It's not often the playing field is leveled for all students in high school, but one foreign language teacher is making it happen.
Hicham Jennane teaches Arabic 1 and 2 to ninth- through 12th-graders at Lincoln High School.
"Whether you're good at academics or sports, it doesn't matter," said Jennane, who has been teaching at the school for five years. "Everyone starts with the basics."
Since Arabic uses characters different than English, each student comes into the class with a blank slate, he said. Arabic 1 focuses on learning the alphabet and simple greetings; Arabic 2 moves toward conversations.
"You don't ever feel uncomfortable in class," said Bryan Ronquillo, 16, a sophomore student in Arabic 2. He said he was quiet at the beginning of his freshman year, but Arabic 1 taught him how to build relationships.
Once the alphabet and grammar are established, students talk about themselves and get to know fellow classmates. The curriculum then progresses through themes.
With the group they've gotten to know, students interact as if they're at a wedding or the market, learning customs and practicing new vocabulary before moving on to the next theme.
Jennane's classes are taught in 90 percent Arabic and 10 percent English. But speaking isn't all they do. Students made valentines and they each "adopted" a country to own and research.
"He wants the atmosphere to be calm and welcoming," 11th-grade Arabic 2 student Dema Mamo said.
In 2012, Jennane was the recipient of the Dora Johnson Award, issued annually by the Qatar Foundation International as part of its mission to support advances in curriculum and instruction for Arabic educators and individuals who promote the teaching of Arabic language and culture. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages selected Jennane for the honor.
In late 2013, Lincoln had another winner when Mary Stimmel, chairwoman of the World Languages Department at Lincoln, received the honor.
The Arabic class at Lincoln was developed in response to students' requests for something different and challenging.
Said Ronquillo: "The world is getting smaller; we can't expect everyone to learn English."
Stimmel and Jennane in 2011 applied for a $100,000 StarTalk Arabic program grant to begin Arabic as a summer course. The federal StarTalk program, part of the National Security Language Initiative, seeks to expand and improve the teaching and learning of strategically important world languages that are not widely taught in the U.S.
With Stimmel as the program director, and Jennane as lead instructor, the first StarTalk summer program was a wild success. A year later it doubled in participants, from 50 to 100.
"I believe that the support the students and community are giving Arabic has also been a factor in its growth," said Stimmel, who has taught at Lincoln for 18 years.
The students' enthusiasm led Stimmel and Jennane to write the grant for a second year, then a third and now a fourth. Each year they've also added a component to the curriculum — art in 2012 and PE in 2013 — to continue challenging and teaching their students.
"We believe in our students and their abilities," Jennane said. "For me they are the elite."
Stimmel said teachers learned at the end of February that Lincoln was awarded another StarTalk grant for this summer. It will provide $90,000 for the program, which will allow 100 students in the metro area to take Arabic, with the potential to earn a semester credit in Arabic. The teachers plan to next add a music component to the curriculum.