Overcoming Prejudice: The City’s Arabic Dual-Language Programs

The first Arabic-English dual-language program in New York City was founded at the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school in Brooklyn that opened its doors to sixty 6th-grade students in September 2007. The school’s namesake, Khalil Gibran, was a Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer of the New York Pen League. Gibran came to the United States as a child, growing up in Boston and attending school in a special class for immigrants. There, he was able to master the English language while maintaining his Arabic fluency at home. Gibran went on to become a well-regarded and celebrated literary figure in both languages and an internationally respected proponent of multicultural understanding, the embodiment of the spirit of dual-language education to this day.

The Khalil Gibran International Academy was the first public school in the United States to offer a curriculum that emphasized the study of Arabic language and culture. Support came from many institutions, including a committee comprised of the Lutheran Medical Center, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Arab-American Family Support Center. Its founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, strived to create a dual-language school based on what the community wanted. The school was slated to begin in 6th grade and continue through high school so that children could truly become bilingual and bicultural.

As a religiously and politically diverse community, the group initially sought to offer instruction in both Hebrew and Arabic. However, this model proved to be too ambitious to implement, especially when taking into account all the various public education standards and regulations in New York State. Eventually, the group decided to change its primary focus to an Arabic dual-language program that would foster values of inclusion and pluralism, while meeting local community needs. The school was also envisioned as a way to promote tolerance at a time of increased Islamophobia and racism.

Defeat and the Lessons We Can Learn from It

Unfortunately, in the face of attacks from the press and several advocacy groups, the dual-language middle school program at Khalil Gibran International Academy did not survive. Although the Academy’s mission was clear and well-structured, it became the target of much hostility—including a protest held outside New York’s City Hall by a group called “Stop the Madrassa.” Placard-waving crowds stood outside of the school for days, protesting the public school’s Arab-English dual-language curriculum based on fears that it would indoctrinate children in radical Islamist ideology.

These reactions emanated from the post-9/11 context, which continued to plague New York City’s Arab and Muslim institutions at the time. Despite what the New York Times described as an “organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life,”52 the Academy stood by its bilingual curriculum, as the program was already boasting strong academic and social results. However, in 2007 the city ceased to support the school and Principal Debbie Almontaser was forced to resign in the midst of a media scandal, despite the fact that she was a very well-known interfaith activist in New York City. A later case, brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, found that Almontaser was discriminated against by the New York City Department of Education. In a saddening personal and professional conclusion to Principal Almontaser’s endeavor, the Khalil Gibran Academy was forced to abandon its dual-language program.

Today, by reinventing itself in a new school community, the Khalil Gibran International Academy carries forth Gibran’s message of peace. It has transitioned from a middle school to a high school serving grades 9-12. Its mission is to:

Develop, maintain, and graduate life-long learners who have a deep understanding of different cultural perspectives, a love of learning and a desire for excellence with integrity. The school promotes holistic student development, and encourages them in their social, emotional, physical and intellectual growth. Along with our partners, we are dedicated to providing a supportive, student-centered, and collaborative learning environment where our students reach their full potential and grow into responsible global leaders who will impact the world around them.

The school maintains English and Arabic language programs, though not in a dual-language context. While students who graduate from Khalil Gibran might not be fully proficient in Arabic, they still develop skills that build upon their own personal development and intercultural understanding and that will undeniably help them navigate future professional opportunities in sectors such as business and international relations.

Although the story of the Khalil Gibran Academy has a silver lining, Arabic-speaking populations remain a targeted and marginalized group. Fear of discrimination among Arab-Americans and Arabic-speaking communities in the United States has been high since 9/11. Arabic speakers are regularly portrayed in a negative light and are routinely viewed with suspicion, simply because of their linguistic background, ethnicity, or physical appearance.54 Furthermore, this group tends to be categorically classified as Muslims when, in actuality, numerous Arabic speakers are Christians or come from other faith backgrounds. Misunderstandings and discriminatory attacks persist, and the heated and divided political climate in the United States of recent has not improved the situation. Overwhelmingly unfavorable attention has resulted in tension, uneasiness, and distress in the Arab-American community, as Zeena Zakharia, assistant professor of international and comparative education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, explains:

I do think it is different for Arab communities, politically […] People want to stay under the radar, they don’t want to make trouble, they don’t know if asking for things is asking for trouble.

This sense of apprehension is palpable among those who speak Arabic in public, and even at home between parents and their children. Frequently, families prefer that their child not learn Arabic at all, as Zeena confirms:
Arabic is not a high-status language. The politics around Arabic are difficult. Even in Lebanon, where I was the director of a dual-language school, I used to have parents who were coming back from the U.S. with their children to live in Lebanon saying, “I don’t want my child learning Arabic.”
This Arabic heritage language erosion that Zeena describes in the United States, and around the world, is unsettling. As we have seen in other linguistic communities, fear of discrimination and a strong desire to assimilate are incredibly powerful forces working against bilingualism in America. In the face of adversity, Arabic has become the latest victim in the long history of languages in the United States that have succumbed to mounting pressure based on social and ethnic prejudices.

