Those traveling down Durham Drive may have noticed a new sign recently at 812 W. 28th St., the site of the former Holden Elementary and interim facility for HISD’s Energy Institute High School. The bright green sign for HISD’s new Arabic Immersion Magnet School (AIMS) is up, repairs and enhancements are underway on the campus and Principal Kate Adams is preparing to welcome the first batch of students this fall.
Two pre-K classes and four Kindergarten classes will make up the student body in August. They will receive 50 percent of their instruction in Arabic and 50 percent in English. The children will also have an opportunity to explore the culture of the Middle East as part of their education in addition to the core curriculum.
Lest anyone doubt the popularity of such a venture, Adams tells The Leader that they received 414 applications for 132 slots. Admission was determined by the lottery system and parents found out in early April if their child had been accepted.
While there is an increasing number of HISD schools with Arabic-speaking English-Language-Learners – more than 80 HISD schools have at least one in their student body, and 15 of those have more than a dozen – interest in AIMS has come from all over.
“We have kids from almost every zip code who have applied,” said Adams. “I think it’s a good indicator for the enthusiasm about the program and I’m excited for students to have this opportunity.”
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier expressed the desire to open an Arabic immersion school during his state of the school address a year ago and with the success of the Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School in Bellaire, the district was encouraged to proceed. The school board voted to approve the new school last November.
“We’re proud to be the first in Texas to open a public Arabic language immersion school,” Dr. Grier said. “Dual language programs are a key component of our effort to ensure all students have access to a global education. Speaking a second language — whether it’s Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or Hindi — not only makes our students globally competitive, it makes them better thinkers and learners and helps ensure they better appreciate and understand other cultures.”
Adams said that part of the impetus for the creation of the school is due to the fact that Arabic has been named a critical language by the US State Department, meaning that there is a demand for people who not only speak Arabic, but those who can read and write it. Many government jobs as well as those in the oil industry, among other businesses, will require a mastery with Arabic.
“It’s a golden ticket of sorts,” said Adams. “When you are first sending your child off to school, you can’t be sure what kind of student your child will be and what his or her strengths and weaknesses will be. If you can give them another language, it’s a way as a parent to influence their future somewhat. Speaking another language, like Arabic, fluently is a marketable skill. You can’t put a price on it.”
Adams is a true cheerleader for the program, owing to a childhood spent in Egypt, her own immersion experience. Adams attended the Cairo American College, where 30 to 40 percent of the student body were Egyptian.
“It was such a life changing experience,” she said. “Unlike other Middle East Expat assignments, we didn’t live in a compound, we lived in the community. In my apartment building, the family next door to us was Egyptian and the other was Irish.”
Although Adams started learning Arabic in the 7th grade, ironically she switched to Spanish when she found out she’d be coming back to Texas for her senior year in high school. After college she taught science at Lamar High School and then worked at the Houston Academy for International Studies before moving into her new role.
“I feel very passionate about this immersion school,” she said. “I wouldn’t have left HAIS otherwise.”
Kids are ‘like sponges’
As for any difficulty children might have in picking up modern standard Arabic, which is what the school will use, Adams said that people shouldn’t use their own experience in learning or speaking another language to make that determination.
“A lot of us didn’t have the privilege of learning or speaking another language early on,” she notes. “Four and five year olds are like sponges. They can also quickly identify who speaks what language and can quickly adapt in conversation.
Finding teachers who could teach in the dual language school also came easily. Since the school is starting with two pre-K classes and 4
kindergarten classes, Adams was looking to fill three spots with Arabic speakers.
“Living in Houston with the diversity here, I didn’t think there would be a problem finding those who spoke Arabic, but I wanted to ensure that they were great teachers too,” Adams said. “We looked globally but ended up finding teachers in our own backyard.”
Adams is also looking to fill the role for a bilingual ancillary teacher who can offer technology and PE. For art, music and yoga, the school is thinking to bring in someone once or twice a week.
The goal is for the school to eventually go up to fifth grade, and possibly through eighth grade depending on how things go. In the older grades, math and science will be offered in Arabic and English and social studies in English.
Although there is no HISD immersion high school for Arabic, Adams notes that Arabic is offered at Bellaire High School as a foreign language. However, she acknowledges that for graduates of her school, the level of instruction would not meet their needs.
“When kids get to the high school level, there are a lot of scholarship opportunities to study abroad and use the Arabic skills they’ve acquired, like the National Security Language Initiative for Youth,” said Adams.
Adams said she hasn’t experienced any negative reactions about the school, but acknowledges that sometimes minds are hard to change.
“We think of the Arab world as one place, when in fact it is made up of many diverse and unique cultures,” said Adams.
She said that potential naysayers might see things differently through the eyes of her future students: “Kids are a powerful change agent. They can do what adults often cannot.”