Dearborn High School Teachers, Staff Urged to Speak English Only
NPR-Ann Arbor Michigan
Jan. 15, 2009



The Michigan Leadership Institute was commissioned by Dearborn Public Schools to look at a variety of issues. The independent education and municipal consulting group came back with a 44-page report addressing overcrowding, test scores and academic achievement.

It also suggested that the use of the Arabic language should be limited. The suggestion wasn't so much for students, but for teacher and staff conversations.

Dearborn is home to the largest Arabic-speaking population in the United States. Many Iraqi immigrants have settled and continue to settle there.

When students first come to school, they often speak little or no English, so the district provides bilingual education until they become proficient.

Brian Whiston is the district's superintendent. He says reports that Dearborn schools are banning Arabic are incorrect. The idea, he says, is to be inclusive:

"So let's say that there's two staff members, me and another staff member, sitting in the office, and we're both talking in a foreign language - that we shouldn't do that if we both understand English, because it's not fair to the other people who walk in and out of the office, who may not understand what we're talking about," Whiston says.

Imad Hamad, the senior national advisor with the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Detroit, sees it differently. He believes that suggesting when people can speak in their native tongue may be based on bias:

"I'm afraid they are maybe politically motivated or politically tainted, and I don't understand why they debate about the Arabic language, per se, while other languages are not being debated," Hamad says.

Kevin Harris used to teach economics at Fordson High School in Dearborn. Now he's president of the Dearborn Federation of Teachers.
He does not see the recommendation as a ban on the Arabic Language. He says he says it's unsettling to walk into a room where adults are speaking a foreign language, and don't acknowledge you:

"I think human nature is, if you don't understand something, the assumption is that they're talking about you. I think it tends to put people who are not familiar with the language in an uncomfortable position," Harris says.

Imad Fadlallah is Fordson High School's principal. He says he doesn't agree with the way the recommendation is being interpreted, and agrees that students and staff should speak primarily in English.

But he explains that many of his students were born during the first Iraq war, were displaced, lived in camps and ultimately came to the United States with little or no education, and face considerable challenges. Hearing teachers and other adults in the district speak in their native language makes the students feel more comfortable, and accept this as their home.

"They may end up in Minnesota, and they find their way to Dearborn. They mayt end up in Texas, and they find their way to Dearborn. Because they feel in Dearborn, at least there is somebody that speaks my language, I can communicate with, and hopefully, I'll melt into the melting pot," Fadlallah says.

Superintendent Whiston defends the study. He says it's important for the district to get an outside view, and that's what the report provides.
Copyright 2009, Michigan Radio