Mansfield school district backs away from Arabic program

MANSFIELD -- The Mansfield school district has backed off plans for an Arabic studies program after almost 200 parents showed up with questions at a meeting at Cross Timbers Intermediate School on Monday night.

Superintendent Bob Morrison apologized for not communicating with parents and invited them to be part of developing the curriculum.

"Nothing will be taught in the classroom until the curriculum is rolled out," district spokesman Richie Escovedo said.

The Arabic studies program, funded by a five-year, $1.3 million Foreign Language Assistance Program federal grant, was to begin this semester at Cross Timbers, then spread to Davis Elementary and Howard Middle schools in the fall and to Summit High School by fall 2012.

Arabic culture was to be integrated into the curriculum in elementary and intermediate schools, then offered as a language credit in middle and high schools. Davis, Cross Timbers and Howard are feeder schools to Summit.

"Part of the grant language brings in targeted instruction that will be embedded in the classes," Escovedo explained. "Algebra comes from the Arabic world. You talk about things while you're doing your lessons. Instead of a Valentine's cake, you might make a Moroccan dessert."

Parents at Monday's meeting ranged from supportive to upset, said Willie Wimbrey, assistant principal at Cross Timbers.

"We had people who were animatedly fearful of anything to do with Islam," he said. "Others want their children exposed to everything. Others who say, We teach about Christmas, why not other religions? All cultures and major religions are taught throughout the state."

Cindy Henderson, whose son Kolton is a fifth-grader at Cross Timbers, said she isn't as upset about the content of the program as the way it was handled.

"The parents weren't notified," Henderson said. "We should have been told and excited about the grant. The school knew about it, but it wasn't publicized. Unless you were digging on the website, you wouldn't know about it."

Her son is excited about learning about the Middle East, but Henderson doesn't think Arabic studies should be mandatory.

"I don't think we should spend all our time on one culture," she said. "I think we should spread it around and be fair. I don't like it being stuffed down our throats."

Henderson acknowledged that some parents were upset that their children were learning about the Middle East.

"We don't want to discriminate against the entire Middle East," she said, "but [9-11] is hard to forget. They said they aren't going to teach religion, but I don't see how you can teach that culture without going into their beliefs."

Escovedo pointed out that the sixth-grade Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards also cover the Middle East. He said that instruction will continue.

The University of Texas, working with the district, identified Cross Timbers for the program because 10 percent of the district's Arabic-speaking population attends the south Arlington school.

"The federal government sees Arabic, Chinese and Russian as critical," Escovedo said. "Our country has a deficit in Arabic speakers and people who understand the Arabic culture."

The district also offers Chinese and Russian, among other languages. Students may begin taking language classes in middle school to fulfill their high school requirement of two years of foreign language.

Under the program, Howard students could choose Arabic or another language, Escovedo said.

The district is forming a committee to evaluate the Arabic curriculum, and parents are invited to join or can receive information, he said.

"It really is cool," Escovedo said. "It's unfortunate that it has turned into something ugly."

Amanda Rogers, 817-473-4451