Launching a Revival

Fortunately, parents and teaching professionals have achieved some success in combatting these stigmas, and Arabic language instruction in New York City has witnessed somewhat of a revival. In 2013, Carol Heeraman was approached by New York City’s Office of English Language Learners about a project to create a dual-language program at her school, P.S./I.S. 30, in Brooklyn. She immediately had Arabic in mind to be the program’s target language, since the majority of her school population spoke Arabic at home. Families from Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria had recently started to move into the neighborhood, necessitating expanded Arabic bilingual offerings in public schools. The program was received with overwhelming enthusiasm from parents and was not a hard sell at all, as Arabic was already well-established in the school and in the community. Most importantly, the principal and staff did not have any negative preconceived notions about Arabic, and were well aware of its potential to prepare their students for success in the future.

Through the Arabic-English dual-language program, P.S./I.S. 30 quickly found a devoted partner in Qatar Foundation International, an organization dedicated to Arabic language and cultural education. Together, the school and the foundation worked to transform the dual-language initiative into a community effort. Qatar Foundation International provided the necessary funding, curriculum planning, and materials to launch the bilingual program. They lent legitimacy to the initiative, and happily shared their expertise in Arabic language education. The foundation also provided the funds to hire Mimi Met, an expert in language immersion, as a consultant to the program. In addition, school officials worked alongside the Arab-American Association—located nearby on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn—whose mission is “to support and empower the Arab immigrant and Arab-American community by providing services to help them adjust to their new home and become active members of society.” Linda Sarsour, the then-director of the Association and a well-known Palestinian-American political activist, was eager to get her own network involved to embrace and enhance the program. These partnerships allowed the Arabic dual-language program to gain access to both necessary funds and community support, two key components that contributed to their success.

In spite of the prejudice and stigmas that surround the Arabic-speaking community today, Arabic language skills are actually incredibly valued on a professional level, especially in the United States. In a post 9/11 context, many jobs now require Arabic, and there is an abundance of work opportunities related to the Arabic-speaking world. Most of the growth in Arabic language instruction in the U.S. has been at the university level, but it is a huge advantage for children to learn the language at an early age—highlighting the potential for impact that dual-language programs hold.
Fluency in Arabic sets applicants apart from the competition for colleges, scholarships, and enrichment programs. Knowledge of Arabic, and familiarity with Arab culture, offers access to careers in business, diplomacy, journalism, security, and public policy, among many others.

Moreover, Arabic is one of the fastest growing second languages in the United States, with more than one million Americans speaking it at home.
Principal Heeraman is quick to point out that many families interested in the Arabic dual-language program speak another language at home, such as Russian or Chinese, due to the multicultural landscape of the neighborhood the school serves. These families see the program as a form of academic enrichment, much like classes for “gifted” students that already exist in schools across the country. In this sense, Arabic language instruction is gaining the status it was so often denied in attempts past, as families now jump at the chance for their children to become fluent in a second, or even third, language.

Defining the Mission

In its development, the Arabic dual-language program encountered questions from parents and community members that necessitated a clear and defined scope of the program. For one, Arabic language instruction is often seen as beneficial to participation in Islamic religious tradition, most notably the reading of the Qur’an. Many parents initially expressed concern that the emphasis of the program would be more religious than linguistic, even though the instruction was taking place in a public school setting. To ensure a direct line of communication from the start, Principal Carol Heeraman made it very clear to parents that the school was not at all associated with any religious tradition, and that its mission was purely instructional and academic in nature. Its carefully-defined mission was to support the development of bilingual and biliterate students in English and in Arabic. This insistence on a clear mission helped the Arabic program move on from any lingering doubts or suspicions that negatively impacted the Arabic-English dual-language programs that came before.

After several months of extensive collaboration and planning, the Arabic dual-language program at P.S./I.S.30 opened its doors in September 2013. The dual-language curriculum was designed as a split day, where morning classes are taught in Arabic and afternoon classes in English, or vice versa. The school currently offers dual-language classes from Kindergarten to 3rd grade, adding a new grade every year as the original class moves up. As Principal Heeraman is also head of the middle school, I.S. 30, she plans to continue the Arabic dual-language curriculum all the way through 8th grade.

For all involved, the established importance of Arabic as an international and critical language has increased P.S./I.S. 30’s popularity in the community, as Carol Heeraman confirms:

For my parents who are knowledgeable and worldly, they are very receptive to it. They are banging down the doors to get their kids into the program. Next year, the hope is that we can open two Kindergarten classes instead of just one. And to continue all the way to 8th grade… I can’t wait to graduate these babies who are now in 2nd grade. 8th graders who are bilingual and biliterate—it will be amazing. We’ll have a whole graduation in Arabic. It’s phenomenal. All of this is possible.

This vision for the future created and carried out by Principal Heeraman is a true inspiration. Her leadership and zeal for Arabic dual-language programs in her community continue to touch the lives of the many children and families that pass through the program and are afforded the opportunity to learn and grow in two languages.

In spite of recent hardships and setbacks in the face of adversity, the New York City Arabic-speaking community has achieved enormous success in establishing two bilingual programs in recent years. Much of their success lies in the unwavering support of school administrators, foundations, and local community organizations that allow for such valuable programs to exist in today’s political climate. The Arabic dual-language story offers a much needed, and somewhat unexpected, complement to the story of the Bilingual Revolution. It vividly portrays the importance of collaboration and support from many different sources. Although active participants in their own dual-language program, Arabic-speaking parents were not, this time, the Dual-Language Program initiators. For the Arabic dual-language programs in New York City, it took a village to start their own Bilingual Revolution.

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