Students at Lincoln High School are learning a new way to communicate: in Arabic.
On Thursday 45 students will finish a three-week total immersion Arabic language and culture program. It was brought to the school through a $100,000 grant from StarTalk, a program of the National Security Language Initiative formed by President George W. Bush in 2006.
Its goal is to expand the teaching of strategically important world languages that are not widely taught in this country, including Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Farsi, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu.
Mary Stimmel, chairwoman of the world languages department at Lincoln, wrote the application for the grant. She said the Lincoln program is the only one of its kind in Iowa and one of only a few in the Midwest. It has already received high marks from StarTalk, which sent a team of program developers to Lincoln to assess the program after only a few days, Stimmel said.
"It has met our expectations and exceeded StarTalk expectations," she said, pointing to a report with high marks that the StarTalk team returned to her.
Language and culture
Students in the concentrated program don't focus just on the written and spoken language. They take field trips to the Blank Park Zoo, for instance, to learn about some of the animals of the Middle East. They sample foods of the Middle East, and learn about the mode of dress, music and other leisure activities there.
Moises Contreras, 17, and Jessi Taylor, 18, have already graduated from Lincoln, but they've worked this summer as teachers' assistants for the program.
"It's a whole different culture," Contreras said. "The alphabet, the way people dress. For us, it's a chance to go outside your world."
"Being able to communicate, you can spread smiles," Taylor said.
Students say they have enrolled for different reasons: Arabic "sounds cool." It looks good on a resume. It's a challenge. It's a way to make new friends.
For one student, learning Arabic was a way to help her parents.
Sammy Macvilay's parents, who are from Laos, own and operate Jung's Oriental Food Store on East Ninth Street. They're starting to see many more Arabic-speaking customers who ask for products the Macvilays are not familiar with.
"This could help me communicate with (customers)," Sammy said. "We want to order more of those products."
Students and teachers are praising the program, and many enrolled this summer plan to enroll in the fall course offering, Arabic I.
One of the three teachers for the summer program is Samuel Nhial, who teaches during the school year at Ruby Van Meter School. A native of southern Sudan, he moved to Des Moines just a few years ago.
He said the students show a strong interest in learning. "Most already know Spanish, but this is very good for their future."
Stimmel agreed. She said young people who study world languages will have a leg up on their competition in the job market when they get out of school. When Stimmel was forming the program this spring, she said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in need of employees who speak Arabic.
Teacher Khalida Muhi was a civil engineer in her native Iraq. She moved to Des Moines with her family from Jordan in 2009. This is her first time teaching her native language.
"The program is beautiful," she said. "Students wake up at 8 a.m., and they want to be here. That's perfect. They get the information so fast and they don't forget."
The kids enrolled in this summer's program aren't necessarily the best students at Lincoln; they are the students most committed to learning a new language.
Teacher Hicham Jennane, originally from Morocco, also teaches French at Lincoln. He said this summer he has had students in the Arabic class with a GPA of 1.5, and some with a 4.0.
Kids teach each other
"It's a program that can solve a lot of problems," Jennane said. "The students are talking to kids they hadn't met before; they are friends now. The kids are teaching each other. They pay attention. They don't use their phones during class. ... It's been a great experience."
Jennane has been most pleased with the way the language has bridged social barriers.
"They are talking to each other as if they're just kids and not as if they're different," he said, adding that all three teachers are from the Arab world, and that has taught the students something.
"We are all Arab people," he said. "We speak the same language, but we have different beliefs. That doesn't make us enemies."
"We are bringing English and Arabic together for them to learn something," Stimmel said. "This will make our building better, it will eliminate some problems with kids.
"This gives some kids a reason to come to school; they're less likely to drop out. They have made a connection with the teachers and the other kids."