Amanda Rogers in The Mansfield News Mirror, February 8, 2011:
The Mansfield school district has backed off plans to implement an Arabic studies program after almost 200 people showed up with questions at a parents meeting at Cross Timbers Intermediate School on Monday night.
Superintendent Bob Morrison apologized for not communicating with parents and invited them to be part of developing the curriculum.
“Nothing will be taught in the classroom until the curriculum is rolled out,” said Richie Escovedo, Mansfield district spokesperson.
The Arabic studies program, funded by a federal five-year $1.3 million Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant, was to begin this semester at Cross Timbers, then spread to Davis Elementary and Howard Middle Schools in the fall and to Summit High school by the fall of 2012.
Arabic culture was to be integrated into the curriculum in elementary and intermediate schools, then offered as a language credit in the middle and high schools. Davis, Cross Timbers and Howard are feeder schools to Summit High School.
“Part of the grant language brings in targeted instruction that will be embedded in the classes,” Escovedo explained. “Algebra comes from the Arabic world. You talk about things while you’re doing your lessons. Instead of a Valentine’s cake, you might make a Moroccan dessert.”
Parents attending Monday night’s meeting ranged from supportive to upset, said Willie Wimbrey, assistant principal at Cross Timbers.
“We had people who were animatedly fearful of anything to do with Islam,” Wimbrey said. “Others want their children exposed to everything. Others who say we teach about Christmas, why not other religions? All cultures and major religions are taught throughout the state.”
Cindy Henderson, whose son Kolton is in the fifth grade at Cross Timbers, said she wasn’t as upset about the content of the program as she was about the way it was implemented.
“The parents weren’t notified,” Henderson said. “We should have been told and excited about the grant. The school knew about it, but it wasn’t publicized. Unless you were digging on the website, you wouldn’t know about it.”
Her son is excited about learning about the Middle East, but Henderson doesn’t think Arabic studies should be mandatory.
“I don’t think we should spend all our time on one culture,” she said. “I think we should spread it around and be fair. I don’t like it being stuffed down our throats.”
Henderson admits that some of the parents at Monday’s meeting were upset that their children were learning about the Middle East.
“Can we ever forget about 9/11? That’s always in the back of our minds,” she said. “We know that’s the radicals. We don’t want to discriminate against the entire Middle East, but it’s hard to forget. 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.”
Escovedo pointed out that the sixth-grade Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) test also teaches about the Middle East, and that instruction will continue, he said.
The University of Texas, working with the Mansfield district, identified Cross Timbers Intermediate as a target since 10 percent of the district’s Arabic-speaking population attends the South Arlington school.
“The federal government sees Arabic, Chinese and Russian as critical,” Escovedo said. “Our country has a deficit in Arabic speakers and people who understand the Arabic culture.”
The Mansfield district also offers Chinese and Russian, among other languages. Students may begin taking language classes in middle school to fulfill their high school requirement of two years of foreign language.
Under the program, students attending Howard Middle School would be able to choose Arabic or opt for another language, Escovedo said.
The district is forming a committee to evaluate the Arabic curriculum and parents are invited to join or can receive information, he said.
“It really is cool,” Escovedo said. “It’s unfortunate that it has turned into something ugly.”