Update: DC Public Charter School Board members voted unanimously tonight to reject the proposed Arabic Language Public Charter School, but in brief discussion they encouraged the leadership team to return next year after working with the board's staff to strengthen the charter application. The board's chair, Rick Cruz, expressed support for exposing more young students to a second language and said he is particularly enthusiastic about the idea of creating the District's first Arabic immersion school. "I am deeply, deeply encouraged that this founding group is on the right path," Cruz said. But he and his colleagues said the application fell short of the threshold for approval. The board's staff had issued a report that identified an "underdeveloped planning year" as one of several weaknesses, while hailing an "innovative model" and demonstrated need for the school as strengths. "I think you all would be a strong candidate for approval if you work with our staff over the coming year," said board member Steve Bumbaugh, who noted that other schools have won approval on their second attempts. Member Lea Crusey said she and others were "impressed by the enthusiasm" that the applicants brought to their presentation last month. "I hope to see you back up here in a year," she said.
"Ahlan wa sahlan" could soon be the greeting students hear at the start of their school days if the DC Public Charter School Board votes tonight to approve the launch of the District's first Arabic-language immersion charter for the 2020-21 school year.
The school would operate in full Arabic immersion at the pre-kindergarten level with a 50/50 model for Arabic-English instruction in kindergarten through fifth grade, the Arabic Language Public Charter School (ALPCS) founders told the board at a public hearing on April 23 at the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. ALPCS is one of 11 would-be charter schools seeking approval to open in the District, with the board set to decide on the applications at its May meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Friendship Public Charter School's Armstrong campus, 1400 1st St. NW.
DC resident Reem Labib said she is eager for her son, who just turned 3, to acquire ownership of a second language at an early age. Her family is from Egypt, and she regularly communicates with him in colloquial Arabic but wants him to learn Modern Standard Arabic — or fusha — in a formal setting.
ALPCS proposes instruction in fusha along with colloquial 'amia classes for students led by teachers with backgrounds that reflect the diversity of dialects in the Middle East.
"I won't be able to teach him any Arabic with any depth. We do look at picture books and we name things, and I have things labeled around the house in phonetic Arabic and in script," Labib said in a phone interview.
Labib's son has been enrolled since October in a Spanish-language immersion preschool. The 17 public elementary schools with language immersion available this year throughout the District — including two French, one Hebrew, one Mandarin and the remainder in Spanish — all maintain sizable waitlists, some with thousands of names. The programs are split almost evenly between DC's two education sectors, with eight operated by DC Public Schools and nine at charter schools.
Labib said she hopes to have the chance to transfer her son to the Arabic charter, though that could depend on the outcome of the My School DC lottery if the school sees demand similar to that at other immersion programs in DC. Knowing there's "no guarantee with the lottery," she says she hopes the school could become a family resource even if her son isn't enrolled there.
The founding board of ALPCS has identified 53 children of appropriate ages whose parents are committed to enrolling their children if the Public Charter School Board awards the charter, according to the proposal.
Vanessa Bertelli, executive director of the DC Language Immersion Project — a nonprofit working to further bilingual education in the District — said she is not surprised by the level of interest in an Arabic charter school given the high demand for language immersion.
"That is a really astounding number for a program that is just starting out and is not proven," Bertelli said. "I am very confident that once it is established it will be as in demand and as fully enrolled as the other dual-language programs in the District."
Stressing the value of early immersion for language acquisition, the charter's founders emphasized to the board a commitment to students becoming effective global citizens in a multicultural world — with Arabic opening new academic and professional opportunities.
The demand for Arabic in the workforce is on the rise in the District. According to a report from the New American Economy on the growing impact of foreign language skills in the U.S. job market, the number of jobs requiring Arabic in DC rose from 844 in 2010 to 1,771 in 2016. New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization pushing for federal, state and local immigration policies that help grow the economy and create jobs for all Americans, according to its website.
American University, Georgetown University and George Washington University offer Arabic programs for undergraduate students, the majority of whom are studying the language for the first time.
Ahmed Alqassas, assistant professor of Arabic linguistics at Georgetown University, said the charter school's model would produce students with high language proficiency able to pursue content courses in Arabic at the university level.
Alqassas said few college students reach advanced Arabic studies because they have to decide from day one on campus to pursue the language as a major in order to reach the upper-level courses.
"It's almost not feasible to have it as an option to major in a language like Arabic except in rare cases: students who know either some Arabic before or decide from the beginning, which is not the ideal option," Alqassas said.
In the charter proposal, the school founders outline "natural attrition" in expected enrollment over the first 10 years at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent after second grade, similar to Ward 6 elementary schools and other immersion schools in the District.
They anticipate 92 pre-kindergarten students — split evenly between programs for 3- and 4-year-olds — and 23 kindergarten students in the school's first year in 2020, with the addition of a subsequent grade of 23 students each following year until the school ranges from pre-K to fifth grade. By the school's fifth year, projections in the application call for an enrollment of 361 students — 69 at each pre-K level and in kindergarten, 46 in first grade, 46 in second grade, 43 in third grade, and 19 in fourth grade.
Board members posed questions to the founders about the availability of teachers both fluent in Arabic and well-trained in elementary education, a challenge the ALPCS representatives said could be overcome through effective recruiting and competitive salaries.
