This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
Five-year-old Van Crouser was recently hanging out at the clubroom next to the pool at his apartment complex near upper Kirby.
It’s summer. And he doesn’t start kindergarten for a few more months.
But he was already practicing his numbers.
“Wahid, ithnaan, thalaatha, arba’a,” Van said.
He counted to ten in Arabic with his mom.
Van is starting kindergarten at a brand new school, called the Arabic Immersion Magnet School, near the Heights.
All the students will spend half their day in classes taught in Arabic and half taught in English.
“And my favorite thing about going to Arabic school is seeing my friends,” Van said.
Van’s family has no ties to the Middle East.
But his mom wants him to be bilingual.
Amy Crouser picked the new Arabic school over other programs for Spanish or Mandarin Chinese because she thinks it will give Van a unique skill.
“And the fact that we speak English in our household, and that’s it, I just don’t have the opportunity to teach that to him,” she said. “I have no one to speak another language to him where he can be immersed and truly learn as a native speaker.”
The new Arabic school is building on the diversity of Greater Houston, where more than 20,000 people speak Arabic, and the region’s strong economic ties to the Middle East as the energy capital of the world.
The new campus will open with about 130 students in pre-K and kindergarten. Eventually, it will go up to the fifth grade.
The idea is for students to become fluent in Arabic and be groomed to work in the global economy – especially in Houston’s main industry of oil and gas.
The program has drawn a lot of interest with more than three applications for every available seat.
Crouser was thrilled her son Van got a spot. Then some critics dampened her enthusiasm. She read one comment she found online.
“Let’s see, ‘Gee, what could possibly go wrong with this scenario? Why not just pack the kids up and send them off to an ISIS training camps? This is a very sad idea,’” she read from her smart phone.
Crouser said that those comments made her angry.
“They’re not even based on facts. It’s totally fear-ridden comments. I mean, the thing is that Arabic does not equal Islam and Islam does not equal terrorism, so to say that is bigoted and it’s bullying in my book,” she said.
Those negative stereotypes will be one challenge for the new school, on top of the typical tasks of starting a new campus.
“In some cases you’re teaching and sometimes you’re also un-teaching,” said Emran El-Badawi, who directs theArab Studies Department at the University of Houston. He’s also on the advisory board for the new school.
“This is the city to do this. This is the city to break those stereotypes and start building bridges,” he said, pointing to the diversity of Houston and the region’s strong economic ties to the Middle East.
El-Badawi hopes that the school will connect with Houston’s Arab-American community. It ranks as the seventh largest in the country, according to the Arab American Institute.
After Spanish, Arabic is the most common foreign language spoken at homes in the Houston Independent School District.
The school’s principal, Kate Adams, said that she’s tried to hire teachers with diverse backgrounds and who share in the school’s larger mission.
That’s for students to develop a global mindset, like Adams did when she spent five years as a teenager in Cairo.
“With kids who learn Arabic, as a parent you’re going to set them up for success, as a teacher you’re going to challenge them to do the best they can, but that skill of learning Arabic and being fluent in it really can be life-changing for a Houston kid,” Adams said.
“In addition to the students being fully functionally bilingual in Arabic and English, the bigger goal for me is that I want our students to be truly global citizens. And so that doesn’t just mean language fluency or cultural fluency. It’s kind of how you look at the world and how you interact with the world,” Adams said.
Another parent, Sara Rahman, said she wants her daughter Valentina, 4, to learn Arabic because it’s part of her heritage. But the language is not the ultimate goal for her either.
“If you kind of grow up with this feeling, I’m an American –I’m insulated from the world, I think you’re missing out of an entire richness of humanity,” Rahman said.
One of the school’s pre-K teachers, Rawia El Malik, called herself a pioneer.
“Teaching Arabic is also like you’re a civilization messenger. You’re sending a message. You’re giving them opportunity to do something new, something broad, something big,” said El Malik.
El Malik and other instructors at the school will teach lessons in Modern Standard Arabic, but will be encouraged to use their colloquial dialects in casual conversation.
El Malik, who is from Sudan and has also lived in Qatar and Egypt, said that Arabic is a language rich in meaning.
“Like in English, you just say ‘good morning’ every single day. In Arabic, we say ‘flower morning’ or ‘light morning.’ It’s different every single day,” she said.