Arabic in the schools

Mohammed Ibrahim picked up some Arabic by studying the Quran, but the 13-year-old has also been learning the language in school since the fourth grade.

“When I study the Quran, I don’t learn about the animals,” Ibrahim, an eighth grader at Ramsey Middle School, said. “Here I learn what the animals are called and how to say other stuff.”

Ibrahim previously studied Arabic at Lyndale Community School, a feeder to Ramsey that has offered Arabic classes to fourth and fifth graders since 2008. Students in the Arabic program are now entering high school, and they need more classes to continue on the path.

Ibrahim hopes to be one of them.

“I think Arabic could be something big for my future,” he said. “I want to be a businessman and travel all over the world.”

Minneapolis Public Schools announced Aug. 30 it would continue the pathway for Arabic instruction at Washburn High School and expand programming thanks to a $68,000 grant from Qatar Foundation International, LLC. The foundation is a U.S.-based grant-making organization dedicated to Arabic language and culture education.

“Minneapolis Public Schools believes in providing an urban education that prepares students to be global citizens,” said Superintendent Ed Graff in a news release. “Thanks to this partnership, our students will have even more opportunities to learn important languages useful for both college and career.”

The district’s first Arabic program began at Roosevelt High School more than 15 years ago. Now, Arabic is also offered at Lyndale, Ramsey, Sanford Middle School, South High School, Wellstone High School and Heritage Academy of Science and Technology.

Minneapolis is the only district in the metro area that offers Arabic from elementary to high school, according to a news release.

Ayumi Stockman, a world languages content specialist in the district’s Multilingual Department, said finding Arabic teachers and curriculum is a challenge.

“There aren’t too many materials appropriate for the K–12 level for Arabic,” Stockman said. “There’s almost nothing there compared to languages like Spanish or French or Japanese that have been taught for longer than Arabic. Because Arabic is still very new in the K–12 scene, the teachers have to be very, very creative. They will bring their own experiences and knowledge and wisdom.”

The district serves many students with close cultural ties to Arab countries and the Arabic language.

Arabic is the ninth most-common language in the district, according to Dirk Tedmon, a spokesman for the district. Last year, it was the primary language at home for 71 students.

If a pathway for students to study Arabic through high school wasn’t established, Lyndale and Ramsey were prepared to drop the program. Renee James, principal at Lyndale, said parents are adamant about keeping Arabic in the district.

“Last year, when there was a possibility that we’d have to reduce our Arabic program, most of our white families were the most upset. They really saw Arabic as an opportunity,” James said. “Our Somali families appreciate our Arabic offerings, but they have different avenues.”

Providing students with a unique skill sets them apart and makes transitions easier, James said.

“We really try to provide learning importunities for our children, so that when they leave us, they feel confident that they have something to contribute in their next learning experience,” James said. “We feel that this experience really enhanced their ability to move on.”

James focused on the transition from elementary school to middle school, but opportunities to apply Arabic in new academic settings — or even professional ones — exist in Minneapolis outside the public school system.

Katrien Vanpee, director of the Arabic program within the department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota, said the program has grown since she took over in 2014. An Arabic major was approved on Sept. 15.

“Because the Arabic program, in its new shape, hasn’t been around for long, we haven’t had a chance to build solid connections with the school system,” Vanpee said. “We would hope that in the future we could make connections with instructors or people leading schools where Arabic is offered so that there can be more of an open communication about what they’re doing and what students would need to get ready for us.”

Vanpee said that enrollment and retention are good, and that the Arabic program continues to develop. By the time students from Minneapolis graduate, the university will be equipped to continue the pathway beyond high school.

David Weingartner, a member of the site council at both Lyndale and Ramsey, said he has four primary concerns about sustaining the program: funding, scheduling, teachers and enrollment.

Ensuring that students who commit to learning Arabic in fourth grade have an opportunity to continue through high school is the first step, Weingartner said.

“My concern is when we tell families there’s a pathway, that it’s sustainable,” he said. “I think the expectation is that you take a language in middle school, is that your pathway high school would offer the language as well.”

Next, developing a curriculum and establishing a sustainable program in a high school is difficult, Weingartner said. Scheduling the classes, retaining students and finding funding are all hurdles to introducing a new class at the high school level.

“It’s really difficult putting a language into a school, especially a small language where you don’t have a lot of students,” he said. “You’ll have five sections of Spanish One and then maybe three sections of Spanish Two and that kind of dribbles out until you have one section of Spanish Four. If they only have one class of Arabic One, can you continue the next couple years?”

Plus, it’s much harder to find an Arabic teacher than a Spanish teacher.

“There aren’t a lot of Arabic teachers out there. You lose a teacher, you could lose a program,” Weingartner said. “There’s two or three licensed Arabic teachers in the state of Minnesota, so you can’t replace them.”

Angie Martin, assistant principal at Ramsey, said the Arabic path adds cultural value to the school’s foreign language programming.

“The Arabic program allows us to better serve our students, keeping in mind equity and making our school culturally relevant,” Martin said. “It’s definitely important in our community, and we wanted to be able to build on the language development that students had already started at Lyndale.”

Kate Goeddeke, an associate educator at Ramsey, supports strengthening the path between Lyndale, Ramsey and Washburn.

“I think Arabic is such a good language for Ramsey to include,” she said. “To give Arabic a formal place in school is validating of that culture as an important part of our community.”

Farhiya Farah, the parent of three district students, said she hopes one day the Arabic curriculum will be more challenging, but she appreciates the program’s emphasis on comprehension.

“My children read and write well in Arabic, but there’s no comprehension. It’s kind of silly,” Farah said. “We studied Arabic because the Quran is in Arabic. Coming from that angle, the teachers don’t put an emphasis on grammar or comprehension — it’s purely rote memorization. The Arabic they’re doing [at school] is more cultural related.”

Stockman said part of the grant would go toward curriculum development. Currently there is curriculum for level-one classes and classes that combine levels two and three.

Stockman said the district hopes to offer five levels of Arabic one day.

This semester the district will host an educational event for the Arabic program.

“We want to educate people about Arabic-speaking culture and countries,” Stockman said. “It’s important for our community with what’s going on in the world right now and students that we serve.”

Rita Farah, an 
Arabic teacher 
at Lyndale and
 Ramsey, said Arabic is the third most difficult language to learn — after Mandarin and Russian — but is worth introducing into traditional foreign language programming.

“It’s not an easy language to learn,” Farah said. “I always tell my students: You’re speaking and comprehending. You’re learning a new language, learning about a new world.”