A group of Western High School students are on a mission to save what education officials say is the only Arabic language public school program of its kind in Orange County.

It comes as emergency pandemic funding is running out and district officials say they don’t have enough money to keep the program going because of low enrollment. 

But a teacher heading up that program said COVID itself impacted the enrollment numbers.

Tonight, some students, a handful of whom are fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, plan to show up to the Anaheim Union High School District 6 p.m. board meeting and call on elected trustees to not cut a program they say gives them a home on campus.

Students are also writing letters to district officials telling them that knowing Arabic – one of the most widely spoken languages in the world – is a skill they can use for the future.

For others, the program has become about more than learning a skill, but rather feeling understood.

“This is not just about a language; it’s about the people who speak it and the connections we can make with them,” one student wrote in their letter.

The meeting comes more than a month after Anaheim Union High School District trustees unanimously made a proclamation last month that has started to somewhat become an annual tradition – recognizing April as Arab American Heritage Month.

High up in their resolution, they pointed to their Arabic language program at Western High School that was created in the 2017-18 school year and indicated they hoped to expand the program to other schools.

But Superintendent Mike Matsuda confirmed in a phone interview Wednesday that they’re actually planning on going in a different direction entirely – cutting the program completely because of low student enrollment in the course and funding concerns.

“Of course, we support the Arabic speaking community – this is the home of Little Arabia – but we were hoping that there would be much more demand, but it just wasn’t the case,” Matsuda said. 

He noted that the language from the Arab American Heritage resolution was from years ago.

“I’m proud of the fact that we were the first district to offer this, but maybe we’re just too early for it,” Matsuda said.

He said they’re looking at what alternatives they can offer students to learn Arabic like online classes or potentially partnering up with community colleges if they offer Arabic courses.

Matsuda added nothing is yet decided.

“If the community wants to help with solutions in terms of how we can fund this, we’re certainly open to it,” Matsuda said. “That’s where it’s at right now.” 

Months after the district celebrated the fifth anniversary of the class in September, officials plan to discuss the future of the course tonight.

“The Board of Trustees and AUHSD Cabinet will discuss possible options/solutions regarding this issue during today’s Board meeting,” reads a Thursday email from spokesman John Bautista.

None of the district trustees responded to requests for comment.

Matsuda said enrollment wasn’t the only factor.

He noted that COVID federal bailout money for schools allowed the district to hire 160 temporary teachers, but now that’s coming to an end this year.

“In light of the fact that these temporary contracts are coming to an end. I just don’t see how we can justify keeping the program if students are choosing not to take it,” he said.

The Fight to Save an Arabic Class

Lina Mousa, the Arabic teacher at Western High, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the program helped Arab American students feel included by learning about their language and culture and made them proud of their heritage.

“My class is a safe place for them,” she said, adding that she’s worked hard to make it that way.

In Ramadan, Mousa leaves her class open for Muslim students to come rest, study and hang out during lunchtime because they can’t eat. During the FIFA World Cup she would stream the games for her students

She has also hosted an Arabic movie night for her students and brought Arab American Comedian Amer Zahr to her class.

“I do activities for them that makes them feel included and makes them feel proud of their culture, proud of their language,” she said in Arabic. “What concerns me is that they will no longer have a voice.”

Mousa, who is Palestinian, said she worked in the district translating for Arab immigrant students before teaching the class.

“The first two years I started the school was shut down because of COVID, so that’s why I couldn’t do much to recruit more students,” she said.

Mousa said about 42 students had registered to take her program next year, but she found out right before Spring break in late March that her course was getting cut.

Now, students are trying to keep that from happening.

Arab Americans in Anaheim have fought for recognition before.

Last year, the Anaheim City Council voted to recognize a part of Brookhurst Street in West Anaheim as Little Arabia after decades of advocacy from the Arab American Civic Council, business owners and residents.

[Read: “Little Arabia Exists”: Anaheim Officially Recognizes America’s First Arab American District]

Around 41,000 Arab Americans are estimated to live in Orange County in 2017, according to the Arab American Institute.

Meanwhile, a petition sponsored by the Arab American Civic Council to save the Arabic program has garnered over 2,000 signatures and also calls on the district to launch an additional program at Cypress High School “where there is greater demand.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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