DEARBORN - The city of Dearborn has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States.
Those Arab Americans can be found in all areas of the city, but the majority — it seems — reside in East Dearborn, which is generally recognized as the area of the city east of Greenfield to the Dear-born/Detroit border. A large majority of the high school students in that area attend Fordson High School — where the Arabic language can be heard throughout the halls each day.
So what prompted the Michigan Leadership Institute (MLI) in a 48-page report detailing several aspects of the Dearborn Public School District's (DPS) three public high schools to single out Fordson in a recommendation to prohibit all non-English language use unless absolutely necessary to communicate with parents or students?
The report said the language divide is a problem at all three DPS high schools — Dearborn, Edsel Ford and Fordson — but a recommendation limit the use of Arabic speech in the city's most heavily-Arab populated public high school (Fordson) unless absolutely necessary has sparked a debate between those in the city and district who believe it's necessary to help students perform better and those who say it only helps alienate them.
No ban on speaking native language
"The report didn't say anything about banning anything. I know that's been written about, but that's not what it says," DPS Superintendent Brian Whiston said.
"I'm an outsider and that's not what I got out of it."
Whiston on Thursday said the language issue comes down to a certain level of comfort. He said that if two people are having a conversation and their native language is not English, it's OK for them to have that talk. However, Whiston said, if someone else is in the area who does speak English, that conversation should be translated to English, "so everyone is on the same page," Whiston said.
"But we do need to recognize that some students and parents do speak other languages," Whiston said. "If we're trying to teach a student a concept in English and they don't understand it, then we'll go to the language they understand.
"We're going to implement it (the report) just as it's written."
The study commissioned last fall by DPS and conducted by a three-person team from the MLI said the use of Arabic by students in the bilingual programs in DPS 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.
Report warranted, but Bill of Rights comes into play
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 (ADC). He said he thinks the singling out of Fordson, even though the report does mention the other DPS high schools, shows some political motivation.
"That's in the first amendment. You should be able to speak the language you know," Hamad said. "I think it's in everyone's best interest to be able to speak two or three different languages. We saw that following Sept. 11 when people who mastered Arabic were of great help."
Hamad added that if Fordson sat in a predominantly Latino or African-American community, language wouldn't be an issue. He said students would benefit greatly from learning and utilizing Arabic and other languages.
Report covers several areas
The 48-page report, put together by an independent education and municipal consulting group based in Northern Michigan, addressed several issues public high schools struggle with, including overcrowding in the classroom, low test scores, No Child Left Behind and low math scores, but also looked at specific challenges for a district with an Arab population that reaches as high as 90 percent in some schools.
MLI reviewed and studied the internal operations of each DPS high school and presented a final report at the end of 2008. The MLI team found many positive attributes at all three high schools, including outstanding students and a hard-working staff committed to the best interest and success of students. The team made several recommendations in a variety of areas to improve academic success and operations at each high school. The district has evaluated each of the MLI recommendations and created a document that describes the district's interpretation of the recommendations and its proposed action.
The team was hired by the district to do three main jobs: highlight what the DPS high schools do well, highlight areas that need improvement and provide a blueprint for those improvements to be made.
The report stated that allowing Fordson students and parents to speak Arabic, unless totally necessary, creates and image the district would not want.
"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 said.
The review team also suggested placing bilingual students into the general curriculum as soon as possible as a way to meet federal requirement such as No Child Left Behind.
Superintendent refutes publication's claims
Whiston contends a story appearing in the Jan. 15 edition of a Metro Detroit news publication inaccurately states, according to Whiston: "Dearborn district, Arab community at odds over proposed language ban."
The story implies that DPS is banning the use of the Arabic language in school and eludes to the information presented above. This is inaccurate, as Dearborn is not banning Arabic or any other foreign language and is not at odds with the Arab community, the superintendent said.
The district will continue to teach students to master the English language, Whiston said. The district has a proven track record of success in transitioning English Language Learners (ELL) from the ELL program to mainstream classrooms in a time frame faster then the norm. District staff members have presented at national conferences for ELL instruction and the program is considered a model for success. The district also offers classes to teach the English language to parents so they, too, can be more involved in the schools and with their child's education.
"The goal of the district is to build a culture of learning in each school so that students, staff, parents and community members are focused on the academic success of students and feel welcome," Whiston said."
This is the second story in a five-part series on the MLI report on the three DPS high schools. See future editions of the Press & Guide for more on the findings.
Contact News Editor Jason Carmel Davis at (734) 246-2652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.