January 15, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Dearborn schools urged to ban Arabic

Study sparks debate over assimilation versus bilingual teaching in Dearborn schools.

Imad Hamad: "I am not a fan of restricting ... language." )

DEARBORN -- A recommendation to bar Arabic speech in the city's most heavily Arab public high school unless it is absolutely necessary has sparked a sharp debate between those who say it's necessary to help students perform better and those who say it only helps alienate them.

A study commissioned by the Wayne County Regional Education Service Agency said the use of Arabic by students in the bilingual programs in Dearborn Public Schools slows the assimilation of students "into the school and American society in general" and fosters suspicion among students and teachers who don't speak the language.

Students' ability to communicate in the language they feel most comfortable with is a basic right, said Imad Hamad, regional director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"It should not be touched," Hamad said. "I am not a fan of restricting or reducing language. I feel that goes against the best interest of any type of education."

The 44-page report from the Michigan Leadership Institute, an independent education and municipal consulting group based in Old Mission in the Grand Traverse Bay area, addressed the usual problems public high schools grapple with, including overcrowding, test scores and No Child Left Behind compliance, but also took note of the specific challenges for the district with an Arab population that reaches as high as 90 percent in some schools.

Though the language divide is a problem at all three high schools in the district, the report singled out Fordson High School to prohibit all non-English use unless absolutely necessary to communicate with parents or students.

"To do otherwise reinforces a perception by some that Fordson is an Arab School in America rather than an American school with Arab students," the report stated.

District officials said they will explore ways to accelerate students into English-only classes over the next 18 months.

Intissar Harajli, the district's coordinator of bilingual education, said the district tests all new students' English proficiency and places them in English-only or bilingual classes according to their skill level. All schools and all subjects have bilingual options.

"The misconception is sometimes (determining) when the child has survival skills they can move on," Harajli said, adding that it takes up to four years for a new English speaker to gain the skills to adapt to an English-only classroom.

Kevin Harris, president of the Dearborn Federation of Teachers and a former economics teacher at Fordson, said a bilingual education is necessary in the school district, home to many students and parents who are new to the English language. Yet, he agreed with the report's assessment that the use of languages other than English "contributes to an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion on the part of English-only speaking adults in the schools."

"The report's concern is that there's an overuse of the native tongue when there didn't really need to be," Harris said. When English speakers choose to communicate in Arabic he said, "It does make me suspicious and I think it's rude for them to do this. If situations were reversed, how would you feel? I don't think they get that."

Non-Arab parents like Tomara Doss, who has a daughter and a sister in the Dearborn school system, said English-only education is necessary in order to integrate a community that seems to be distant from American culture.

"Schools should be all English. If you live in America, you are an American," said Doss, 33, who was picking up her sister from Fordson. "Not to take anything away from their culture, but only speaking Arabic won't give them a chance to broaden their horizons."

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