Protests marred the first day of class for about 132 kindergarten and pre-K students at the Houston Independent School District's new Arabic Immersion Magnet School.
Shortly before 8 am, almost 30 adults spread along the fenced perimeter of the Heights-area school, waving American and Israeli flags while touting protest signs.
"Everything I ever cared to know about Islam was taught to me by Muslims on 9-11-2001," one sign said. But officials said most students were inside the building once protesters assembled.
This is the first semester of operation for the Arabic Immersion Magnet School, one of the first of its kind in the country, where students study half of each day in Arabic and half in English. It follows other HISD immersion school projects, which HISD hopes to expand.
In 2012, HISD opened a Mandarin immersion school without controversy. Grier has said he also wants to open a Hindi immersion school, and discussions have taken place about starting a French immersion program as well. The Arabic school proved popular with parents, drawing 490 applications for about 132 seats in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes. No citizens protested at the HISD meeting in November when trustees unanimously approved the Arabic school, but about a dozen critics complained to the board in May."Houston is the energy capital of the world," said HISD superintendent Terry Grier during an impromptu media tour of the school Monday morning. "And we need to have graduates who can communicate with people all over the world."
On Monday morning, protesters didn't take issue with the other immersion schools or with independent Arabic language classes, but said the school was anti-American, and that immigrants should be "assimilated."
However claims that the school catered mostly to Arabic-speaking immigrant families are false, said Principal Kate Adams.
"We represent the diversity of Houston," Adams said, noting that roughly-equal parts African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians make up the vast majority of the school's student body.
Arabic was the second most common language other than English spoken by HISD families last school year. More than 925 students reported Arabic as their home language, behind more than 59,700 reporting Spanish and ahead of more than 445 reporting Vietnamese.
The greater Houston region has seen its Arabic-speaking population grow by more than a third since 2009, to 23,300 people last year, according to census estimates.
Early on the first day of school, students seemed perplexed to take direction in a foreign language, but Adams said by the second semester, the four-to-seven-year-olds will be using Arabic in their classrooms.
Before an early lunch, a teacher directed a kindergarten class to line up single file and walk down the hallways calmly in Arabic, and students quickly fell in line.
"It's amazing how quickly they get what's going on," Adams said.