By Ali Harb | The Arab American News
DEARBORN — The city has come a long way from the days when Mayor Orville Hubbard wanted to keep it White. Now, Dearborn is home to the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.
About 30 years ago, Mayor Mike Guido wanted to talk about the “Arab problem.”. In May, an Arab woman who graduated from the Dearborn Public Schools gave the students’ commencement speech at Harvard University.
Dearborn Schools represent the changing demographics and perceptions of Arab Americans.
Because Arabs are considered White on the U.S. Census, there is no specific data on the ethnic makeup of the Dearborn Public Schools.
But there is a growing diversity in neighborhoods and the classrooms. In some Dearborn schools, the overwhelming majority of the student population is Arab American.
The district has been increasingly sensitive to the cultural and educational necessities of Arab students — expanding English programs, days off for Muslim holidays and halal food (http://bit.ly/1JFLVMu) in some schools.
But it hasn’t always been this way. The change did not happen overnight.
The schools are aided by a steady housing market in the city and residents’ commitments to the children. In addition to state funding, a renewable 10-year millage amounts to 20 percent of the district’s operating budget.
Former School Board President Aimee Schoelles said at a time when districts were shrinking across the state, Dearborn Schools grew partly because of immigrant students.
Despite not being choice schools, Dearborn became the third largest district in the state last year; it was the 11th in 2001, according to Schoelles.
She said the increase in student population, coupled with budget cuts, put pressure on the district.
“A huge amount of that growth is because of the Arab American community,” she said.
Schoelles added that some teachers and administrators were uncertain about the influx of Arab students, but others stepped up and were able to invest in the growth. She said Arab Americans took an active role in pushing for better schools.
Schoelles recalled how Arab American activists who had formed a political organization succeeded in voting down a 1999 bond of $50 million because it was not enough to accommodate the expanding community.
Two years later, the Arab American Political Action Committee helped push through a $150 million bond that funded the construction of several schools, Schoelles said.
The former school board president said school officials did not address the needs of Arab students “out of the goodness of their heart” initially, but over time they became willingly accommodating.
As recently as 2012, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education had to step in and bring the schools to a settlement where the district pledged to provide material to parents who do not speak English in a language they understood.
“When you educate people, whether it’s by choice or not, they can’t help but understand,” Schoelles said. “It was an education process with the staff in the district. They were resistant at first, but the more they learned about Arab culture, about how students learn, the more willing they were to do what it takes to make things happen.”
Dearborn Superintendent Glenn Maleyko said the district is in a great shape academically and culturally, and the schools’ finances are relatively sound.
The district has about 20,000 students — a number that grows by the year, according to Maleyko.
“Parents are happy with what we offer at the school district,” he said, adding that Dearborn Schools are a model for the state.
“We still recognize that there are still improvements to be made to help our students,” he said.
Maleyko said the district has been able to accommodate immigrant students over the past two decades by recruiting teachers who have credentials in teaching English as a Second Language.
In 1997, Salina, an elementary school in a mostly Yemeni neighborhood in the Southend of Dearborn, had no certified ESL teachers, according to Maleyko who was working there at the time.
He said the push for hiring ESL teachers started in 2002.
“Now, 32 percent of our teachers are working on an endorsement or already have the ESL endorsement,” said Rose Aldubaily, the district’s director of English Language Learning (ELL).
Aldubaily explained that the ESL endorsement is obtained through post-bachelor’s studies that train educators to communicate and convey information to students who are learning English.
She said ESL entails not only teaching language, but also building the background academic knowledge necessary for newcomers to match their grade levels.
“We are giving them that exposure, putting that language in their ear before giving them the content,” the ELL director said.
In response to the political movement that demands using English only in the classrooms, Superintendent Maleyko said foreign languages are not substituting for English in Dearborn, but rather used to teach English.
“If I went to Germany and I don’t speak German, how would I acquire the German language if I wanted to learn it?” he asked. “If someone could speak to me in English to explain and transfer (information), I’d have a better chance of learning the language.”
Maleyko said Dearborn has been leading nationally on teaching English to non-native speakers.
Youssef Mosallam, director of student achievement, said instructional strategies in the district have changed to meet the needs of all learners, including ELL students.
“When there are instructional strategies that support language development, that language development supports all students,” he said. “You see a systemic and systematic process in instructional strategies helping our students across the district, which was spearheaded by the need to support the needs of our immigrant students.”
Mosallam said the district has programs that can serve as support mechanisms for immigrant students, including early college opportunities, community service activities and anti-bullying initiatives.
“We’re not only telling students it’s not okay to be a bully, but we’re also helping and teaching students, as well as parents and other educators, how to be upstanders — how to respond to those who are struggling to stand up for themselves,” he said.
Mosallam said diverse students get along in the district with minimal tensions.
“They bring in different cultural aspects; they bring in different perceptions,” he said. “But no matter what, they all have the same ultimate goal. They want to be happy. They want to learn. They want to be successful.”
He added that the district has encouraged students to realize they have common goals rather than focus on their differences.
Maleyko said there is “very little” opposition to Dearborn’s ESL programs.
The superintendent said about 15 years ago, there was a clearer demographic split in Dearborn between the mostly Arab east side and predominantly White west end.
“We no longer talk that way; we no longer feel that way,” he said. “If you talk to the mayor or chief of police, you’ll see one Dearborn.”
Maleyko said there might have been a competition for resources on each side of the city, but those lines have been blurred since.
“I’m sure there are still some people out there who have that feeling, but in the school district we don’t feel that way any more,” he said. “We’re going to educate all the children. We’ve overcome that.”
He credited the schools’ staff and the city’s elected officials for promoting unity.
Although Maleyko spoke of harmony in the schools and at City Hall, the east-west divide is still apparent in the neighborhoods.
