Must 5th Graders Learn Arabic?

School Days, Education Reporter

The Mansfield school district in Texas revised its implementation of an Arabic studies grant after almost 200 parents showed up at a meeting with questions last month. Parents were upset that they weren’t consulted or even informed about plans to embed Arabic language and culture across the curriculum until after the fact.

The program is being funded by a five-year, $1.3 million federal Foreign Language Assistance Program grant that identifies Arabic as a “language of the future.” The program seeks to make more Americans fluent in Arabic, Chinese and Russian to benefit the private and public sectors. In addition to language acquisition, the grant calls for Arabic culture, government, art, traditions and history to be integrated into social studies, language arts and other subjects at the elementary level.

The district issued a somewhat disingenuous press release denying the accuracy of media reports of “mandatory Arabic classes.” According to a FAQ document available on the district website, it is true that Arabic exploration and foreign language classes are elective options in 7th-12th grade. However, the original plan called for 5th and 6th grade curriculums to integrate Arabic culture and language into various mandatory subjects, with K-4 also adding Arabic elements in subsequent years.

Actually, the grant requires a substantial amount of instructional time be spent on Arabic language and culture — 100 minutes per week, i.e. an average of 20 minutes per day for Cross Timber Intermediate 5th and 6th-grade students. District spokesman Richie Escovedo explained that, “Part of the grant language brings in targeted instruction that will be embedded in the classes. Algebra comes from the Arabic world. . . . Instead of a Valentine’s cake, you might make a Moroccan dessert.”

Parent Cindy Henderson said she didn’t think the school should spend so much time teaching about one culture. “I don’t like it being stuffed down our throats,” she said. Others questioned whether students could afford 100 instructional minutes devoted to an Arabic perspective when many are not proficient in English or mathematics.

Henderson was also among parents at the meeting who questioned whether Arabic culture could be taught without teaching Islam. “They said they aren’t going to teach religion, but I don’t see how you can teach that culture without going into their beliefs.” Parent Baron Kane wondered why Arabic culture should get preferential treatment. “The school doesn’t teach Christianity, so I don’t want them teaching Islam,” he said.

Other parents were upset because no one showed them what information would be taught. Texas attorney Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the Liberty Institute, validated those concerns. In a radio interview with terrorism expert Gadi Adelman, Shackelford noted the potential for anti-Christian, pro-Islamic bias in student materials, such as that recently uncovered by the Texas State Board of Education (see October 2010 Education Reporter). “Instead of presenting the works and positives of both [Islam and Christianity] in an objective way, it was treated like Christianity was all about the Crusades, killing and murder, and that Islam was a peaceful religion that was about lifting women’s rights. It was just bizarre to read how unbalanced it was.”

In response to parental objections, the Mansfield district has proposed changes to the Department of Education that modify the timeline and structure of the grant. The district will not implement the grant this academic year as originally planned, but will use 2010-2011 as a “planning year.”

Other proposed changes include: Beginning in 2011-2012, parents may choose one of two language exploration tracks at Cross Timbers. One of the two tracks features Arabic as the primary language explored while the other features Spanish as the primary language. Students will receive 48 hours per year of instruction on the primary language and a combined 12 hours for other languages including French, German, Chinese and Russian.

Parents will be able to opt their children out of any specific language during advisory periods. Parents will also have “full access to the written curriculum and will have opportunities for input prior to the district moving forward with this program.”

The website assures parents that “Arabic language classes will not be mandatory at any level in the District.” That is no concession, however, because Arabic language classes were always one of numerous options for 7th-12th graders. What remains unclear is whether the Education Department will insist that Arabic culture be embedded across the curriculum for K-6th grade students if the district is to retain grant funding.

For more on this see: Star-Telegram, 2-8-11;, 2-14-11)

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