Applying for magnet schools in Houston is an art -- and a science. From the start of the fall application season, conversations among parents at the park, during playdates and around the water cooler at work become interrogations.
Where are you applying? (HISD parents can apply to 10 schools max.)
Are you taking the Vanguard test? (For entry into HISD's gifted and talented program.)
How did you prepare for the test? (Parents who have "been there, done that" offer newbies whatever bits of information they could glean out of dazed children emerging from the Vanguard test room, where no parent may enter.)
I've heard of parents prepping their 4- and 5-year-olds for questions on letters, numbers and currency by setting up a dry-run with a complete stranger. For the record, we quizzed our daughter with sample questions from an online test prep site and hoped that our involved parenting and Montessori had done the rest.
The moment notices go out, parents are glued to their HISD online dashboards with the same hope-filled tension as high school seniors awaiting college acceptance letters. Then the phones start buzzing and a flurry of how-did-your-kid-do texts fly and the playground becomes ground zero. Those stuck on waiting lists have to endure the enviable air of relief surrounding those with a spot.
And then there are those, like my husband and me, whose 5-year-old got accepted into the city's brand new immersive Arabic language magnet school. We got unspoken looks of sympathy and bewilderment almost immediately, followed by innocent inquiries. "Is that where you want to send her?" The assumption was that she didn't get accepted anywhere else and that we had no choice.
Others were thrilled for my daughter and filled with praise for the virtues of learning a language, any language, at such a young age. "Wow, that's so cool!" Those in education offered knowing nods. Parents of children who are already learning a second language at home or in school beamed with approval.
And from a third group, there was outright hostility at the prospect. These are not parents at the playground -- I only know of these dissenters from online message boards and HISD board meetings.
But the funny thing is, no one blinks if you send your child to one of the district's Spanish language schools. Or the wildly successful Mandarin language school.
I often feel as though I have to defend my decision. No, it was not my first choice, because it was not her first choice. She wanted to learn Spanish. She's had an affection for the language likely nurtured by an early baby sitter, a college-age woman who spoke to her own father in Spanish when she called him for rides home and who taught my daughter a phrase or two. And the Montessori school she attends now spends an impressive amount of time teaching numbers and words in Spanish. Her teacher hails from India, so my daughter speaks Spanish with a subtle Indian lilt. She adores the language, and I could have helped her with her homework.
But we didn't get into the Spanish immersion magnet school we chose. And we didn't get into the Vanguard schools, either. And the waiting lists for both are long.
My daughter has an obsession with mummies and Egyptian culture, honed by many afternoons at the Museum of Natural Science. If you asked her where she would go on vacation if she could go anywhere in the world, her answer, second to Grandma's house, would be "Ancient Egypt." This was enough to spark her excitement about the prospect of Arabic. And it helps that her father, who studied the language in college and spent months in Syria immersing himself, could be an ally. He can help her with her homework.
Houston ISD instituted the program because Arabic is the second most-common language spoken at home in the school district, displacing Vietnamese. (No. 1 -- you guessed it -- is Spanish.) The greater Houston region has seen its Arabic-speaking population grow by more than a third since 2009. The school's slickly produced video touts its benefits for kids growing up in the energy capital of the world. The goal is to make native Arabic speakers out of pre-kindergartners and kindergartners by teaching the 50/50 model -- math and science are taught in Arabic, while English and social studies are taught in English. The selling point: Open up future employment possibilities in business and government with a language considered "critical" by the State Department.
When my husband and I put AIMS, as it is known in shorthand on school shirts and missives about school supplies, on our list of potential schools, it was in an almost unintentional way. We took to the task of forming our list of ten schools with mathematical precision. We referenced the Chronicle's yearly school report card, cross-referencing potential choices with factors such as location and likelihood of acceptance, considering the sheer numbers of applications at the best schools. We had dream schools and safety schools. We threw a few Vanguards in there, even though by the time applications are due you have no idea whether your child even qualifies. We spent a lot of late nights on this list. And it wasn't until fairly close to the due date that we added AIMS.
We were cooking dinner one night, going over our options, and the school I had read about in reports from my colleague Ericka Mellon was sticking in my head. There was little to research about it, no test results or parent reviews to rely on, because it was still an idea. The fall would welcome its very first class. But it was an anomaly, and we were curious about it as an option. We wanted our daughter to reap the benefits of cultural awareness and cognitive development that come with learning such a complex language at an early age. With my husband's background in Arabic, we suddenly felt we couldn't leave it off. And we foolishly believed that because it was new, it might not get an overwhelming number of applications.
We were wrong. The Arabic immersion school received three applications for every seat. Parents from all over Houston applied for a spot. And as we learned at the first parent meeting and the first schoolwide playdate, they come from very diverse backgrounds. Frolicking on the brand new playground equipment at AIMS on a very hot weekend in July, my daughter was interacting with children who represent the milieu of Houston, our nation's most diverse city. I met a mother who was a bit frightened because she would be bussing her child from the Energy Corridor in west Houston to the school inside the Loop, but she hoped her whole family could gather around during homework time in the evening and pick up a few things. I met another mother whose husband, like mine, spoke Arabic and saw the potential for a language that could open her child's mind to different concepts and ways of thinking. Two alphabets, two building blocks.
I saw freshly built classrooms, each with a gleaming smartboard front and center where the chalkboard used to be when we were children. Financial commitments from the Qatar Foundation and partnerships with the University of Houston will bring a wealth of resources to the school's front door.
And I met the school's principal, Kate Adams, a native Houstonian who spent part of her childhood in Cairo after her father's oil-industry job took the family abroad. She learned the language "out of survival." She is building this school from scratch. She is building a community from scratch.
I have had doubts along the way. I worry my daughter will hate Arabic and its steep learning curve, that she'll resent us for sending her there, or that her focus on language will come at the cost of a more rigorous focus on other subjects. Her teachers and principal assure me otherwise.
Over the summer, as parents declined and accepted seats at various schools, waiting lists shifted and we suddenly found ourselves with slots at two other local magnets, both deemed "safety" schools on our original list (and even one that teaches Spanish). We declined. At this point, we were committed.
But I still found myself thinking about "safety."
That's because fear, unfamiliarity and misinformation have revealed themselves in the comments sections of media reports on the school's arrival, on HISD's own website, as well as in HISD board meetings, where members of the community have made impassioned pleas for the district to abandon its plans for an Arabic immersion magnet.
There are outspoken critics who say their tax dollars should not be spent on a school that teaches Arabic. It has been called a religious school, where students will study the Quran and be exposed to propaganda and indoctrination. There are innuendos of terrorist money being funneled in the form of iPads and smartboards and summer school programs. It has been called un-American. I have considered, seriously, the idea that I could be sending my child to a campus that will be a vigilante's target. Am I putting my 5-year-old in the line of fire?
Most people say no. My mother still worries about that unfathomable possibility, as she, too, peruses the hate spewed on message boards.
The Arabic Immersion Magnet School is not a religious school or a terrorist training camp. It's just an elementary school, much like the one down the street from your home. In a few days, eager pre-kindergartners and kindergartners from every corner of Houston will amble in, weighed down with nervous energy and backpacks full of school supplies bought at Walmart and Target, and take their seats in newly constructed classrooms that promise opportunity most of us never had at that age. Their brains are open, malleable, caught at the planning stages and capable of absorbing new information almost effortlessly. For them, this will be easy.
It's the rest of us that might need some reassurances on the first day of school.