In a first-ever collaboration between Deering High School and the University of Southern Maine, high school and college students have the opportunity to learn Arabic together in an evening class taught at Deering by Younus Alfayyadh.
Alfayyadh has taught Arabic part-time at Deering for the past two years. But the dual Arabic course was the brainchild of Adam Tuchinsky, interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at USM after he visited Deering to learn how the school handles a diverse student body.
The Arabic pilot project this fall has been so successful, with 19 students enrolled, that USM will be offering two dual-enrollment courses in the language during the spring semester on both its Portland and Gorham campuses.
The goal, Tuchinsky said, is to offer the course to even more students, both at USM and at other area high schools. Some Gorham High School students are interested in enrolling in the course this spring, he said.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Arabic is the fastest growing language in the U.S., with the number of Arabic speakers growing by 29 percent between 2010 and 2014.
The Pew study also found that the number of Arabic speakers in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2000 and 2014, rising from 615,000 in 2000 to 1.1 million by 2014.
In all, about 400 million people worldwide speak Arabic, which is also the language of the Islamic faith, much like Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.
Tuchinsky said the dual enrollment course in Arabic that USM is offering is part of an ongoing initiative to increase the university's diversity, as well as the inclusion of students of color.
"USM has embraced a more diverse future," he said, adding a new a new dean of diversity and inclusion was hired to work with the institution's multicultural students.
"Our goal is to make sure that multicultural students feel safe, welcome and valued," Tuchinsky said. "The Arabic course is a part of this larger effort."
Including high school students in the opportunity to learn Arabic along with college students was also part of USM's effort to "create a pipeline to increase matriculation to college, (which is) a key state need," he said.
Tuchinsky said "the pilot is a huge success," and, during a recent visit to the class, Gerald Peters, chairman of the English Department at USM, "came away quite impressed with the level of fluency of a couple of his students who had never been exposed to Arabic before."
Alfayyadh is originally from Iraq and came to Maine from Jordan in 2012. He lived in Jordan for six years after his family fled the violence in Iraq; it was in Jordan that he earned both his master's degree and his Ph. D, which is in Islamic law.
Before being hired to teach Arabic at Deering, Alfayyadh taught classes in the language at the Riverton study center operated by the Portland Housing Authority, as well as for the Islamic Society of Portland.
Arabic is Alfayyadh's native language, and he said it's relatively easy to learn because it is phonetic, "as you hear the word, that's how it's written," he said.
In addition to teaching the basics of Arabic, Alfayyadh also introduces his students to many aspects of Middle Eastern culture.
"You can change the world through education," he said. "I like my students to think globally and to build bridges."
Alfayyadh, who lives in South Portland with his wife, said teaching is his life.
"The only thing I want to do is spread knowledge to my students," he said. "By teaching we can create a powerful generation."