The board also noted the lack of a large population of native Arabic speakers in the District to draw a plurality of students exposed to Arabic at home, considered a beneficial factor in successful immersive language programming.
Hani Abo Awad, ALPCS head of school, acknowledged that less than 10 percent of students enrolled will likely speak Arabic at home. But he assured the board that the 50/50 immersion model — the same one used by the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School for Mandarin immersion — does not require a plurality of native speakers.
Jessica Sutter, Ward 6 member of the DC State Board of Education, supports the opening of an Arabic charter in the District.
Sutter said in an interview that while programs with a significant percentage of speakers of the target language are easier to implement, its absence should not deter the District from establishing an Arabic immersion program. She sees "off-the-charts" demand for language immersion programs and implementation of near-universal pre-K as reasons to approve the charter proposal.
"Because early childhood language acquisition is so strong and so effective, in comparison to second-language acquisition later on in life, you really have an opportunity to make this into one of the absolute strengths of the District," she said.
Sutter said while parents are eager to see more language immersion programs, they all ask the same question: Where will the new charter school be located?
The charter proposal designates Ward 6 as the premier choice for a campus. But Sutter said Ward 6 is overcrowded and other charters are already struggling to find real estate within its boundaries.
Daniel Callis, chair of the ALPCS board, said he is aware of the limited available real estate in Ward 6 and the founders are open to alternate sites in wards 1 and 4. But Callis said without the charter approval, pursuing any prospects is difficult.
"Prior to a charter being approved, it is very challenging," Callis said. "People are very happy to have general conversations, but we would not feel comfortable nailing down any specifics or any commitments until we know that we can go forward with the school."
Bertelli said the DC Language Immersion Project would have preferred that the Arabic charter be located in Ward 7, where accessibility to language programs is limited, or Ward 8, the only ward without such a program within its boundaries.
"That is really worrying to DC Immersion as an organization because the demand for multilingual employees is growing and because multilinguals are paid more than their monolingual peers," Bertelli said, adding that the organization nonetheless supports the ALPCS proposal.
If granted a charter, ALPCS would be eligible to request additional planning and implementation funding from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in the first two years of its existence. New charters can access a direct loan of $2 million and a $1 million credit enhancement, according to an OSSE spokesperson. The funding often takes the form of "gap financing" to provide the supplemental capital necessary to secure appropriate facilities, the spokesperson said.
Abo Awad said he has received letters of support from Yu Ying and multiple other language- immersion schools in the District, including the Hebrew-immersion school Sela and Spanish-immersion DC Bilingual.
Jayme Shores Gubartalla, who currently works as a learning support teacher at Yu Ying and is designated as the ALPCS special education director, said she plans to apply what she has learned at Yu Ying to the Arabic charter to meet each student's developmental, social and linguistic needs.
For English language learners studying in the same classroom as their native English speaking peers, Gubartalla said teachers would focus primarily on a "push-in" method, observing students with a first language other than English and collaborating with co-teachers to develop lesson plans that support those students.
"It would feel seamless in that [the English language learning teacher] is just another teacher that is providing an activity or a lesson for any group of students, not in the sense of singling out any particular child or group," Gubartalla said.
She said the Arabic charter would provide increased opportunity for bilingual education, a priority for many parents in the District.
"Some families really want the Arabic because they have Arabic speakers in their families. Some families really want the Arabic just because they believe it's an important language to learn," Gubartalla said. "Other families just want their children to be bilingual — period. And they don't care if it's Arabic, Spanish, French — whatever it is, they want to have the opportunity for that child."
Gubartalla speaks Arabic and, like Labib, wants her young child to learn the language in early education.
"My husband does speak Arabic, and we have been searching for an opportunity for our 7-year-old since before he was born ... to learn in an Arabic immersion setting," she said.
While many DC parents are eager to expose their children to foreign languages at an early age, the lapse in language instruction between elementary grades and further study at the high school or university level could lead to a setback for students.
The programs currently available in DC are limited in scope. Roosevelt HIgh School offers an introductory Arabic class and has an Arabic Club; Washington Latin Public Charter School has upper-level Arabic classes; St. Anselm's Abbey School offers a four-year Arabic program; and the private Washington International School allows applicants with a strong background in Arabic to "study the language on a tutorial basis."
Elsewhere in the region, Arabic courses are offered at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. Abo Awad, who immigrated to the U.S. from Israel, began teaching Arabic at the private school in 2013.
Georgetown University's Alqassas explained that within two years of stopping formal Arabic studies, students generally lose proficiency — a situation that most ALPCS students would likely face after completing fifth grade given the lack of middle school and high school Arabic immersion programs in the District.
"They will lose the proficiency in significant ways, which means they will almost be starting from scratch if they have a gap from fifth grade to college," Alqassas said.
Bertelli reiterated the importance of uninterrupted study.
"Dual-language programs in early childhood are great, but biliteracy really is built throughout the middle school and high school continuum," Bertelli said. "So it is really important that DC think strategically about where the middle school options and the high school options for the children that will be attending this [Arabic immersion] school."
This post has been updated with the outcome of the DC Public Charter School Board's vote.