By Annie Hauser
Signs in Arabic dot the halls of Michigan’s Star International Academy, where 90 percent of the students are of Arabic origin and the vast majority speak Arabic as their first language.
The public charter school is located in Dearborn Heights, home to one of the nation’s largest concentration of Arab Americans; 8 percent of its 57,000 residents are of Arab descent.
A K-12 school, Star is designed, in part, to reflect this community’s conservative and cultural values. It is one of few charter schools in the nation to offer Arabic language instruction in every grade. In addition, it offers students the option for single-sex classes in its high school.
“We want them to be proud of who they are and embrace their culture,” says Leif Batal, who heads the school’s English department. “We don’t want our students to lose their identity as Arabs.”
And Principal Anita Hassan makes sure behavior common in other high schools is invisible here: “There is not kissing in the hallways or anything like that that you would see at another school,” Hassan explains. “That just does not happen here. It’s against the rules.”
For Star International parents such as Alex Samhat and Khalid Almaasnah, the culturally-sensitive setting is welcome. They came to the area in the last decade in part because of the high concentration of Arab-American families, as well as for the mosques and the availability of Middle Eastern goods at local stores.
Neither parent sees a downside to sending their children to a school so densely populated by one ethnic group.
“I actually think it will be better,” says Samhat. “Here, they learn to have a respect for other people.”
While it’s hard to say for sure, the school’s unusual approach may be translating into higher student achievement for the primarily low-income students. According to 2008 data from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, Star exceeded state average test scores on all Michigan state tests.
Still, not all members of the Arab-American community embrace Star’s approach.
Judeh Jamana is a Dearborn Heights businesswoman and former city council member, and says she is unusual in the Arab-American community as both a Catholic and as someone with many non-Arab friends. She enrolled her two children in traditional public schools.
Jamana acknowledges that the influx of Arab-American students in the area’s public schools has caused some growing pains. For instance, school officials need to schedule exams around Muslim holidays. Still, she believes it is the responsibility of the Arab community to interact more with the wider population.
“The Arab community does tend to be somewhat conservative,” says Jamana. “Would I go out of my way to put my kids in a school where everybody looks the same? No. I don’t think that’s better for their education.”
Parents like Samhat and Almaasnah agree they would like to see the older generation of Arabs interact more in the community, but say they like the concentrated population.
This tension reflects the larger mission of Star International, according to founder Nawal Hamadeh, who opened the charter school in 1998 to strike a balance between Arab and American identities.
“For example, students wearing the hijab [the traditional Muslim head covering for women] feel more comfortable because no one here will question it,” Hamadeh says. “By that I mean not ask questions about it, but question it. Here, the students adapt well and learn about American culture and society.”
About the Author: