.

"We've heard many requests over the last few years," said William Ford Principal Mahmoud Abu-Rus. "Having a second language is about how we are going to prepare our students for life. We chose the language based on what our community asked us to do."

The classes will take place in 80-minute sessions every week, teaching the language alongside topics covered in core classes. The program will be taught to kindergarteners through third-graders this year and will be extended to fifth grade over two years.

"It's content-based. It's not teaching Arabic in a vacuum," said Shereen Tabrizi, project director for the district. "The research says it expands the students' critical thinking."


The original rationale of allocating millions in taxpayer funds to the teaching of Arabic in this heavily-Arabic area was national security and economic competitiveness.

I know that there are Dearborn Arab Americans, patriotic folks, who have put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan as translators, or helping coalition forces hunt down Saddam, and Al Qaeda murderers, or helping domestic law enforcement investigate terrorism.

But that's not what's going on here. These Dearborn parents view the grants “as a way to tend to the needs of Dearborn families.” How come Dearborn families need Arabic speakers so bad?

And the DPS officials, Miller School PTA President Zainab Kobeissi, William Ford Principal Mahmoud Abu-Rus, and project director Shereen Tabrizi, talk about the program with no reference to national security at all. "Having a second language is about how we are going to prepare our students for life. We chose the language based on what our community asked us to do."

So again, (note the names of the officials), we have a heavily Arabic East Dearborn community asking the schools to emphasize Arabic language education for their children. What “life” have these folks got in mind that their youngsters now need to grow up--in Michigan--speaking and reading fluent Arabic? Do they anticipate a Dearborn of 20-30 years from now that is even more heavily Arabic-only than it is now?

Maybe you recall hearing from Muslim leaders how America’s Muslims are being left out of society, passed over for this country’s great opportunities, victims of a simmering Islamophobia. I don’t happen to buy that, to put it mildly. But let’s assume for the moment it’s true. Let’s assume that today’s Arab Americans and Arabic immigrants, like the immigrant Irish, Italians, Poles, Russians, Germans, etc. of decades past, are facing social and economic barriers because of prejudice against their obvious cultural and ethnic differences from the majority population.

That being the case, just how are their disadvantaged children going to become better integrated into the greater American society by studying Arabic as a second language?

My concern is less that taxpayer money is being thrown into Dearborn’s predominately Arab schools, which is basically carrying coals to Newcastle, so much as that Arabic-language instruction has been linked with indoctrination in pan-Arabic and Islamist worldviews.

You can read about that here, here, and here.

Project director Shereen Tabrizi even promises that the district’s Arabic students will be studying a “content-based” language curriculum, not learning Arabic “in a vacuum.”

Except there is no vacuum in the Dearborn Public Schools. There simply is no lack of Arabic culture, language, religion, or other social and ethnic markers in Dearborn that calls for some kind of total immersion in the classroom. Certainly not the vacuum there would be if a Dearborn student were studying, say, Chinese. An East Dearborn Arabic child is immersed in everyday Arabic at home, reads it in Arabic newspapers, hears it on Arabic cable channels, sees it on Arabic stores signs, smells it coming from neighborhood kitchens and restaurants, hears it shouted on sidewalks and street corners, and hears it spoken in the mosque, and--of course--he sees it in the Koran.

And we already know from other, similar, grant programs, that the overhwelming majority of students taking Arabic are Arabic themselves. “Approximately 90 percent of Star International Academy's students come from an Arabic background, but is not a requirement to get into the school.”

So what will the content be in this content-based Arabic program?

I’m only asking.

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