By Nancy Derringer/Bridge Magazine
Jazaleh Fakhreddine describes herself as born to teach. Watch her command a classroom of fourth-graders and you’ll believe it.
When she wants the children’s attention, she raises her hand and folds her fingers down one by one. “She’s counting!” a boy hisses to a classmate, and the group falls silent. She speaks quietly, calmly, preparing them to line up and follow their teacher back to their main classroom at Riverside Academy in Dearborn.
When they do, they follow in the trail of her flowing abaya, the black, cloak-like garment worn by traditional Muslim women. Fakhreddine was born in the U.S. and is a typical modern college-educated American, balancing career and family, but she honors this aspect of her faith.
So do many of her students and female colleagues. Riverside Academy is a charter school serving a population of students with deep roots in the Middle East. It’s also one of the best in the state, according to a Bridge analysis.
Riverside is one of three charter schools that landed in the top 10 in a ranking that takes into account the income of student families. All three – Riverside, Star International Academy in Dearborn Heights and Central Academy in Ann Arbor – primarily serve children of Middle Eastern immigrants. Dearborn City School District, which also has a sizable Arab-American enrollment, is 15th out of 560 traditional districts and K-12 charters.
Top of the mark Bridge Magazine set out to find which Michigan public schools do the best job in adding value – helping students succeed beyond expectations. This “Value-Added Matrix” identified some surprising results among both traditional and charter schools in the state.
Academic State Champs 2012 From Godwin Heights to Dearborn, from Baldwin to Troy, from Gaylord to Ann Arbor, see Bridge’s 2012 Academic State Champs.
Where’s your school? Bridge applied its “Value-Added Matrix” to 560 schools across the state – see where yours ranked in this handy searchable database.
Newcomers, old practices Charter schools in the tight-knit Arab communities in Dearborn dominated the top of Bridge’s statewide rankings in 2012. Educators credit their success in aiding students, many of them recent immigrants, to their familiarity with the culture and their commitment to making learning a family affair.
The charter conundrum Charter schools in Michigan posted a remarkable presence at the top – and the bottom – of Bridge’s 2012 Academic State Champ rankings.
Finding what works Education Trust-Midwest has long studied the central question of education policy: What works? Its executive director, Amber Arellano, tells Bridge that if Michigan helps teachers improve their skills, boosts in student learning will follow.
Read stories by MLive Media Group reporters on how schools in your area fared: http://topics.mlive.com/tag/bridge-champs/
Bridge based its 2012 Academic State Champs rankings on an analysis that adjusts raw standardized test scores for the income of a school’s students. See how we did it. The result offers a glimpse at how well schools boost the achievement of the students who walk through the doors, whether sons of Birmingham CEOs or the daughters of Oscoda convenience store clerks.
Through that income-adjusted lens, Star International Academy is the top school in the state; Riverside, just six miles to the east, is third; Central Academy is fifth.
These Arab-American schoolhouses are filled with low- to moderate-income students, many of whom face the added hurdle of learning a new language and adjusting to a different culture. Yet they achieve academically at levels far above most high-poverty students in Michigan.
The schools’ success is based on strategies that could be used to help students from Monroe to Copper Harbor: strong support of individual learners, insistence on parental involvement and cultural sensitivity.
Riverside Principal Eman Radha describes the sorts of obstacles to academic success that are typical there: Most parents have limited English, or none at all. With their roots overseas, families will sometimes take children out of school for extended visits home. Parents may work long hours and be gone from home. Loneliness. Culture shock. The list goes on.
“Some need to be taught every rule of proper behavior,” Radha said, including parents. In this strange new world, adults are expected to show up at school and talk to their children’s teachers – an unusual practice in their home countries. Corporal punishment of children, routine in the Middle East, can attract the authorities. To negotiate these cultural potholes with someone who not only speaks your language, but has likely been down the same road, is an enormous comfort, officials at all three schools said.
“(Many parents) don’t know how to be part of their children’s education,” Radha said. “But I believe any parent cares about their children. They made a choice to bring them here, so that tells me they care.”
“(Parents) look at me, and they can see that I am modest, and respectful of their culture,” said Fakhreddine. Her fluent Arabic doesn’t hurt, either. If a child is having difficulty and could benefit from help at home, Fakhreddine invites the adults to her classroom, explains the situation and sends them off with a clear plan. She did so just the other day, she said, and the student in question rewarded her with a perfect score on a math test.
In the classroom, however, she keeps the Arabic to a minimum. Learning English is the priority. Fakhreddine strives to speak “fluently, precisely, tonally,” knowing it is likely the best English a child will hear spoken all day.
To listen to the student’s voices, you wouldn’t think that was a problem. They speak the language of their adopted country with apparent ease. Writing is a different story.
“My wife and I are very well-educated people,” said Luay Shalabi, principal of Central Academy in Ann Arbor. “I don’t use the exact same vocabulary at home that I would with my students, because English is my second language. Students sound very fluent talking about the movie they saw last night, but when it comes to academic language, academic life, they need a lot of help.”
The personal attention doesn’t end after students move on. Shalabi, whose school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate and over 90 percent seeking post-secondary education, said Central Academy students who enroll in college can expect to hear from other Central grads already at the same school, “or they’ll get a call from our staff,” he added. “We want to keep the connection between the school and our graduates.”
A word-of-mouth network
That closeness is evident in the Detroit-area schools, as well. Parents hear about the charters from neighbors, who also pass on information about which teachers are best. That’s how Lama Amireh came to request her daughter, Malek, be placed in Fakhreddine’s class. (Amireh also works at Riverside as a teacher’s aide.)
“I have never seen a teacher like her,” Amireh said.
Amireh immigrated from Jerusalem with her husband six years ago. She worked there as a medical technologist, and her husband has legal training, but without the proper credentials, neither can work in related fields here. Amireh’s English is good, however, and inspired by her work at Riverside, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in education.
Amireh translates for Hanaa Al-Abaichi, an Iraqi parent who has three children enrolled at Riverside. Displaced by the first Gulf War, Al-Abaichi and her family have considered returning to their central Iraq homeland. Or at least they did until a recent visit. Schools in Iraq are crowded; special ed is non-existent. And after years here, the whole family had become more American than they might have believed.
“Their future is the most important thing,” Al-Abaichi said; she doesn’t want her children to face the same situation their parents did in a country wracked by war and strife. A decade away was enough to convince them that even with the hardships they endure in the U.S., their children will have “a better life as an Arab-American citizen.”
That’s the connection Star Academy principal Mawal Hamadeh wants her parents to make, too.
Hamadeh aims to use her students’ shared culture as a stepping stone to produce “students who are culturally sensitive and prepared for the world.” To Hamadeh, another Muslim woman with a burgeoning career of her own – Hamadeh Educational Services now runs four charters – American-educated, bilingual Middle Easterners already hold a powerful hand in a rapidly diversifying country.
“The world is so small, and having a second language is so important,” she said.
In many ways, these schools are similar to those that have served specific populations for generations – Catholic, single-gender and the like. But as public academies, they must be open to all, and cannot discriminate in hiring or admissions. The cafeterias serve halal food, but no prayers are held. Fakhreddine discourages her students’ parents who ask that their children not be seated next to those of the opposite sex.
“I tell them this is not an Islamic school,” she said. “But sometimes they insist. And I know if they feel strongly about it, their child will be nervous and not learn well. So I will do it.
“My goal is for them to learn.”
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.