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A Harlem Elementary School Offers Arabic Lessons

Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 03:44 PM

Twelve second graders ran around a classroom playing “Simon Says” and “Duck, Duck, Goose.'' But it wasn’t just for fun. The students at the Hamilton Heights School were learning Arabic, which will be offered to all second- through fifth-grade students in the fall.

“Madrasti,” the 9- and 10-year-olds yelled when their Arabic teacher put his hands together like a book. That means “my school” in Arabic. They’re part of a pilot program started in March that partly picks up where Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s only Arabic-themed school, which closed in 2011, left off.

The Department of Education shut the Gibran middle school after poor performance and failure to attract enough students. But the principal, parents and staff at Hamilton Heights, a K-5 public school on Amsterdam Avenue started by parents, say their Arabic program will succeed because of parents' support, financial backing and a broader perspective.

“We’re not just about one language or culture,” said Nicky Kram Rosen, principal of the school, also known as P.S. 368. “I’m teaching children how to engage with other cultures.” The principal wanted to offer Arabic to all students partly to help the school earn an International Baccalaureate designation, a set of global education standards.

Currently, the 239 students at P.S. 368 can learn Spanish or Mandarin after school. This year, 35 students studied Spanish and 42 studied Mandarin. In March, a small pilot group of 12 students took Arabic classes instead of recess.

Starting in the next school year, about 200 P.S. 368 students in second through fifth grade will be able to take Arabic language and culture classes twice a week in 45-minute sessions. They will cover a variety of subjects, including math, science and social studies as well as food, music and art.

School administrators said if there was interest and enough resources, the program could be offered to all students.

Debbie Almontaser, the embattled former principal who founded Gibran, said she was surprised to hear of the new program, but felt it was not comprehensive enough. “It's not as serious of a program as I would like,” Ms. Almontaser said in a telephone interview. “My goal was for students to be equally proficient in Arabic as in English.”

Still, parents like Bella Moon Castro, 34, can’t wait for their children to start Arabic in the fall. Her son is in third grade and now studies Spanish after school. She is from India and her husband is from the Dominican Republic. While she would love for her son to learn Hindi, she sees value in Arabic.

“The Spanish has opened him up, but we have a family now from Yemen who predominantly speak Arabic,” Mrs. Castro said of the students in the school. “We want to make the world a smaller place for our children.”

Mrs. Castro and many other parents are very involved with P.S. 368, in District 6. The parents were in on the decision to offer Arabic — Mrs. Castro’s husband even reviewed the curriculum. She said all the parents support the new program.

The Qatar Foundation International, a nonprofit group financed by the government of Qatar, gave the school $250,000 to support the Arabic program for three years.

“Two days a week is significant,” said Angela Jackson, the executive director of the Global Language Project, which helps support foreign language education in schools. “The attention we're giving Arabic is in line with how we treat other subjects.”

She said she wanted to make sure students had a consistent foreign language class over many years and wanted to be able to pay dedicated Arabic teachers.

Olivia Girandi, a sprite second grader with a head of blond curls, said she didn’t know why her parents wanted her to learn Arabic. Parents and educators talk about the Arabic program with terms like “opportunity” and “tools.” But for students, it’s just fun.

“My favorite word is hammem,” Olivia said with a mischievous grin. “It means toilet.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this post, and the headline, said the Arabic program would be mandatory at the Hamilton Heights School. School officials said that while the lessons will be offered to all students, it is not mandatory.

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