The differences are not only cultural and political, but also economic. According to the U.S. Census, the median income in the 48126 zip code, which covers east Dearborn, is $28,524 compared to $76,354 in the west side’s 48128 zip code.
Maleyko and Aldubaily highlighted efforts to accommodate immigrant students beyond language training.
Aldubaily said the district has conducted culturally responsive training.
“We need to know our students, what their cues are, what the eye contact is, what their experiences were back home, what school meant in the native country and what it means now,” Aldubaily said.
She added that the district works to engage parents as partners through adult education sites that help guardians.
Maleyko said the district has also shifted the calendar in response to the growing diversity in the schools. Over the past 10 years, the district has added Martin Luther King Day and the Muslim Eid holidays as days off.
Maleyko said most complaints about the district’s efforts to be culturally inclusive are from out of state. He said such grievances stem from ignorance.
“We try to explain it to them,” he said. “It’s not really widespread.”
Without naming Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, Maleyko said the political climate has caused concerns among Dearborn’s Arab American students. The superintendent sent an internal memo instructing staff to assure children that the schools will always support them and uphold their Constitutional rights.
Despite the progress portrayed by officials, former Fordson High School principal Imad Fadlallah spoke of both soft and overt bigotry against Arab students, which he witnessed during his time on the job. He retired in 2012.
Fordson, where almost the entire student population is Arab American, has been called Hezbollah High.
“I came to Fordson and I found it to be disengaged and chaotic to say the least,” Fadlallah, who started his tenure at the High School in 2006, said. “It was not in any way shaped or designed around the needs of students.”
Asked how the school was performing academically, Fadlallah responded, “It wasn’t.”
He said an example that would demonstrate the school’s poor results in the early 2000s is that only one student attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor upon graduating in 2003.
He said the school did not offer ACT tests, assuming that graduates would not apply to universities that require them.
That was a time before the state-mandated M-STEP testing.
Fadlallah said some teachers had “retired mentally” and did not teach properly because of lack of accountability.
“You may find a very good and decent individual, who looks at you with a kind of soft bigotry that you (as an Arab immigrant) cannot perform because you come from a race that cannot achieve,” Fadlallah said.
The ex-principal said low expectations led teachers and counselors to steer students towards skilled trades.
“They thought an Arab student could never become an attorney or a surgeon or an engineer because he just doesn’t have it; he comes from that race,” he continued. “There are some people who looked at us in that fashion and they are very well-intended individuals.”
Fadlallah said a current Arab principal at a Dearborn Middle School was told by her Fordson counselor to pursue a career as a secretary.
During his six years on the job, Fadlallah said he had to force out some teachers, “who didn’t want to teach” to implement a culture of accountability. This, he said, raised the school’s academic standards. In 2012, 80 Fordson graduates were attending U of M; a handful made it to Harvard, according to him.
“The kids haven’t changed; the kids are still the same kids,” he said. “The only thing that changed was the expectations.”
But there was a push back.
Fadlallah faced four lawsuits and smear campaigns.
“They called me a racist; they called it Hezbollah High School. They accused me of cleaning out all the Americans and I’m bringing all the Muslims in,” he said. “All the stuff was nonsense.”
Once, the pulley of the flagpole in front of the school broke. Fadlallah contacted the maintenance department immediately. After a few days, he received a call asking if it is true that he brought down the American flag and installed Hezbollah’s.
Fadlallah said he faced unwarranted scrutiny from some administrators and school board members who were putting sticks in the wheel of progress.
“Many issues happened because I was the first Arab American principal at Fordson,” he said. “I never knew it was that political. I went there to do a job. I was under the microscope.”
Fadlallah agreed with Maleyko’s assessment that local opposition to accommodating Arab students is negligible. But he said it is due to the changing demographics.
“Twenty years ago, when we wanted the day off on Eid, they told us no,” he said.
The former principal explained that the holiday was eventually granted because students took the day off anyway, bringing the attendance below 70 percent — the level required by the state for funding per day.
“When the state of Michigan told them they’re going to be deducting money, they said, ‘oh oh,’” Fadlallah said. “So they built the calendar around our holidays, also. Those kind of things were not handed to us willingly. They happened because our numbers started to increase.”
Fadlallah called for more cultural training. He also stressed revisiting expectations and always aiming higher.
He said teachers cannot be color-blind because with the ethnicity, there is a story that is essential to the educational needs of students.
“I will not close my eyes and pretend that this kid is not Black or this kid is not White or this kid is not Arab, because I do respect the ethnicity and I do respect the race,” he said. “If I don’t, I’m shortchanging that child. At the same time, I address their needs as students.”
A long way
Abdullah Hammoud, the Democratic candidate for Dearborn’s State House seat, said he enjoyed attending the district’s schools because they fostered diversity that is reflective of the city.
“There was an environment of respect, of mutual understanding, of cultural competence,” he said.
Hammoud, 25, said accommodating the various groups in the schools was a process.
He said in the early 1980s, his mother was pulled out of class in middle school for refusing to take off her hijab headscarf.
“They didn’t understand what a hijab was,” he said. “This just shows you how far we have come.”
Hammoud, a Fordson graduate who spent his entire K-12 education in Dearborn Public Schools, could not recall a single incident where he faced ethnic bias at the schools.
The state rep. candidate said right wing ideologues who oppose answering the needs Arab and Muslim students do not understand public education.
“A public school system should tailor to the community that it serves,” he said. “That’s what every public school system should thrive to be.”
Hammoud added that Dearborn can be a benchmark to follow in embracing diverse students and helping them succeed.
The candidate, who is running for a safe Democratic seat, said he will advocate that increased funding to school systems is equitable, not just equal, because various communities have different needs.