OUSD makes strides in helping Yemeni students achieve, but families say more is needed
on June 7, 2023
Two years ago, the Oakland Unified School District promised hundreds of Yemeni students that it would offer more services in Arabic, including hiring more Arabic-speaking teachers, to help kids from the war-torn country achieve.
During the Fifth Annual OUSD Arab American Student Excellence Honor Roll Celebration at the end of April, the district made good on some of what was promised.
“OUSD has done wonderful jobs making students feel at home,” Fathia Mohamed, whose child attends Skyline High School, said at the event. “They don’t feel isolated and left behind.”
Perhaps the best example of the district’s effort were the 280 Arab American students honored at the celebration for achieving a GPA of 3.5 or higher — the biggest group in the event’s history.
Yemeni students are the fifth largest ethnic group in OUSD, constituting the majority of the Arabic-speaking population. According to the school board’s 2021 resolution “Supporting Yemeni Students and Families in OUSD,” 86% of non-US-born Arabic speakers in OUSD were Yemeni. But those students were struggling academically, with only 67% graduating in the previous school year.
OUSD promised to recruit teachers who represent Yemeni students, add Arabic-speaking staff in the enrollment office, and hire Arabic interpreters, tutors and counselors who understand Yemeni dialect and culture. It also agreed to hold two annual staff workshops around Arabic culture, and to add the Muslim holidays of Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha to the school calendar.
The Yemeni American Association pushed the school board to pass the resolution, which was supported by the American Association of Yemeni Students & Professionals. The resolution noted that because of Yemen’s civil war, education was interrupted for many students emigrating from there. And it cited the California Healthy Kids Elementary School Survey, which found that two-thirds of Arabic-speaking students reported being bullied by their peers.
Elham Mohsen, an honor roll student from MetWest High School, said at the ceremony that her biggest challenge was in getting accepted in school as a Muslim girl. “I had to find the right friends who accept me as who I am and don’t judge me,” she said.
While the district has made strides in the past two years, there is more work to be done inside and outside the classroom, many at the ceremony said.
Nour Bouhassoun, the youth organizer at the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, said students tell her they don’t learn about their own history or see themselves in the curriculum.
“They feel invisible on one hand, but feel hyper visible in the media,” Bouhassoun said.
“They just talk about 9/11,” said Silwan Nabeel Ali, a graduate of Oakland Technical High School.
Terrorism is one of the common misrepresentations of Arabs and Muslims. Lack of teaching about Arab history can lead to such misunderstandings and result in bullying.
“Since they are not teaching a lot, the students would never know the truth,” Ali said.
Students and parents at the honor roll ceremony acknowledged that OUSD has increased its Arabic-speaking faculty and staff but said there are not enough to meet student and family needs, which are growing, as more people from Yemen make their home in Oakland. While some OUSD schools have Arabic translation support, others do not, which makes it hard for many Yemeni parents to communicate with teachers.
The total population of Yemeni students at OUSD is unclear, because until recently, the district hadn’t tracked the number. And neither did the U.S. Census, which does not have a category for people of Arabic or Middle Eastern heritage. That has forced many people to check the white category on the census, which has led to Arabic-speaking people being underrepresented and missing out on grants and other support.
OUSD addressed this issue in 2016, updating its demographic categories to include Yemeni, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Algerian, Jordanian, Emiratis, Egyptian and other Middle Eastern and North African countries. The new categories started being used in the 2021-2022 school year.
Sabria Hassan, an Arab American target student intervention specialist with OUSD’s Office of Equity, and Munera Moshin, a parents engagement specialist, are building more accurate data by reaching out to families. So far, they have identified more than 1,200 Yemeni students at OUSD. But Hassan acknowledged there are still many students not included in the data, and that some were missed in this year’s honor roll ceremony.
“In order for the district to effectively address the needs of students, we need to first identify where they are at and how many students they have,” she said.
Safe, included and seen
Hassan, whose full-time position came along after the resolution, makes sure OUSD students feel represented and supported. She ensures that the district accommodates Muslim students who fast during Ramadan, and that it provides meeting spaces and prayer rooms for students. This year, she held a workshop at Franklin Elementary delved into the various waves of immigration and guided educators in how to engage with Arabic-speaking families.
The district puts out a Ramadan guide, explaining why students may be tired during that time and need to be excused from running during physical education. And attention also has turned to families, as the district partners with colleges to provide English language night classes and guidance on how to obtain citizenship, as well as help with college and financial aid applications.
The district also has made progress with Arabic-language classes. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary recently hired a teacher of Arabic language and culture. And West Oakland Middle School is in the process of offering Arabic-language classes.
The Equity Office has added two Arab interpreters to help special education families in meetings about individualized education plans, two Arab-speaking community navigators, and an Arab-speaking enrollment specialist, among other positions. The office, for example, helped a family whose daughter was being bullied for wearing a hijab, guiding them through the reporting process. It also provided a safe space for students to share their experiences and feelings about being bullied.
Their ultimate goal is to “make everyone feel safe, included, seen and accept our differences,” Hassan said.
The district’s Ethnic Studies Committee is working to add Arab history and voices to the curriculum. It partnered with the Arab Resource & Organizing Center and American Association of Yemeni Students & Professionals to add resources for students, including culturally responsive books in elementary schools.
“This has been proven to boost their confidence, self-esteem and engagement within the classroom setting,” Hassan said.
At the International Community School, where the Arab American Student Excellence Honor Roll Ceremony was held on April 29, a timeline of Arab history hangs in the hall. At the end of the chronology is a mirror with the words “You are next.”
Fathia Mohamed said it’s important for her daughter to see that as she sets her sights on becoming a doctor. “It’s important to understand what they have in the future,” she said, “and know that opportunities are available.”
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