School District Nixes Arabic Classes | WBEZ
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School District Nixes Arabic Classes

Students in two Chicago's west suburban  high school districts won't get a chance to study Arabic next year, despite interest from local families. Two districts recently decided they won't add Arabic classes, disappointing many in the local Muslim community. They're not the only ones who think Arabic is a smart choice for American kids. 

ambi: students in arabic class... 

Three teenagers—Madinah Patterson, Devontay Kwanning and Sacha Sims—are sitting in a “madrassah,” practicing Arabic phrases. They're not Muslim, and this isn't a religious school. “Madrassah” is just Arabic for school, and this is Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Chicago. It's a rising star in the public school system, in part because every student here must study Arabic or Chinese, two languages deemed strategic by the U.S. government. The government even paid for Madinah to go to Jordan last year and take summer classes at the University of Chicago.

MADINAH: Arabic should definitely be offered at all high schools, it should be fundamental. It's fun to learn, and it opens up many doors and it opens up opportunities that a lot of other students won't be able to have.

But in a suburban high school district, where students have been trying to get Arabic classes in the curriculum, the answer was “no.”

Lena Hassan is 15 and a sophomore at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills. As a freshman last year, she helped students organize and pass around a petition.

HASSAN: How come there can't be an Arabic class? There's 150 kids in the school willing to take it.

School officials looked into it, but after a lengthy review of their foreign language offerings, administrators at District 230 say there's no need to add Arabic – or any other strategic language – to the curriculum right now. Oak Lawn high schools made a similar decision last month. Lena Hassan finds it puzzling.

HASSAN: Honestly, I think it's, like, pretty funny how they actually turned us down. I don't see a reason why. I honestly don't know why they would turn it down.

REYNOLDS: It's because it's a process. It isn't just a matter of, ‘Can we add it? OK, add it, there we go.' It's a matter of a process.

Brenda Reynolds is assistant superintendent of instruction at District 230. Most of the 9,000 kids in the district's three high schools choose to take a foreign language – either Spanish, French, German or Latin. The campaign to add Arabic emerged out of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, one of two thriving Islamic centers in the southwest suburban district. Dr. Mohammed Sahloul, a physician, is president of the mosque.

SAHLOUL: We are a community organization, and we felt like this is a simple task, it's a slam-dunk. It will help our students, that will give also competitive advantage to other students, not only of Arabic heritage, many of our students have friends who are interested in the Arabic language.

Not enough, the district says. Reynolds, the administrator, did her own survey and got responses from more than 2,000 middle school kids who feed into her district. Most said they were fine with the status quo.

REYNOLDS: Collecting all the information, reviewing the data, we came up with a decision that at this point in time we don't have enough information to suggest a need for an additional language. Are there some interest groups out there that would like us to add an additional language? Sure there are. There's not a need right now to add an additional language.

The decision has bruised some feelings. Sahloul of the Bridgeview Mosque says the U.S. government already sees a critical need. Public schools in Chicago, New York City and Michigan have launched programs.

Plus, Sahloul points out that a growing community of American Arabs and Muslims call school district 230 home. Some 5,000 people pray each week at the Bridgeview mosque, which recently completed a state-of-the art expansion that tripled its size.

Sahloul says the expansion faced some opposition too. It's leading some in his community to question whether bigotry is an issue here. To which Assistant Superintendent Reynolds replies…

REYNOLDS: I'm offended by that question. It has nothing to do with that; we're not adding Chinese, we're not adding sign language. Does that mean that we now have a difficulty with those groups, that are interested in that as well? That has nothing to do with the review. Nothing at all. It's based on data, it's based on information, it's based on no emotions.

She adds that the door is not closed. She's meeting with administrators at Moraine Valley Community College to see if her students could get credit for taking Arabic there. She's open to adding a strategic language in the future. And as for Dr. Sahloul? He says it's time for his members to think about running for the school board.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Monique Parsons.

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