Ann Arbor schools' Arab-American Parent Support Group to make its public debut Sunday
The Ann Arbor Public Schools parent committees have started up again for the 2012-13 school year, and making its public debut Sunday is the district’s newest ethnicity-based group.
The AAPS Arab-American Parent Support Group (A2A2PSG) has quietly been piloting change for about a year now. But on Sunday, it will conduct its first community event to share the group’s first-year accomplishments and to gather additional concerns and ideas from students and parents that will guide the group’s work in the future.
The A2A2PSG is only the second committee in the district to form around the concept of aiding under-represented students and families of a particular ethnic group in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
The District-Wide Black Parent and Student Support Group (DWBPSSG) was established nearly 30 years ago, school leaders said.
But members of the A2A2PSG said aside from helping students of Arab and Muslim descent succeed and serving as a liaison between the district and Arab families, they hope to raise awareness of Arabic culture at AAPS and foster an environment of greater respect and cultural appreciation in the community as a whole.
“We want our kids to grow up and be proud of their identity and to see our kids be included in the curriculum. We want to make sure that when our kids go through school, that they can see people like themselves in their textbooks and lesson plans and be able to find connections,” said Reema Jarjoura, a parent and teacher at King Elementary School.
The Arab-American Parent Support Group currently consists of about 10 active families and each of those families have about 10 others in their network, said Tahani Othman, who also is a parent and teacher in the district.
The group began when Othman was approached by school board Trustee Glenn Nelson, whom she had met casually a few times at various school functions.
“He came to me and said the board had been talking about wanting to hear more from Arab-American families in the district, to hear what their experiences have been like in our school system,” Othman said.
She solicited as many teachers, students, friends and neighbors as she could and the group conducted is first meeting in April 2011. It became an official school board-sanctioned group just before the start of the 2011-12 academic year.
“It seemed like it was a situation of being at the right place at the right time,” Othman said. “Because people had issues they wanted to address and they were raising them with administration, but not talking about them together.”
One of the first issues the group set out to tackle was getting Islam included in the sixth-grade religion curriculum. Othman said the sixth-grade unit covers all of the major religions except Islam because the context for the unit is ancient civilization and Islam came about later.
The textbook the sixth-graders were using did not have any lessons dedicated to Islam either, so Othman and other parents and teachers in the A2A2PSG worked together with the district to create a one-week unit on the religion of Islam. The unit will be taught to sixth-graders district-wide this year.
The A2A2PSG also accomplished changing the district’s enrollment form so that students may check “Arab or Arab American” instead of “Middle Eastern.”
Jarjoura explained “Middle Eastern” is no longer considered politically correct and technically refers to a region rather than a group of people. Othman said Egypt is an Arabic country but is not located in the Middle East, and Afghanistan and Turkey are in the Middle East but are not Arabic countries.
However, more importantly, the term Middle Eastern was confusing for children, and not seeing an appropriate identifier was causing some students and families to select “African,” “Caucasian” and “other.”
Jarjoura said teachers started noticing this when looking at and analyzing data as the district has strived to become more data driven in recent years.
“We were like there’s more than two Middle Eastern kids at the school. Then we started thinking about it and talking about it and realized what the problem was,” she said.
There are other tasks the A2A2PSG would like to look at in the coming year, such as pushing for Arabic as a foreign language at the high schools and trying to expand the elementary music programs to be more inclusive of all cultures, including Arab-American, and not just a select few.
Othman also has lead teachers district-wide through professional development on interacting with Arab and Muslim families. She said the PD started off as two optional after-school sessions last year and this year the trainings doubled due to increased interest.
It also has started to delve deeper from providing just general information on who is an Arab, who is a Muslim and what are the cultural traits that will impact Arab students learning, as well as "how do I best communicate with Arab families."
Othman said personal connection is big in Arabic culture. Most Arab-American families will not respond well to an email or a note sent home, she said.
“They also have a harder time than people in other cultures understanding the significance of a learning disability and getting Arab-American parents to accept it and be supportive of their child, rather than thinking something is not right with that child,” she said.
Some Arab Americans won’t shake hands, won’t look someone in the eye during certain conversations or don’t want dogs near them, Othman said.
‘’Understanding why and how it relates to the culture is important. It’s all about culturally relevant teaching,” she said.
Othman and Jarjoura said improving the Ann Arbor Public Schools for Arab and Muslim families ultimately will benefit all students and the district as a whole. Othman also hopes that more Arab-American families will start to consider AAPS an option for their children.
She said a number of private and charter schools with an Arabic emphasis have popped up in the Ann Arbor area recently, such as Central Academy, Precious Sprouts, the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor and the Michigan Islamic Academy. She believes in public education and would like to see more Arab families come to AAPS.
“All-in-all, the world is shrinking,” Othman said. “And we’re not doing our non-Arab students any sort of service either in shielding them from certain cultures.
“It’s natural to expect that some people are not going to think this (group) is a positive thing,” she said. “But this helps all kids when we get the correct information out there and educate our teachers and improve cross-cultural relations.”
Bryan Johnson, chairman of the Ann Arbor Black Parent and Student Support Group, praised the Arab-American parents, teachers and students for organizing and attempting to reach out to more of the community. He said he will be “rooting for them” and would be willing to partner and provide support when applicable.
He had just one piece of advice and that was to make sure the group has and sticks to a specific focus.
“Know what you want to get involved in and what you don’t,” he said. “The biggest thing is you want to be able to listen to parents and their concerns, but you also want to make sure your organization is not an ambulance chaser. We’ll get people who think they’ve been discriminated against or staffing issues where the parents will think a teacher’s been treated unfairly. If you run after everything, it’s difficult to get things accomplished.”